learning curve

One Bronx high school is trying to reach high-needs students by ditching the traditional classroom

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Bronx Arena student Jasmine Broda practices French with Nicholas Geron.

In Evelyn Rebollar’s classroom, a student is listening to music on his phone while typing away on a laptop. Behind him, a classmate is fiddling with a deck of cards. One student is playing the computer game Age of Empires in the back corner. A couple tables away, one of his peers is chatting with another teacher in French.

Rebollar is sitting at the front of the room, though the tables are arranged so most students aren’t facing her. The setup might seem strange: All of these students are in the same class, but at this moment, none of them are on the same task. Rebollar occasionally paces through the room to check in on her students, but she isn’t bothered if a phone is out, or if one of them is momentarily distracted.

“We try to make the model as close to what they’ll experience in the work or college environment,” Rebollar explained. “Your boss isn’t going to say, ‘Why are you on your phone?’ They’re going to say, ‘If you don’t complete this project, you’re fired.’”

Opened in 2011, Bronx Arena is one of about 52 “transfer” schools across the city that often innovate to serve students who have dropped out or fallen behind their peers. For Bronx Arena, that means turning traditional teaching on its head.

Instead of shuttling between hour-long classes, students spend roughly four hours a day in their “arenas” — groups of 25 students who work their way through a self-guided online curriculum that is individually tailored to make sure each student develops the core “competencies” needed to graduate.

By discarding the convention that teachers should spend most of their days delivering content from the front of the classroom, teachers at Bronx Arena are freed up to teach small mini-lessons and work with individual students on developing — and reaching — their own learning goals.

Evelyn Rebollar (middle) goes over a summer school contract with student Leslianna Allen (right) and a CBO representative.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Evelyn Rebollar (middle) reviews a summer school contract with student Leslianna Allen (right) and Tyesse Rodriguez of SCO Family of Services.

That freedom is the key to re-engaging students who are all at least 16 years old and behind in credits when they enter Bronx Arena, explained Ty Cesene, one of the school’s co-principals. The idea is to give students ownership over what they’re learning by letting them participate in choosing their coursework and managing their time during the school day.

“The students have so much choice and power over what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis,” Cesene said. “We wanted to provide a full new experience so you had to adjust your idea of school.”

But the model can also be an adjustment for teachers, who must closely monitor student progress on each of their courses to determine whether they are meeting the monthly academic goals they’ve agreed to, and if they’re completing at least five daily assignments – all of which is measured with elaborate tracking software.

And even though specialists in subject areas like French and Earth science drop by the classroom to help individual students, teachers who supervise an arena must also be prepared to oversee students who are working on subjects in which the teacher hasn’t been formally trained.

“I had to learn humility and sort of be okay with showing my weaknesses,” said Rebollar, whose expertise is in English instruction. “If you are a generalist teacher, inevitably there will be answers you don’t know. It’s a mindset of problem-solving.”

Rebollar — who recently won a national TNTP Fishman Prize for quality teaching in high-need schools — paced around her arena one afternoon last month checking in on each student’s progress.

A whiteboard in Rebollar's classroom displays the number of credits her "arena" has earned.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A whiteboard in Rebollar’s classroom displays the number of credits her “arena” has earned.

The student who was playing with a deck of cards, for instance, is working on a class that explores the theme “coming of age” and requires designing a board game to illustrate the concept. Rebollar helped her get started by pushing her to experiment with altering the rules of a card game and playing it with two other students to better understand how games are structured.

Another student, Amanda Lopez, asked about how to organize a presentation of her senior project, which focuses on the presidential candidates’ views on abortion. And the student who was playing Age of Empires? That’s Michael Gastambides, a 20-year-old whose senior project uses the game to compare monarchies to democratic republics.

Like many of the roughly 200 students at Bronx Arena, Gastambides felt disengaged and unhappy at his last high school, which was about seven times larger. “I kind of developed anxiety, I was claustrophobic, and I just stopped going,” he said of his last school. “I wanted an education, I wanted a diploma, I wanted to go to college, so I came here.”

Gastambides graduated this year, but he acknowledges that the self-paced aspect of his high school experience wasn’t always easy. “I would be lying if I didn’t say sometimes it is hard to get motivated,” he said. “The teachers, they motivate you — they come in and they say, ‘You can do this.’”

Michael Gastambides works on his senior project.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Michael Gastambides works on his senior project.

But getting students to graduation isn’t always easy. School leaders acknowledged Bronx Arena lags behind some of its peers in getting students to quickly accumulate credits, and has struggled with an attendance rate that hovers around 60 percent.

Cesene pointed out that even if students aren’t earning credits as quickly, that’s because the school requires students achieve proficiency in all elements of their coursework before they move on. And to boost attendance, the school has worked with its community organization partner, SCO Family of Services, which provides “advocate counselors” who make calls home and even visit if a student is chronically absent.

Since the curriculum is largely self-paced, “If you miss a day, you didn’t miss the class,” Cesene said. “It’s a double-edged sword to have a model that doesn’t punish not attending.”

Still, the school’s model has earned some attention from those outside its walls. “The co-founders are constantly challenging the assumptions, rituals and routine of the traditional school model,” said Chris Sturgis, co-founder of Competency Works, an organization that disseminates information about efforts across the country to re-think what it means for students to master coursework, and who visited the school two years ago.

And while Cesene acknowledges that the school will continue to tweak the program, at least one thing will stay constant. “Our language here is you’re responsible for your education,“ he said. “Our biggest innovation is we trust students to learn.”

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.