If I Can Make It There, I’ll Make It Anywhere

By June 4, 2019 Foundation Blog

Do you have Frank Sinatra’s (or perhaps Liza Minelli’s) voice running through your brain?  For me, it’s Ol’ Blue Eye’s iconic rendition of “Theme from New York, New York” that has been on mental replay for a few weeks.  The reason is a recent trip to New York City organized by the Foundation, with the help of Education Evolving.  We brought 15 people, including Northside educators, members of our Education Advisory Committee, and Foundation staff to visit three amazing NYC district schools. 

We all came away feeling that we had experienced amazing schools, and determined to bring some of what we saw there, here.  As one teacher who participated in the trip noted, “These schools defied the dominant narrative of the “failing urban school.”

Why, specifically, were they amazing?  Here are three exemplary qualities they all shared:

Students Are Educators

We saw a student leading her class in a lesson on thermodynamics, small-group table conversations led by students about readings that they had selected, and middle-schoolers managing their classroom conversation about discrimination and redlining in a Socratic Seminar

At Phillips we use the term “student-centered learning” to describe what we are investing in on the Northside.  It’s an admittedly imprecise term that can feel like vague jargon.  But the practices noted above perfectly illustrate what student-centered learning is all about: intentionally designing learning spaces so that students co-create content, are expected to be far more than passive listeners, and have the opportunity to analyze subject matter on their own terms.

After seeing student-centered practices implemented throughout these schools, one trip participant remarked, “I was extremely impressed with the students’ abilities to articulate their thoughts and opinions.  I was also impressed by the fact that it was facilitated by teachers but led by the students.”

Watching students lead classroom instruction at UAGC

A Palpable Culture of Caring

We saw students and teachers standing in front of their school community and apologizing to each other for mistakes and misdeeds.  In the same instance we saw students and teachers honoring each other for their successes.  In one school seniors act as “keepers of the culture”, modeling academic focus and mutual respect in mixed-grade classrooms.  Our delegation also had a chance to participate in “unison reading”, a literacy technique in which students read passages together, and assist each with difficult words or concepts.

These practices, coupled with the obvious and impressive connection between staff and students at each school, left all of us inspired.  The schools Phillips is funding in North Minneapolis are also striving to build school cultures where students and teachers set and sustain high expectations of each other.  We believe a culture of caring is foundational to academic achievement, and it was gratifying to see this concept verified in these schools.

Teachers, Their Union, and Principals Partnering to Innovate

In each of these schools, teachers are using a clause in their union contract called PROSE to secure more hiring flexibility, customize teacher evaluations, and exert greater autonomy over academic programming so that they can transform their schools to work better for their students.  The NYC chapter of the United Federation of Teachers sought and won the PROSE option in their 2014 contract.  Teachers drive this school redesign process, but must work with principals and parents to develop their plans and goals.  166 of the 1,700+ schools in the NYC school district currently operate under PROSE plans.  

“It was remarkable to see the creative approaches to learning happening in these schools,” commented one participant.

Like the schools we visited, our North Minneapolis school partners have visionary teachers who are leading profound, transformative initiatives in their schools.  The difference is that in New York this kind of teacher-led innovation is encouraged and facilitated.  In Minneapolis, it is exceptional and often hindered by our standard ways of hiring staff, evaluating them, and designing curriculum.   An option like PROSE would be a game-changer.

The Minnesota delegation with staff and students from CASA

They Made It There, So Let’s Bring It Here

So what comes next?  How will this trip – awesome as it was – spark lasting change?  I know our school partners will incorporate some of the effective practices they saw in their classrooms and schools.  The Foundation organized a similar trip to Boston in 2017, and it inspired some of the strategies we are funding today.

With ongoing financial and consulting support, we expect our grantee schools will continue to embed what they are learning into ever-improving educational options for their students.  But the Foundation can do more.  My biggest take-away from this trip is the need to increase our focus on directly engaging the Minneapolis Public School District, the Minneapolis Federation of Teacher, policymakers and other key influencers to challenge status quo policies when they hinder the ability of teachers and school leaders to build great schools.

I don’t want to present New York as some idealized example of district-union-staff camaraderie.  I’m sure it is not.  But, they are doing some things we could replicate here.  As our school partners dig into the hard work of doing innovative work within a large bureaucracy, Phillips will likewise do its part to clear the barriers that impede school-level transformation.

Many thanks to Education Evolving for organizing our New York City learning trip.  Their vast network of connections, careful attention to the interests of our Northside schools, and mastery of travel logistics all combined to make this trip an exceptional – and fun! – learning opportunity.

Here’s a brief description of the three schools we visited in April.

Urban Assembly for Green Careers is a public high school serving just over 300 students at its Manhattan campus.  The school uses an academic model called Learning Cultures, developed by a professor at New York University.  Learning Cultures emphasizes student ownership of the learning process, and acquiring knowledge through discourse.  UAGC also uses innovated practices such as mixed-grade classrooms, unison reading, and engaging older students as “keepers of the culture”.

Bedford Academy High School is located in Brooklyn and educates 358 students.  This somewhat selective district school helps students achieve high levels of academic success.  98% of its students graduate on time, 77% of graduates pass state exams to certify that they will not need remedial education, and 88% of its graduates enroll in college.  The schools population is 98% students of color (79% are African American), and 75% qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (CASA) is a non-selective public middle school in the Bronx serving 264 students.  The school’s teachers and administrators have created a remarkable culture of mutual care and accountability among adults and youth.  CASA’s Friday assembly is a time for community members to repair relationships and rejoice in success.  The school also employs practices such as Socratic Seminar and weekly “Genius Hours” for students to focus on passion projects.

Joel Luedtke

Author Joel Luedtke

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