First Person

Harvest Collegiate: A Small School Where Nothing’s New

This post is the fourth in a series about opening a new school, Harvest Collegiate High School. In previous posts, I offered three different answers for why I decided to help start the school. This piece deals with what exactly I am helping to build from the ground up.

When I meet educators from across the country and tell them about my new school, they ask one question more than any other: “What is new and innovative about Harvest?” I am increasingly comfortable and proud of the following answer: absolutely nothing.

Or, perhaps, Isaac Newton’s line is most apt: “If [we] have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

At Harvest Collegiate High School, we are taking the best elements of many other schools. We are a traditional school, but our tradition is one of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Ted Sizer, and Deborah Meier, educators with a decidedly nontraditional outlook. We are taking the lessons our staff learned while working at wonderful schools in New York City and elsewhere — including East Side Community High School, Humanities Prep, The Met, Bronx Lab School, the Academy for Young Writers, and The Facing History School — as well as inspiration from other members of the Coalition of Essential Schools, particularly Urban Academy, the Parker School, and Wildwood School.

We are different from many other new schools in the city in that we do not have a career focus or theme for our school beyond helping students develop intellectually and as complete human beings. Our students will go through cycles of inquiry to construct meaning and take action in the world. Our aim is for students to be reflective producers, rather than simply consumers. We aspire to being, and to contributing creatively to, a “sane society,” one of peace, growth, even joy. We believe all young people flourish in conditions that challenge and support, so in our commitment to excellence through diversity and equity, we aim to serve the varied students of the city.

Making up our school’s spine are seven “Habits of Mind and Heart,” which are a common language of assessment and striving inspired by Meier’s Central Park East, among others.  We hope it will become second nature for our students to consider multiple Perspectives, support their own with Evidence, make Connections, and express all of this in a distinct Voice. In doing so, we aim for students to develop the Habits of Responsibility, Creative Contribution, and Curiosity.

As at Urban Academy and Humanities Prep, the majority of our classes will contain students from multiple grades. Not only does research show that this structure benefits all students’ learning, but it also allows us to offer choices from a variety of themed courses in English, history, and science, not to mention electives. While at first glance multi-grade classes might sound radical, most “grades” in city schools are already multi-age — my freshmen range in age from 13 to 16 — filled with a tremendous range of abilities.

Each student will be part of a small advisory that is his or her socio-emotional home at our school. Our expectations for advisers are most directly inspired by East Side Community High School, though our focus on physical and mental health throughout all four years of advisory might be unique.

Like many schools, including Bronx Lab, we will stop classes in the middle of the year for students to take a single course for one or two weeks, allowing students to explore in-depth opportunities not typically present in the curriculum. Courses in our January Intensive this year are likely to include producing a play, preparing for mock trial competition, understanding the role of sports in our society, and looking intensively at current American politics — a course that will culminate in a trip to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration.

Our staff culture is one of consensus decision-making and constant reflection. While the use of “data” in education has been given a bad name lately, we believe that the problem with data-driven instruction has been that good data have not been available. So we developed our own Benchmark Performance Assessments to track students’ growth in each discipline over their four years with us. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Academy of Young Writers for their assessment system, from which we drew inspiration.

Are we idealistic and ambitious? Of course. Do we expect a pure implementation where everything just works? Certainly not.  At the same time, our staff possess a humility, a rootedness in the work of those who came before us, and a wealth of experience not only in the implementation of similar programs, but also in the implementation of the very same programs, that together give me tremendous hope and faith for our success.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.