First Person

Countdown To ‘Guys and Dolls’ In The South Bronx, Pt. 3

Curtain call at the final dress rehearsal
In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 of our 100-day countdown to opening night of last week’s performance of “Guys and Dolls” in the South Bronx.

What follows is the saga’s final chapter: a steady crescendo of logistical challenges, costume malfunctions, police confrontations, cast-member meltdowns, parental confrontations, laryngitis attacks, and other behind-the-scenes drama — all leading up to a show that, while it may not win us any Tony Awards, nonetheless confirmed my belief in the transformational power of making art with young people, obstacles be damned.

28 days until opening night

We’re missing 30 percent of the cast yet again today (SAT prep, Regents prep, storytelling workshop, talent show rehearsal, baseball practice, didn’t-read-rehearsal-schedule, dentist appointment, forgot, mom-won’t-let-her-come-because-she’s-on-punishment, remembered-but-skipped-anyway, on-probation-for-skipping-yesterday, on-probation-for-grades, on-probation-for-being-disrespectful-about-being-on-probation). The only upside is that dedicated fifth-graders like set crew member Aminata get to step in as understudies and show off their acting chops.

25 days until opening night

Can’t use the stage again this afternoon because we got bumped by the talent show folks. After half an hour of looking for a space during which a substantial portion of the already-diminished cast scatters and has to be rounded up by a crew of high school helpers, we cram into a vacant vestibule with a boom box. By the time we buckle down to work with 15 minutes left to rehearse, I’m wiped out. Granted, no one put a gun to my head and demanded I direct a full-length Broadway show with a huge cast in a space-challenged school while six months pregnant. That one’s on me.

24 days until opening night

2. Fifth-grade set crew member Aminata understudies the role of “Rusty Charlie”

The ninth-grader playing “Harry the Horse” is the only cast member who’s met today’s deadline for getting his lines memorized. Since he’s no longer struggling with the words, he’s got the confidence to start transforming a usually forgettable bit part into pure comic genius. Every time he opens his mouth he sends us all into hysterics.

18 days until opening night

Julie, our adult set crew mentor, on the phone near tears last night, after the talented but troubled 10th-grader she’s been mentoring as stage manager storms out of yet another set crew session: “Kate, you have no idea how much I love that girl.”

Same 10th-grade girl, in the hallway near tears today: “Ms. Q, you have no idea how much that woman hates me.”

16 days until opening night

Eighth-grader Shane gives the male leads some feedback

The guys’ dances and scenes are looking great. It’s a blast to watch the older high school kids taking pointers from the younger actors, some of whom are literally half their size.

Unfortunately, the girls’ scenes are plagued by technical problems. Tonight we try to stage their stylized burlesque number, “Take Back Your Mink,” but since we’ve never had a proper costume fitting due to poor attendance, the choreography issues we’re supposed to be addressing are eclipsed by tear-away gowns that either fall down too early or can’t be yanked off no matter how hard the girls try.

11 days until opening night

There was a scuffle today between two groups of middle school boys. Rehearsal ground to a halt and we had a long conversation about how, in theater — as in life — you sometimes have to think of the good of the group and resist the urge to fight back when you feel wronged.

One of the eighth-graders speaks up. “Sorry, Ms. Q,” he says, “but that’s not how I was raised. My mother says that if someone disrespects me or hits me, I’m supposed to come back at them three times as hard.”

When I speak to this kid’s mom on the phone tonight she tells me matter-of-factly that I don’t know the first thing about raising a child in the ‘hood.

She’s right. I let her know that I’m struggling to help her son navigate the different cultural rules of street life versus school life. She softens. We talk a while. By the end of the conversation she’s asking me about my pregnancy and my two year old daughter at home. It hits me that, as much as I love making actual theater with kids, it’s really the conversations like these that keep me coming back to put on these crazy shows year after year.

9 days until opening night

Today the whole 12th grade class leaves for a four-day senior trip. Reeeeally bad timing. All six of our main leads are seniors and most of them are in tough shape preparation-wise.

Sky — the kid who almost got kicked out of the show because of his grades — has pulled himself together, but only barely, and has been inconsistent with follow-through.

Our new Nathan — the understudy for the student who was expelled from school — is doing great, but he’s never been in a play before and he doesn’t know his lines.

Sarah has been stellar on attendance, but she’s stretched thin with academics and shaky on her songs.

