El Centro: Trying to ‘ignite learning’

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

With a scented candle, a couch, and tables, the classroom has the ambiance of a cozy living room.

Ten students are discussing the characters and scenes for their advisory project, a play about teen issues, with their advisor Khara Schonfeld and a visiting theater professional.

One student, Mary Cruz Gonzalez, is nervous. “Do I have to do this in front of people?”

Schonfeld reassures her. “Mary, I believe you can do it. It is your time.”

With a few furniture moves, the classroom becomes a rehearsal stage. The boys improvise a scene on peer pressure; the girls shout out suggestions.

El Centro de Estudiantes, on the second floor of a former Catholic school near Norris Square in Kensington, opened in September as a partnership between Big Picture Learning and Congreso de Latinos Unidos. With approximately 150 students, El Centro is one of six new accelerated schools this year.

Big Picture, a nonprofit organization, has established its project-based learning model in more than 60 schools in the U.S. and internationally, with the motto “One student at a time.”

“The project-based approach is about meeting kids where they are,” said David Bromley, executive director of Big Picture Philadelphia. “It’s finding out what their passions and interests are, but also their strengths and need areas.”

The students, Bromley said, “through no fault of their own, have struggled severely in their past educational experience.” Most come with low literacy and math skills. Many of the boys have juvenile court records; many girls are pregnant or young mothers.

At El Centro, they write and act in plays, make documentaries, chronicle neighborhood change, and work at neighborhood businesses and organizations.

Maria Guaranda, 17, dropped out of a disciplinary school a year and a half ago. She’s found a direction at El Centro.

“We work at our own pace and we pick our own projects,” Guaranda said. “If I want to do a project about my mom, I can do a project about my mom. I just have to make sure that I include math, reading, and social studies.”

Students at El Centro spend three days a week in school and two days at internships. “I like working with youth so for my internship I’m … over at the Attic, which is a youth center,” Guaranda said.

Other students are at child care centers, hospitals, recording studios, auto body shops, gyms, and bike shops. “We’re about finding anything to ignite learning,” Bromley said.

Advisors, as the teachers are called, build trust with their students. “The teachers are not just your teachers in school; they are like your second parent,” Guaranda said. Each advisor is certified in one content area and stays with the same group of 15 students until graduation. The advisors support each other in teaching all subjects.

Principal Laura Davis worked for three years on Capitol Hill before getting a degree in education. Prior to joining Big Picture Philadelphia, she worked as a middle school teacher and founding advisor for a Big Picture school in Nashville.

Over the summer, she and her staff went to community groups, set up tables outside stores, and knocked on doors in Kensington to recruit students. There is one admissions requirement – attend an orientation or open house.

“In order for students to be successful in this type of school model, students and parents must believe in [its] philosophy,” she said.

Agatha Kofa, 17, dropped out of Lincoln High School after giving birth to her daughter. Unable to afford Catholic school, she enrolled in El Centro a month after it opened.

“At first it was hard ‘cause we [my teacher and I] argued a lot,” Kofa said. But her advisor taught Kofa how to be less confrontational, and she is on track to graduate in approximately a year.

If all goes well, she will leave with a diploma and experience in her field of interest, film. She is working on a video about her classmates’ future goals.

Back in Schonfeld’s room, Kofa’s classmates Ricky Rosario and Victor Rivera, drawing on their daily journals, are deep into their peer pressure scene. Rivera, playing a drug dealer, is trying to convince Rosario to “have his back” on the corner.

Rosario hesitates. He’s caught between his friend and his desire to stay out of trouble.

“I don’t want to go to jail.” He walks away.

At the final schoolwide performance several weeks later, students cheered and wanted more.

“The other kids in the school really liked it because it was issues from their lives,” Schonfeld said. “It was a triumph for us.”