Our #EngagingSchools tour is in its home stretch, as three of our National Alliance for Engagement-Based Education (NAEBE) members traveled around New England last week, visiting three more schools. Across three days, we saw: Blackstone Academy in Pawtucket, RI; F.W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, MA; and Codman Academy in Dorchester, MA.
Schools are nuanced places. The fact that they center around human interaction means they’re complex. All three of these schools are working hard to do well by the kids they serve; here, we’ll present one way in which each of these places shine.
Blackstone Academy Charter School
For me (Sara), it was clear that this school community is built on caring relationships between faculty and students. Advisors stay with their same advisory from freshman to senior year, creating a close-knit bond. Students shared with us that advisory takes on more of a family role. Crystal Diaz, an English teacher at the school, explained that advisors are really invested in understanding each person in their group. Victor Ha, an 11th grade English teacher, had a beautiful tribute to his advisees posted outside of his room. He took the time and care to genuinely thank each one of his advisees and to make that thank you public. Reading these tributes made me want to spend more time in Ha’s class; it was beautiful because it showed that he knew each of those kids so well, but it also invited other kids in. It communicated a version of, “Let’s get to know each other; I’ll see you.” This caring extended beyond advisory and was also evident in the wider school community. For example, their principal, Kyleen, shared that she would be staying well into the evening to help a family make sense of, and fill out, the FAFSA that their senior needed to apply for college. We had a great visit, and we’re looking forward to continuing to learn from their work as we begin making meaning of the schools we’ve seen.
Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School
One of the first things that struck me (Kris) on our visit to Parker was the atmosphere of deep trust and mutual respect between faculty and students. There were certainly rules and expectations, but they seemed to be built upon the assumption that students could be trusted with a certain amount of autonomy and freedom. In one class, students were preparing for oral presentations. After a group discussion on expectations for the task, the teacher suggested that students might want to go work with their partner somewhere outside the classroom so that they wouldn’t be distracted. Pairs of students headed out to find a comfortable place to work. No need for hall passes or worries about being out of the sight of the teacher. At another point, just after a new class period began, I was still searching for a particular room. I asked a student (who was about to enter a classroom) if she could tell me where to go. “Oh, I’ll walk you there,” she offered. I told her I didn’t want to make her late, and she replied. “It’s no problem. I can just let my teacher know what I was doing.” In nearly every classroom we visited, students were working independently while teachers quietly made their way around the room, checking in and consulting on the work. As we discussed what we were seeing with Colleen Meaney, the Sizer Teachers Center Director and the host for our visit, she noted that “We’re trying to drive inquisitiveness so that we don’t have to do it all. We don’t try to be their personal driver everywhere.” We witnessed this philosophy in practice in classroom after classroom.
At Codman Academy, the connection to the larger community is immediately evident. As we toured the high school building with the Head of School, Thabiti Brown, he described the importance of the school’s partnership with Codman Square Health Center. Then in a matter of a few steps, he had walked us past high school classrooms and the Black Box Theater (an amazing space) right into the waiting area for the community health center, where all students can receive free health, dental, and vision care. The health
center is also one of the places where seniors in good academic standing can intern (on the day we visited, in fact, seniors were out on internships all over the city). Partnerships are not limited to the health center. Codman also collaborates with Huntington Theater. In addition to learning about how theaters work, Thabiti told us, “students also learn about how to inhabit
another’s life and learn about perspective and revision.” Over at the elementary school, art teacher Katie Freiburger told us about the partnership Codman has built with the Museum of Fine Arts. Students are able to visit the museum and even work on projects in the museum’s studio. Down in the K1 classroom, lead teacher, Tasha Harris, is working on bringing in an artist from the Smithsonian as part of their next Expedition (Codman is part of the EL network). Several different staff members related that the school tries hard to provide what much wealthier communities afford their students. Thabiti described the Codman philosophy this way: “What’s getting in the way? Is it a health issue? Is it a learning disability? Do you need glasses? Is it something else? Let’s break down those barriers.”
These communities don’t magically happen; they’re intentionally designed and thoughtfully tended. As adults who want the very best for all students, the onus is on us to keep improving school communities and spaces so that kids want to be there. To that end, these visits were instructive. What do you think schools can do to continually get better? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter @AstraInnovate.
Photos by members of the NAEBE team.