This case study is one of six conducted for the report, Oakland Unified School District: New Small Schools Initiative Evaluation.
After helping to turn around a failing middle school as an assistant principal in New York City’s Harlem, Matthew Duffy came to Oakland in search of another challenge. When he became the principal of Elmhurst Middle School in 2002, it was the lowest performing middle school in Oakland. Elmhurst had 17 teacher vacancies, was covered in graffiti inside and out, and had grounds littered with high weeds and abandoned cars. Fights among students were common, and Duffy recalls tension between students and staff. In 2005, Duffy simultaneously led Elmhurst Middle School while designing a new small school, Elmhurst Community Prep (ECP), which along with another small school, Alliance Academy, was designed to phase in over 2 years and take the place of the old middle school. In 2006-07, Duffy became the principal of ECP.
Today ECP is a calm, positive school where students and staff have a strong sense of belonging. Students love the school and buy into a culture of achievement. Although Duffy considered himself a “big school” turnaround principal and was somewhat skeptical of the small school reform strategy, he now contends that ECP could not achieve these same results had it remained a large school. The school now has a positive academic culture and in 2007-08, ECP attained the largest Academic Performance Index growth of all middle schools in the Oakland Unified School District. According to Duffy, both of these accomplishments result largely from efforts to personalize each student’s academic experience and raise the rigor of classes through reflective professional development for ECP teachers.
The ECP case study also illustrates the power of co-incubating small school leaders who share the same campus. Both ECP and Alliance Academy (located on the same campus as ECP) have achieved positive results, in part reflecting the collaborative relationship that Duffy has with Alliance Academy’s principal, Yvette Renteria.
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