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|At Challenge sites across the country, people are breaching old boundaries to connect school to school, school to community, and schools to others who can support their work.
How Schools Can Work Better for the Kids Who Need the Most
VOLUME 2, NUMBER 2
At age 15, in central Harlem, Ira Hughes is learning what's normal and what's formal, in school and in his life.
He is learning it in his ninth grade reading class, where a chart on the wall spells out how normal speech patterns in this 135th Street neighborhood can translate readily into standard English when the occasion -- say, an interview or an essay -- demands.
He is learning it -- like all the other students at the small, public Bread and Roses School -- by reading James Baldwin's passionate, scholarly essay "My Dungeon Shook," which they will discuss in the next all-school seminar, which is routinely conducted in small advisory groups.
Most important, perhaps, Ira is learning just how normal is the persistence it took for him to end up at Bread and Roses at all. He worked all last year in planning sessions for this upstart school, sometimes speaking up at meetings with top-level school board officials to make the case that students like him, with special-needs status, would benefit from inclusion in a new small school. "I wanted to learn to read here," he declares. "This is my school."
In a mounting national crisis of educational advancement among those who are too dark or too poor to matter to those in power, stories like Ira's stand out, in Challenge schools across the country, as emblems of belief and hope.
If we treat students as competent, Ira's teachers argue, they will demonstrate their competence. If we build on the knowledge and skills all young people bring to the classroom, they can learn what they need to know. If we act as scholars -- teachers as well as students -- we will make schools into scholarly places.
And if school communities are small enough to know students well -- a chief goal of Challenge initiatives across the country -- they can target specific ways to help them reach their goals.
In a 75-minute class twice weekly, for example, Ira and other classmates -- some with "special needs," some not -- work on whatever basic skills might be holding their work up. "It helps build your confidence," he says, "to be able to raise your hand and say, 'I don't understand.'"
"Once you know everyone," adds classmate Kwasi Jack, "it's not about impressing people any more. It's about bettering yourself."
Small schools operating in supportive networks are the chief thrust of the Challenge's New York Networks for School Renewal, a partnership of four sponsoring organizations including Acorn and New Visions for Public Schools (which together sponsored Bread and Roses), the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE), and the Center for Educational Innovation. Director Carol Foresta started Bread and Roses, in fact, after teaching at Crossroads School, an earlier startup with CCE, and watching its middle school graduates "drop into a hole" at New York's enormous high schools.
In this Northern Manhattan community, Bread and Roses aims to work for social justice as well as integrating the arts into schooling. "We want students to look beyond what is," Foresta says, "toward what is possible for them and their community."
Building on the Crossroads experience, the school's untracked curriculum includes students with moderate learning disabilities and second-language literacy issues. But its academic demands are serious. Students this year created a professional-quality video production on Harlem's historic Apollo Theatre, and are supplementing the New York Regents biology course by exploring scientific issues in their own community.
That same drive for knowledge ignites Rose Jeffrey's fast-paced math classroom at the School for Academic and Athletic Excellence, thirty blocks south, where 25 high-energy seventh-graders are stalking the answer to a complex spatial puzzle. With obvious enjoyment as she continually refocuses students on their task, Jeffrey exhorts and encourages them to try out their solutions at the board against the critiques of their peers. "That's one possible solution," she says encouragingly as hands wave wildly in protest. "Now check: does it answer everything the problem asks for?" She clearly believes that her students can master this material; and indeed, they do, well before this reporter has figured it out.
"As a teacher you have to love learning -- to know your subject and then keep reaching for more understanding," declares Olivia Lynch, who co-founded this school with the Center for Collaborative Education. "Parents send us their best. Like Socrates, we know that these children know things -- and in order to bring their knowledge out, you have to learn how to ask the right questions." By marrying that belief with scholarship, Lynch argues, teachers become accountable for what goes on in their school. "We need to stop thinking of teaching as a stopgap," she says. "These students are not deficient. They can be scholars. But we cannot make them into something we ourselves are not."
In fact, teachers who take their first task as studying their own students may learn not only more about individual children, but more about themselves and about learning. As they change from thinking "What am I going to teach?" to "What am I going to learn?" they stop regarding students as clients that they do something to, or fix.
This approach refuses to blame children themselves for "the problem" of effectively teaching them. Nor does it see the teacher as an instrument, focused like an arrow on the student. Children and teachers, instead, are active participants in a setting designed to draw forth visible learning.
A student's family, language, neighborhood, health, and home culture all make up that setting -- factors in a complex system that influences a child's success. If schools can understand and negotiate the relationships among those factors, they will support the developing child in more effective ways.
Not just stories but decades of research by cognitive scientists from Jerome Bruner to Lauren Resnick already back up such convictions. Even in the dire face of life hazards like poverty, violence, and racism, kids will thrive and learn in a structured environment where they are surrounded from the early school years onward by supportive, caring adults who know them well.
Data from large-scale quantitative studies also support this point. After following students in 820 United States high schools for five years, V. E. Lee, J. B. Smith, and R. G. Croninger concluded in a 1995 study that all students learned more in more personal learning communities marked by a common and demanding academic curriculum -- but poor and minority children improved most of all.
When generations of adults pass on those advantages to their children -- reading to them, listening to them, expecting the best of them -- a "social capital" builds up that fosters and perpetuates success, many analysts now agree. Creating that legacy takes time, but leaving it undone bears grim implications. "Based on this year's fourth-grade reading scores," observes Paul Schwartz, a principal in residence at the U. S. Department of Education, "California is already planning the number of new prison cells it will need in the next century."