edu-tourism

City schools tour aims to spur democratic education elsewhere

iSchool students taking part in a Model United Nations class that the IDEA tour visited

Ammerah Saidi, a program coordinator with Detroit Future Schools, meandered in and out of classrooms in the iSchool one morning last week. She had her pick of classes to observe – classes such as “Sixteen,” a course designed around the question of what it means to be 16 in New York City, and Cartography, where students creatively mapped their hearts and fictional worlds.

Saidi was one of nearly 30 educators, advocates, and consultants from across the country and world taking part in a two-day, three-borough tour of schools and programs that promote democratic education.

“To hear about student-centeredness is one thing, but to feel it is something different,” Saidi said later in the day. “I love being reminded that it should be about the students at all times.”

That getting up close and personal with democratic modes of schooling is likely to inspire educators to change their practice is the theory behind the Institute for Democratic Education in America‘s “Innovation Tours” of city schools. Inspired by an Israeli organization, IDEA promotes the vision that students and communities should be democratically invested in their schools. To get educators to sign on, the group exposes them to democratic models of schooling in action. The goal of each Innovation Tour, which IDEA co-founders Dana Bennis and Jonah Canner lead, is for participants to walk away with ideas about how to broaden participation in their own communities — and then to implement those ideas, with IDEA’s help.

“We’re not just creating a certain school and modeling it and building it out around the country,” said Bennis, now IDEA’s director of research and programs. “This is about communities coming together and asking: What are our goals for education? What do we want to achieve?”

During last week’s tour, the group’s third since its founding in 2010, participants visited the iSchool, a centerpiece of the Department of Education’s Innovation Zone, and Urban Academy, the alternative high school on the Upper East Side whose students demonstrate proficiency through presentations and projects instead of Regents exams. They heard the principal of Brooklyn’s P.S. 28 describe her vision for a school that helps everyone in the community, not just the students who are enrolled. And they saw how The Point, a community group in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, works with new schools, develops green spaces, and provides outlets for creativity.

Administrators at the two high schools emphasized  the ways they grant students and teachers the freedom to shape the curriculum and program. At both schools, teachers design courses they want to teach and students select most of the classes they take, and classes include students from all grades whose learning is dictated by their interests. Even space is distributed democratically among faculty and students, with large common rooms where teachers and students work side by side.

At the iSchool, administrators said, the goal of democratic learning is to let students take control of their academic success. In many rooms, the teachers disappeared behind the students, who took center stage as they passionately debated the dangers of nuclear testing in India and Pakistan in a Model United Nations short course and as they designed their own symphonies on laptops in a short, intensive course called “Inside the Music.”

In contrast, Urban Academy founding director Ann Cook said democratic learning at her school is meant to engage students around social and political issues that affect them. Urban Academy’s hallways contained sculptures, murals, and photographs, but also news clippings about the school’s battle for a waiver from requiring Regents exams and a big banner across the entrance that declared “Hunter College Hands Off! Save Julia Richman Schools! Save Our Community!”

“What we’re looking for is to have obnoxious citizens come out of our school,” she said.

If the mornings showed the IDEA tour group what education looks like “with liberty,” the afternoons showed what it looks like with “justice for all.”

P.S. 28 kindergartners sharing their observations about leaves

At P.S. 28, principal Sadie Silver described her efforts to turn half of the school building into community space that includes a meeting room and space for nonprofit groups to offer a nursing program, support for foster care families, job training, and other services. How the implementation of wraparound services will trickle down from big ideas to classroom practice remains to be seen, she said. During a whirlwind tour of the school (bubbly student leaders counted to sixty in each classroom before tapping visitorson the arm, whispering “we have to go,” and skipping off to the next room) the IDEA group saw uniform-clad elementary-schoolers engaging in fairly traditional lessons about editing for capitalization, counting to five, and making observations about leaves.

“It’s not just about how to teach your kid reading, but about how to find an apartment in this economy, about how to find a job.” Silver said. “We couldn’t do what we wanted to do within the school without targeting the environment as a whole.”

Innovation Tour members getting a guided walk through Hunts Point

Tour members saw a different vision of whole-community improvement efforts at The Point, the last stop on the Innovation Tour. On Friday afternoon, the group’s airy brick and windowed building in Hunts Point was busy with students entering a Shakespeare program and community members working on their incubating business ventures. After a presentation about the area’s poverty, Point staff led a walking tour through the community, pointing out places of progress: new schools, green spaces, a cleaned-up waterfront.

The Point prides itself on giving community members the tools to improve their environment and their lives.

“It’s about power,” said Sharon De La Cruz, director of The Point’s A.C.T.I.O.N. program. “Not in a greedy or nasty way, but as in empowerment.”

As the tour concluded, participants reflected on what they liked about what they saw — the couches in Urban Academy’s hallways, the vision at P.S. 28 — and how they would take the lessons they learned back to their home communities.

“I didn’t imagine that there were so many people working on education and trying to improve their community and the youth,” Omar Soto, a social worker and coordinator for Nuestra Escuela, an alternative school in Puerto Rico, said through a translator. “I learned that there is tons of work to be done.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.