the one that got away

Prestigious and public, the Hunter College schools charge hefty fees and admit few poor students

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Your first shot at getting in comes when you’re four years old.

You have to live in Manhattan, speak English, and have $350 for an IQ test. If you’re invited back, a team of consultants will observe you in a classroom setting and make the final call.

You get a second chance several years later, assuming you’ve aced the state tests in fifth grade and know to apply for a high school seat in sixth grade. Then, your score on the school’s admissions test will decide your fate.

That’s how admissions works at Hunter College Campus schools, which serve students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Though the schools are operated by the city’s public university system, not its education department, they are public schools. And for about 1,600 students at a time, they provide what is considered one of the best public educations in New York City.

The schools look very little like the city its students live in, though, a fact that has been true for many years. And as New York City engages in a lively debate about the lack of diversity at eight elite city high schools — with Mayor Bill de Blasio calling the lack of black and Hispanic students there “a monumental injustice” — Hunter’s disparities in some cases are far starker.

At the specialized high schools, 10 percent of admissions offers went to black and Hispanic students last year, and nearly half of the students attending are poor. But just 7 percent of Hunter high school students are black and Hispanic, and only 9 percent come from low-income families. At Hunter’s elementary school, less than 3 percent of students come from low-income families.

Still, Hunter has flown under the radar. The schools have avoided the spotlight for a constellation of reasons, including their unique governance structure and the fact that their admissions numbers are not released annually by the city, something that has drawn special attention to demographics at the specialized schools.

“There’s no question that this is another crown jewel when it comes to public high school in New York City,” said Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy. As for Hunter and CUNY, he said, “I think it’s a shame that they have not chimed in.”

Debra Wexler, a spokesperson for Hunter College, said the school has engaged in extensive outreach to find talented students from across the city. Hunter officials also note that multiracial students make up 18 percent of the high school, and that poverty is tough to track, since some families fail to turn in their free and reduced-priced lunch forms, the school’s standard means for collecting information about family income.

“The Hunter College Campus Schools are designed to serve intellectually gifted students,” Wexler said. “Those students exist in every community, and it’s our job to find them, so we have spent the past several years investing heavily in outreach and engagement strategies to encourage bright students from all backgrounds to apply.”

Officials at Hunter said their outreach is working and said they expect a more diverse kindergarten class next year.

But as officials and parents continue to examine equity, diversity, and segregation in the nation’s largest school district, observers wonder if Hunter has an obligation to more forcefully address the fairness of its admissions policies.

“Hunter is another one of these private schools masquerading as a public school,” said Lazar Treschan, a Hunter graduate who has studied New York City high school admissions and works at the Community Service Society. While it’s good to see that the school moving in the right direction, he said, “It has no business being a public school in New York City with those kind of disparities.”

***

The Hunter College Campus Schools have been prestigious bastions of public education for gifted New York City students since the mid-1950s. The schools boast a string of notable alumni, including Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex and the City” star running for governor of New York. The high school also routinely sends about a quarter of its graduating class to Ivy League schools, MIT, or Stanford.

The schools also have a long history of grappling with a lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity, although the disparities are worse today than they have been in the past. In 1995, the incoming class of seventh graders was about 18 percent black and Hispanic, according to the New York Times. In 2017, 9 percent of seventh graders were black or Hispanic.

Fred McIntosh, the former director of admissions at Prep for Prep, which helps students of color get into private schools, took the Hunter entrance exam in the early 1980s. He said he didn’t know anyone who prepared seriously for the test, and thinks the lack of test prep and a program that admitted some poor students who just missed the cutoff score helped make his class more diverse than today’s student body.

(Hunter officials said they don’t know of such a program, which is mentioned in a report created by a school committee in the early 2000s, and they don’t have information about why it might have been phased out.)

“It was much more racially and ethnically diverse, but it was also very socioeconomically diverse,” said McIntosh, who is black. “That’s one of the things that I learned going to Hunter. I thought all of the kids were wealthy and that was not true.”

But at least as far back at 1997, faculty members have been devising ways to boost diversity at the school. In a report from that year, a committee on cultural diversity at Hunter College High School recommended a full review of the school’s admissions policies, investigating whether the school could eliminate the admissions testing fee, and developing an anti-discrimination statement.

Several years later, Glenn Kissack, then a math teacher at the school, participated in another review of admissions. After months of studying the small number of “feeder schools” that often produce Hunter students and looking into the expensive test prep available for the exam, the committee suggested potentially reserving more seats for poor students and selecting students based on more than just a single test score.

