I’ve often wondered “How do other schools do it?”
In today’s economy, education has continued to suffer and take a downward spiral. Especially the inner-city schools, and especially small schools. While we offer a personalized education that an entity of 2,000 students never could, we are also held accountable to the same standards with a fraction of the resources. I’ve watched numerous colleagues pink-slipped, class sizes grow alarmingly large, and our budget slashed more and more every year.
The Facing History and Ourselves Innovative Schools Network offered a grant to allow schools in this international network to visit and learn from one another. When I applied for the grant, I was really seeking inspiration and hoping to feed off the creative energy of my east coast colleagues. In a career field that is synonymous with ‘dysfunctional,’ I have grown weary from the struggle. Don’t get me wrong--I still love my kids and love what I do. However, I have always been keenly aware that society does not value what I do. Yet year after year, I see countless educators who are passionate, committed, and tirelessly advocating on their students’ behalves.
Teaching in South Central Los Angeles is where I have chosen to spend the last ten years of my career, and I wouldn’t take back a single day. Urban schools have a unique set of challenges, and their children are often wise beyond their years due the harsh realities of their communities. I saw a visit to New York City schools as an opportunity to observe firsthand what schools similar to us in size, also in an urban area, were doing to hold their students to the same high standard of learning that we do.
Facing History School (FHS) and Essex Street Academy (ESA), both part of our Innovative Schools Network, were generous enough to open their doors to three curious teachers from the other side of the country. Joining me on this adventure was Jaime Ledezma, truly the best math teacher I know, and Susan Requa, an English teacher who is new to our faculty but quickly established herself as a strong addition.
Monday morning found us in Hell’s Kitchen sludging through the aftermath of a snow storm in pouring rain with a newfound appreciation for our own usual commute to work. Somehow even L.A. freeways seemed preferable to the chaos of the subway system and east coast weather. When we arrived, we were somewhat shocked by the metal detectors every student and visiting adult were required to go through. After getting cleared, we were escorted upstairs to FHS, which was one of six housed in the building. I was immediately struck by the obvious attempt to create a positive environment through student work displays and motivational sayings painted on the wall. These were hallways anyone would enjoy walking through on their way to class. After meeting with the Assistant Principal, Mark Otto, and a few key teacher leaders, we were graciously welcomed to observe in several classrooms.
As a Demonstration Site for the New Technology Network, my school, Student Empowerment Academy New Technology High School, has countless groups come through our campus every year all year. One of my pet peeves is when visitors come into my classroom and proceed to only talk to their colleagues in the corner. Where is the learning in that? Real knowledge comes from jumping right in with students working in their groups (when the activity makes this feasible) and asking them questions about what they’re doing and learning, which is exactly what I did in 3 of the 4 classes I observed. The students were predominantly students of color, of all grade levels, and very friendly. One U.S. History teacher had her students doing a simulation of an assembly line in her unit on Industrialization. The activity allowed students to be kinesthetic, learn the value of collaboration, and enhance information in the textbook.
After our observations, we presented to the faculty on our own school’s Project based Learning curriculum (PBL) as well as the Digital Portfolio that every exiting senior must create to showcase their work from their four years with us. The FHS faculty shared things that have helped them stay on course such as the Curriculum Design Team, Vision Committee, and School Leadership Team--all of which exist to address different yet critical aspects of the school. I loved the idea that a teacher is not allowed to fail a student is they haven’t attempted a parent contact to notify them of their child’s grade. We were astounded that 25% of their student body are special education students--far higher than any percentage I have ever heard of before. I found that as young and hip as I like to think of myself, the “old school” in me could not get used to hearing kids calling their teachers by their first name. Lastly, we were definitely jealous that their school of 420 students warranted 36 teachers while our own campus of 260 students only has 10 faculty (and we’re losing one of those positions next year).
The next day we traveled to lower Manhattan to visit ESA. The weather was much nicer this morning, and perhaps that contributed to the neighborhood’s vibe. It just seemed so…hip! There were no metal detectors greeting us this time, just a friendly security guard who took down our ID information and directed us to the Main Office. The office was warm and inviting and completely chaotic such as is at every high school in the morning. Everyone immediately knew who we were and gave us a friendly hello as they rushed to their classes. Again, we were given several different options to observe and I was lucky enough to hit gold on my first try. Cyndy’s (again, a school where teachers go by the first name) 12th grade government class was debating the rights of Amish to homeschool their children versus state’s rights to mandate education for anyone under the age of 16 years old. There was participation from all corners of the room, great points being made, and lots of THINKING going on. Honestly, it was that lesson that’s so good you wish your superintendent “happened to stop by” that day. After several more visits, we presented on PBL again and were amazed again by what a huge faculty of 32 ESA had for a school with only 380 students. Their faculty had no idea how we taught classes with up to 40 students.
We explained that we don’t know any other way. We teach the students in our classes, and make do with the resources we have--which isn’t much in terms of money or personnel but we have tons when it comes to commitment, love, and passion for our students.
Overall, I felt that all three schools had several things in common:
- a strong and supportive leadership,
- faculty whom were deeply committed to our student population which is predominantly students of color,
- creative ideas to create opportunities for parent involvement, and
- an environment that facilitated personalized education.
We walked away with ideas such as Bingo Night for parents, a teacher’s promise to send us the advisory curriculum units that were developed in collaboration with the NYC Facing History staff, and other valuable take-aways. Ultimately, we accomplished our goal because we did leave New York City both inspired and proud of our east coast colleagues….and I think we left quite an impression on them as well.
***This blog was written by Sasha Guzman, teacher at Student Empowerment Academy New Technology High School on the Jefferson campus in South Central Los Angeles