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.”

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education.