The committee submitted the report, and months went by with no word from the Hunter administration, Kissack said.

“We could have done something else with our time,” Kissack said. “It gathered dust and didn’t matter.”

Hunter officials would not specifically address most of the recommendations in the reports, but said that the school has been engaged in many discussions over the years about improving diversity. Hunter has implemented many recommendations over the years, they said, including creating a Dean of Diversity position in 2002 and raising private funds for student outreach efforts.

The conflict came to a head in 2010 when the high school faculty selected Justin Hudson, one of the school’s few black students, to address his class at graduation. Hudson tackled the school’s demographics head-on in his speech.

“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city,” he said, according to an article in the New York Times, “then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside, and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Washington Heights. And I refuse to accept that.”

Kevin Park was a junior at Hunter College high school in 2010, when he joined in the standing ovation for Hudson’s speech. He remembers that there were more students named “Kevin” in his grade than there were black students, and felt Hunter lacked faculty and classes that represented Asian students like himself.

After the speech, Park and some classmates created a skit about what it was like to be a black student at Hunter. It depicted assuming college acceptances came easier to black students and how being the only black student in a class can deter speaking up in class, he said.

“That sparked a discussion for a while,” Park said, “but it didn’t necessarily translate into concrete steps or policies.”

Even some of Hunter’s notable alumni have called out the school for its lack of diversity. MSNBC host Chris Hayes uses Hunter as an example of an admissions process that is rigged for the wealthy. Lin-Manuel Miranda recently tweeted a picture at his Hunter College High School reunion with a friend, and said the two of them were two of just five Latino kids in their elementary school grade.

Hunter College officials say that they are confident in their existing process, but are looking for ways to expand the pool of students who apply. At the elementary school level, they have hosted open houses and attended private or selective school admissions fairs, focusing on areas with a concentration of underrepresented students like Harlem or Washington Heights. As a result, Hunter’s kindergarten class is projected to be 22 percent Hispanic, 14 percent black, and 18 percent multiracial in the next school year, they said.

For the high school, they have worked to better notify students who qualify to take the Hunter entrance exam, including by mailing information to parents through the city’s education department. They have also done outreach at the Success Academy charter network, and have seen applications double from those schools.

“Those efforts are bearing fruit,” Wexler said.

The high school has also seen a slow uptick in the number of black and Hispanic students attending over the last decade, though the numbers remain relatively tiny — 7 percent of students in 2017-18.

About two-thirds of the city’s public-school students are black or Hispanic.

Officials at Hunter said they would like to do more outreach but that they are stymied by the fact that the education department will not share contact information for eligible middle schoolers. The city says it is constrained by federal privacy law, but sends an invitation to take the test to all eligible students.

Officials at the mayor’s office did not specifically address Hunter’s admissions policies, but said the mayor is looking to expand diversity initiatives beyond specialized high schools. They also said he believes schools should reflect the diversity of the city.

***

One of the reasons Hunter stands apart — even from other elite New York City schools that select students based on ability — is that its sorting process can essentially guarantee a four-year-old a spot at one of the city’s most sought-after high schools.

That was the experience of Andy McCord’s daughter, who took and passed Hunter’s elementary school tests more than a decade ago at the age of three.

It’s hard to say exactly what the testers found since the exam took place away from parents, said McCord, who is now the chair of programming and recruitment at the Exam Schools Partnership Initiative, which tutors underrepresented students vying for seats at the city’s selective high schools. (The exam still takes place separate from parents.)

McCord remembers his daughter telling him that the psychologist had showed her a picture of a person walking a fish on a leash, and she was able to say it should be a dog. In the next phase of the test, where she was observed by a team of adults, his daughter remembers playing with another kid.

Based on those experiences, she got into Hunter elementary school, stayed through high school, and is now a student at Harvard. (Students who finish sixth grade at the school earn a seat in the high school, though some families will be asked beforehand to find a different place for their child, officials said.)

Hunter no longer tests children at age three; instead the process is for four-year-olds. But the basic idea — that based on an IQ test and an observation at a very young age, the school can identify gifted children — is something Hunter stands by. Officials said the Stanford-Binet V exam it uses is the oldest and most widely used measure of aptitude in the country and noted that they consult with experts to ensure their admissions standards are appropriate.

Others, however, say testing such young children can miss their academic potential, capturing wealth and privilege instead.

