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

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.