Adelaide is bursting with talent that until recently has been buried under a sour, defensive attitude. She finally opened up last  week about her personal struggles and since then, she’s been eager, respectful and flexible. Still, I’m worried the trip will derail her and her progress will backslide.

8 days until opening night

Set crew dinner

The set crew has been acting flaky lately, but tonight they stayed and worked late. We celebrated with a big family-style dinner.

Julie and her 10th-grade stage manager have worked through their drama. The girl’s mother says she’s never seen her daughter more committed or dedicated to anything in her life.

7 days until opening night

Former Bronx Prep theater stars Chris Moncrief and Denisse Polanco come back from college to help out with the show. Chris just finished his freshman year at Syracuse; Denisse graduated a few days ago from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Having them around and willing to work hard brings a huge rush of fresh energy.

6 days until opening night

It’s Chris and Denisse’s second day on the job and we decide to crank hard and pull a late night organizing costumes. At 1:30 a.m. we call it quits. While they sweep the gym, I unpack the box with the remaining props ordered from Amazon — satin gloves, gangster hats, fake cash and a toy gun — and discover I’ve somehow mistakenly ordered a real BB gun with real bullets. Hands shaking, thinking of the kid who plays Nathan who was shot in the shoulder in a drive-by earlier in the year (and who ironically has to sing the lyrics “Sue me, sue me, shoot bullets through me”), I hastily pack the gun into my backpack to bring home and give Chris money to go to the costume shop tomorrow and pick up a fake.

5 days until opening night

This afternoon I leave the cast with the musical director for a few minutes to step outside and reason with the cops who are ticketing the van idling by the gym door while a kid unloads rented speakers.

Expecting a respectful exchange, I ask one of the officers to give us a break considering the positive work we’re doing with kids from the neighborhood.

“Oh, changing the world one life at a time, are we?” he sneers at me. “Well, if you’re really making such a difference, who’s inside watching the children while you’re out here talking to me? You letting the inmates run the prison in there?”

All my big talk about the value of civil discourse evaporates in a haze of mama-bear rage and I have to be physically ushered back inside before I start running my mouth and getting us into more trouble. Not my finest moment.

3 days until opening night

Today the cast is distracted to the point of dysfunction over The Rapture. While fifth- and sixth-graders disrupt dress rehearsal huddled in a corner of the gym praying that the world doesn’t end, I’m just praying that whoever took Stephanie’s $20 gives it back. Both the specter of the apocalypse and the apparent reality that we have a thief in our midst are wreaking havoc on morale.

At 6 p.m. the world doesn’t end. At 6:02 p.m.the $20 bill is found crumpled up under the same bleachers where it was taken from Stephanie’s wallet.

No accompanying choir of angels in either case — but both outcomes are welcome upgrades.

2 days until opening night

Crew member Stephanie paints the sign on the Biltmore Garage

There are many reasons to panic tonight. The girls’ costumes still aren’t finished. Crew is scrambling to complete the set. Props have gone missing. The lighting board is mysteriously on the fritz and so is the voice of one of our male leads. But the biggest, most infuriating issue is that most of the kids still aren’t solid on their lines. I derive a moment of bleak satisfaction overhearing Chris using exactly the same language with a kid that I used on him at this same time in the same context last year: “Dude, I just can’t learn the lines for you, you know?”

1 day until opening night

At midnight tonight, Chris and Denisse and I come back upstairs after a long, exhausting dress rehearsal to find the classroom that doubles as a changing room strewn with costumes, props and kids’ belongings.

I collapse in a chair and tell Chris and Denisse how sorry I am that the build-up to the show has been so tough this year. I feel miserable.

Denisse starts picking up costume items and folding them. Then she turns to me and says, “Are you kidding me? I live for this. Life would be so stale and sad and boring without this kind of stress. Anything worth doing is worth freaking out over, you know?”

I smile at her, and the frustration recedes a little. I think about the kids who have pulled their grades up from failing in order to stay in the cast. The parents and teachers who have been there for us. The kids and adults who have volunteered building sets, teaching dances, making costumes and running lights. The actors who I know will dig deep tomorrow and miraculously pull through — because they always do.

And at that moment, there is no place I’d rather be than here with my former students in a messy South Bronx classroom at midnight before opening night, freaking out.

Up next: show photos and a recap of the performances, reflections from kids in their own words, and more stories from behind the scenes.

As always, the students featured in this post agreed to let me share their stories; the views expressed here are my own and not those of my school’s administration.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.