“There’s just a really strong argument to be made that when you’re testing four-year-olds, at that age, an awful lot of what you’re measuring seems to be about the social advantage that students have had up to that point as opposed to innate potential,” said Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation whose work focuses on school integration.

And tacking on a $350 price tag is almost certain to exclude more families.

“Even in the best case scenario, it’s hard to imagine the admissions process, as it exists now, actually finding and serving gifted low-income students,” Potter said.

Hunter has begun outreach to some Head Start programs, which provide federally funded pre-K, and waives fees for families there. Officials at Hunter also said they would work with other families who couldn’t pay. But they said they didn’t know how many Head Start students had been admitted, and didn’t track how many students had gotten the fee reduced. The price, they said, reflects the psychologist’s time.

For some parents, however, those explanations provide little solace — especially when their child isn’t admitted. One mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said that she “scrimped and saved” to afford the psychologist’s test several years ago after her husband was laid off. When the test day came, a stranger took her daughter into a room. A few days later, she was told her daughter had not passed.

Feeling like she had lost hundreds of dollars, and not knowing why, was difficult to take, she said. “You have no idea what was said because you weren’t in the room with the psychologist. It was just total agony.”

***

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Jennifer and Jayden Tolliver stand outside of a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. Jayden just missed the cutoff to get into Hunter this year.

There’s another way into Hunter, though, for students who don’t win seats before losing baby teeth.

Students from across the city who score well on their fifth-grade state tests can sit for an entrance exam in sixth grade, which includes an essay. That looks a lot like the one-test admissions method currently under fire at the city’s eight specialized high schools.

The mayor and schools chancellor have both criticized the Specialized High School Admissions Test as a blunt instrument that excludes gifted students from all over the city. Their criticism has broken open a debate about how to select students for seats at coveted city schools. Members of the Asian community in particular have defended the test as an objective marker of talent and hard work that gives immigrant families a shot to send students to top schools.

Some make similar arguments about the Hunter entrance exam. Standing in the courtyard at New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math, a gifted elementary school in Manhattan, Cecilia Feliciano said her son just passed Hunter’s test and will be attending the school next year for seventh grade.

Feliciano, who lives in Queens, said she is an immigrant from the Philippines who couldn’t afford test prep, so she downloaded materials and worked with her son to study for the exam. The test allowed her son to compete on an equal footing with more affluent students from around the city, she said.

“It means a lot to me to have have an equalizer, but you have to work hard,” Feliciano said. “It takes a lot of work, passion, love.”

But like with the SHSAT, preparation for the Hunter exam is costly for many families. A test prep class for the Hunter exam in Manhattan can cost $3,000. Some private tutors who specialize in the Hunter exam charge up to $350 per hour.

And unlike the SHSAT, which students take in eighth grade, students take the Hunter exam in sixth — well before many students are thinking about high school. That catches many students, like Ethan Moses, now a freshman at Manhattan Village Academy, off guard.

Moses said he heard about the test a couple weeks before it was administered. He figured he would apply the skills he learned at Success Academy, but he didn’t recall any of his classmates making the cut, he said. (Success officials said they do not track how many students are admitted to Hunter.)

“The mail came in out of nowhere and said we were taking the test,” Moses said. “None of us were really prepared.”

Alternatively, even if students know about the test, qualify for it, and can prepare for it, the crux of the problem could be the entrance exam itself, critics say.

The entrance exam is not created by a national testing company, but by teachers at Hunter College High School.

“It’s a home-created test,” said Kissack, the retired math teacher who worked on test questions himself, which means “we have no idea how valid it is.”

Hunter officials defend the test by saying that the school’s results speak for themselves: The school has graduated a number of notable alumni and the test has been consistently able to identify students who excel in Hunter’s rigorous academic environment, they said. They also said the test has been able to consistently find students who are able to excel in Hunter’s challenging environment.

But Daniel Koretz, a professor at Harvard who has studied standardized testing, says pointing to successful alumni is not a good way to figure out if a test truly measures whether students are gifted. It’s incumbent on schools to figure out if the school is missing good candidates — not just whether the candidates who are selected succeed, he said.

“Are they denying admissions to kids who are lower [test scorers] who would also be equally successful?” Koretz said. “The answer to that question is almost certainly yes,” which means administrators need to be able to justify why their test should be used to select students.

The answer to that question could have mattered a lot to Jayden Tolliver, who is black, on the math team at his middle school in Harlem, and a self-proclaimed “book nerd.”

His fifth-grade state test results qualified him for the Hunter test, and he spent last fall and winter preparing for it through the Exam Schools Partnership Initiative. (Sometimes, his mom said, she could hear him doing math problems in his sleep.)

Hunter told Tolliver that he scored well enough on the multiple choice portion of the test, but his essay wasn’t strong enough to earn a seat at the school.

On a recent afternoon, Tolliver wandered through a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side looking for something to read. He’s disappointed that he didn’t make it into Hunter, but said he’s ready to start thinking about finding another high school to take his love of math.

“I was just born liking this stuff,” he said.

counting students

As Griffin battles low enrollment in Tennessee’s state district, she looks to a school with a waitlist

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Sharon Griffin, far right, reacts as Westwood students say a chant with their teacher. Griffin, who took over the district in June, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students.

In a brightly decorated Memphis classroom with student work taped all over the walls, 26 second-graders sit attentive on a blue-colored carpet.

They are tracking every word their lead teacher Kaneshia Vaughn says. “Turn and talk with your partner,” Vaughn tells the kids. Excited voices fill the room. “Coming back in five, you turning towards me in four, hands in slant in three, tracking Ms. Vaughn in two,” Vaughn counts down. The classroom goes completely silent.

Sitting at a desk nearby, the leader of Tennessee’s state-run district, Sharon Griffin, says she is all smiles because of the “wowing and obvious” respect and enthusiasm shown by the students.

But here’s the other noticeable thing about this and other classrooms at Freedom Preparatory Academy-Westwood Elementary: They are full.

The school was taken away from the local Memphis school district in 2014 and given to Freedom Prep to run under the umbrella of the state’s Achievement School District for low-performing schools. When Freedom Prep, a Memphis charter network, took over the elementary school, it had around 350 students. The school now has about 558 children enrolled and a waitlist of almost 80 students.

Griffin, who started as the district’s leader three months ago, said she’s looking to Westwood Elementary to help her find answers to one of the state district’s longtime issues: lack of students. Schools get funding based on enrollment, so chronically low numbers can lead schools to shutter. Four schools within the state district have closed — all cited low enrollment as a main reason why. The district now runs 30 schools, the vast majority of which are in Memphis.

“We want to learn from schools and be in close proximity to the work,” Griffin told a group of Freedom Prep network leaders she met with this month. “Freedom Prep has a waitlist, but many of our schools are under-enrolled. There’s something you’re doing and strategies we can share.”

School leaders say one of the first changes they made at Westwood was distancing the school from the word “turnaround,” which is often used in education reform to talk about improving the academics of a chronically low-performing school.

The Freedom Prep charter network was started in 2009 by Roblin Webb, a former Memphis attorney. Westwood is the only state school Freedom Prep runs, although the organization also operates four schools under the local Memphis district. Westwood Elementary lies two miles away from Freedom Prep’s first school, a high school that has had success raising students’ ACT scores and college acceptance rates.

“When we started the ASD school here, we already had a track record with the community,’ Webb told Griffin during the meeting. “Charters coming from out of state had a struggle with name recognition.”

Tiffany Fant, a parent of a 7-year-old at Westwood, told Chalkbeat she heard about the school from friends. Her child went to a school in the traditional Memphis district, Balmoral-Ridgeway Elementary School, but she felt he wasn’t getting the attention he needed. So, she came to Westwood last year.

“Now, he’s in speech therapy here and that’s been really good,” Fant said. “I feel like they spend more time on each kid here.”

Webb said their positive relationship with parents and churches really helped at the school — families that had left for schools outside of the Westwood neighborhood started coming back. But name-recognition was half of the battle. Like most schools, Freedom Prep has to actively recruit students.

But unlike many schools, the responsibility of recruitment doesn’t fall on school leadership. The charter network has a community outreach team that’s in charge of recruitment and enrollment, allowing principals to focus on academics at the start of the year.

“It takes the responsibility off of school leaders’ plates,” Webb said. “Every school has someone on site. It’s expensive.” To which Griffin responded, “It doesn’t cost as much as not having kids.”

Schools in the Achievement School District have also struggled to retain their highest-rated teachers. Freedom Prep’s leadership team told Griffin that keeping great educators has helped them keep students.

Researchers at the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College have said that disruption, or losing some bad teachers, is a key part of turnaround work. But they added that a school can’t thrive unless educators stay and improve — and that takes time.

Freedom Prep uses a co-teaching model — each classroom has a lead teacher, with the most experience, and a co-teacher. The two educators split responsibilities in the classroom. Westwood has retained its school principal for the last three years, and about 80 percent of its teaching staff, said Lars Nelson, Freedom Prep’s chief instruction officer.

That’s a very high rate of retention for a turnaround school, according to the Vanderbilt researchers. According to a 2017 brief, schools in the Achievement School District lost half of its teachers in the first three years.

“Our strong leader stayed, and that meant strong teachers stayed,” Nelson told Chalkbeat. “That’s big for us. When you think about it from a talent perspective, we’re keeping the people who have the biggest impact on student achievement.”

Vaughn, the Westwood second-grade teacher, left Westwood two years ago to teach at another Memphis charter school. But she came back last year because she said she missed the “family environment” of Westwood.

Sharon Griffin, right, tours Westwood Elementary with school leaders.

“It’s the kind of school where you know people actually have your back and you have theirs,” Vaughn said. “I also wanted to come back to a school where I felt like we had high expectations for our students, and the support to actually get them to those expectations. I see little and big victories in my students here. That’s rewarding in such a hard job.”

Lars added that Westwood still has a ways to go to achieve the level of academic success they want for their students. That’s not surprising — all schools within the Achievement School District were taken over because they were in the bottom five percent of schools academically.

When Freedom Prep took over Westwood, it was rated as a level one in student growth, the lowest level in the state’s rating system of a 1-5 scale.

Under Freedom Prep, Westwood was a one again in 2017. But in the new batch of scores released this month, Westwood jumped to a level three. For comparison, the state district overall scored as a level one.

In TNReady, the state’s end-of-year assessment, 10.6 percent of Westwood students scored on grade level in English and 11.2 percent in math. That’s slightly better than the district-wide average, but still far below the state’s average for grades 3-8.

While recruitment strategies and keeping good teachers have helped Westwood gain students, Lars said what matters most is a school with strong academics. If the school has a reputation of creating great learners, families will come, he said.

“We’re proud of our growth at Westwood but we’re also dissatisfied,” Lars said. “Our other elementary school, which is under Shelby County Schools, is a level five. And we fully expect Westwood to be a level five this year.”

new school

A new school in Bronzeville says a lot about what parents want

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
Kindergarten at Bronzeville Classical

The first day of school, Nicole Spicer woke up at 4 a.m., put on a kelly-green blouse that matched her school colors, and was greeting new families at the door by 7:30 a.m.

By 9:30 a.m., the founding principal of the new Bronzeville Classical Elementary had run the school leadership gauntlet: encouraging her small cadre of teachers, welcoming jittery students and parents, and throwing an opening-day party complete with a balloon trellis and visits from such VIPs as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson.

Her venti Starbucks coffee had long grown cold. So she headed to the teachers’ lounge to zap it in the microwave before embarking on another tour of the building, a former elementary school that closed under former schools chief Arne Duncan, reopened as a charter, then closed again.

In the school-choice era in Chicago, school buildings can have many incarnations, and 8 West Root Street’s latest says a lot about what parents in and around Bronzeville want. The only new selective enrollment school opening this year, it comes amid amped-up debate about the degree to which test-in schools pick off accelerated learners and middle-class families at the expense of neighborhood programs.

The debate recently has been stoked by reports that paint a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand in individual schools as well as the startling number of open seats in neighborhood schools.

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
Assistant principal Raven Talley and principal Nicole Spicer

A case study in what a school can look like with robust support, Bronzeville Classical’s deep bench consists of black religious and business leaders from the community around it. A multimillion gut rehab puts its facilities-wise on par with private schools — there are smart boards in classrooms, a new playground and turf area, even a donated pottery kiln. And the principal has ties with the historically black neighborhood, which still really matters in Chicago.

“Bronzeville has always been a part of who I am,” said Spicer, who grew up near 41st and Indiana streets and attended Catholic schools in the area, despite family who were alums of Phillips High School. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.”

The opportunity she’s describing is building a school from the ground up, from hiring the staff to prioritizing Spanish-language immersion and music theory to recruiting the students. Since the school was announced last December, Bronzeville Classical has enrolled 80 children in grades K through second, with plans to add a grade each year. It still has 100 students to go to reach its initial goal.

To recruit more families, Spicer is setting up her front office to help families navigate the selective-enrollment process, which includes completing a centralized online application and registering children for a testing appointment at a facility near IIT. There will also be orientations for prospective families, tours, a social media push, and workshops for families, said Assistant Principal Raven Talley. “When you walk into a school, you want to feel and see the community and the culture,” Talley said.

Not everyone who lives in the surrounding neighborhoods can attend the school, no matter the supports. That bothers public education organizers like Jitu Brown, the national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance. He has long encouraged CPS to stop segregating students by test scores and shower its neighborhood schools with the same resources and attention it gives new schools. “The rest of our babies are left to languish in neighborhood schools that are starved.”

In essence, other schools could use smart boards and Spanish immersion. A balloon trellis wouldn’t hurt.

The parent perspective

Brittany Smith, the parent of a first-grader at Bronzeville Classical, sympathizes with that argument. But, at 27, she’s part of a generation that came up in the choice era, traveling to a magnet school as an elementary student that was near the Indiana border and then attending Whitney Young, the city’s first public magnet high school.

In other words, “I’m used to the idea,” she said.

Smith lives in Bronzeville, just down the street from Ida B. Wells Preparatory, which reported an average kindergarten class size of 38 last year (the district average was 16.9, according to the 2017 Illinois School Report Card.) Put off by the class sizes, she tested her daughter and gained admission into a selective-enrollment school that was a 20-minute drive from her house. When she heard about Bronzeville Classical, which would be less than 5 minutes away, she applied. “I can tell there is a lot of support from the teachers and the principal, and it’s in the neighborhood.”

For many families, the decision to transfer to a new school with no record is not made lightly. There’s no word of mouth and no test score data to compare, though classical schools — which teach a grade level above, focus on language, and usually have strong art and music programs — are consistently among the district’s highest performing.

A gut rehab meant fresh new paint and lockers, but the marble staircase remains

A few days in, both Smith and another parent, Alicia Blais, who lives in McKinley Park, feel encouraged. Smith, who is black, appreciates the diversity of the school (numbers aren’t fully in, but an early measure shows the school at 50 percent black, 20 percent Asian, and 10 percent white, with a third of the students qualifying as low-income), the sparkling facility, and the fact that her daughter comes home happy.

Blais, who is white, says Spicer and her assistant principal are working with her to provide the right experience for her daughter, who is highly sensitive. Already, the first grader has really connected with the Spanish teacher. Calling it a “last stop” before moving to the suburbs, Blais said, “We are one of many parents who need this school to work.”

Design from the ground up

The siren call of a new school doesn’t just lure parents. Educators hear it, too. An award-winning reading specialist who formerly served as assistant principal at another classical school, Skinner North, Spicer participated in a highly competitive process for the principalship. It culminated with her speaking in a public forum last spring alongside another finalist.

After getting the job and taking what she describes as a “listening tour” of community organizations, she approached hiring her small staff with the same careful scrutiny: sorting through hundreds of applications to find a diverse roster of candidates. She opted for full-time music, PE, and Spanish in addition to her K-2 classroom teachers, special education teacher, and a counselor. In lieu of full-time art, a nonprofit group will come in and teach one day a week. (An alum of Golden Apple, the prestigious Illinois teacher training program, Spicer said three of her hires share those ties)

For Jessica Lyons, the Spanish teacher, who previously taught in a Catholic school, the chance to build curriculum from the ground up was persuasive. So was Spicer’s vision of earning a Seal of Biliteracy. For her, that means teaching classes completely in Spanish and cultivating a positive mindset around learning languages through books like “La Vaca Que Decía Oink,” about a cow that says oink. “I’ve designed Spanish programs at schools before, but this is an opportunity to really start something from the ground up and have ownership over it.”

Music teacher Reginald Spears has been working in Chicago schools for a decade, most recently at the nearby Doolittle Elementary. He brings with him a vision for a musical curriculum that prepares children for elementary band, or orchestra, complete with sight reading and songwriting. At some schools, music is viewed as a vehicle to teach reading or math, he explains — here, it’s a subject worthy of its own study and exploration.

He also brings training in calm classroom techniques, such as breathing and stretching, that he has shared with his fellow teachers. “I’m excited that this going to be part of the school.”

But despite the gleaming hallways and pottery kiln, Bronzeville Classical is still a public school in Chicago and can’t escape the realities of the district’s ongoing budget crunch. So Spears’ ambitions of a piano lab and a suite of shiny instruments might require some creativity. He plans to start the way teachers across the city do — a crowdsourcing page on the website Donors Choose.org.