It was a Monday morning in the Bronx, and 25 ninth graders, dressed in identical dark black pants and blue polo shirts, some in matching v-neck sweaters, were getting up and moving around their classroom — not because they were disruptive, but because their social studies teacher asked them to.
They were playing a game called “Agree, Disagree,” and they were supposed to make up their minds about statements that the teacher read aloud. Students who agreed with a statement were supposed to walk to one corner. Those who strongly agreed were to walk to a second corner. Those who disagreed or strongly disagreed walked to a third or fourth corner.
“I have one more for you,” said the teacher, Chelsea Katzenberg. “Here it is: ‘People who are born into poverty, and grow up in poverty, will always be poor.’”
Every one of the students walked over to the “disagree” side of the room. Two-thirds crowded the “strongly disagree” corner.
“Why do you disagree that poor people will always be poor?” Katzenberg asked, pushing the kids to back up an opinion, and teaching them how to express their reasoning.
“Because,” said a slight girl with long black hair, “I know I am going to escape.”
She will, if the New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II has anything to say about it. The fourth and latest charter high school from the educational incubator New Visions for Public Schools, its quiet and well-managed hallways are offering a route to college to a cross section of Bronx kids who otherwise could be looking at very long odds indeed.
Their method is to employ techniques common to charter schools — long hours, school uniforms — but also to sharpen skills not often associated with education in America’s poorest places, where the usual goal is to reach a baseline of basic skills. At the New Vision Charter High Schools, the target is to teach higher-order reasoning and critical thinking.
Thus, Monday’s hour-long class also saw Katzenberg reviewing concepts of economics, then instructing the kids to quickly write a first draft of an essay on the question, “How does economic inequality affect the lives of people in the Bronx?” In a recent exercise, her students wrote letters to President Obama, offering suggestions “that would help turn the U.S. into an ideal economy.”
That same Monday, Language Arts teacher Aliyah Hayes went over the steps for a multi-level assignment in which the kids were to interview somebody from their community and write a feature story about him or her. She described how a good interviewer seeks out personal details and strives for candor from the interview subject.
“Anyone know what ‘candor’ means?” she asked.
No one did. So she explained.
A little later, a student named Joseph Perez leaned toward me and asked how to pronounce a word that Hayes had written on the board: “Collage.” He nodded when I gave him the answer, taking it in.
The final paper was due in a month. Having an advance deadline — that was a new concept in itself.
“When you go to college,” said Hayes, “you will get a due date in the future like this, and we want to treat you like you are the college-bound students that we know you are.
“Now why,” she asked, “would it be a bad idea to wait until the last minute?”
A dozen hands shot up. All had a good argument against procrastination.
You would never guess that this is a school in which 30 percent of the students have Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) because of one learning disability or another, or that for 17 percent, English is their second language — a few students having started school in August with virtually no English, just arrived from another country.
Nor would you guess that most of these 9th graders started the year at a fifth-grade reading level or lower. Some were at third-grade level.
The 125 Bronx teenagers who became Hum II’s inaugural class were chosen by lottery from about 500 applicants. They did not constitute a student body of the gifted or the extraordinarily well-behaved. Far from it.
“The demographics of our student body match the demographics of this area of the Bronx,” said chief operating officer Pamela Fairclough — with the possible exception that these were all students whose parents thought strongly enough about the importance of education to fill out the application.
How do you make a school get extraordinary results from a student body that’s as ordinary as its general neighborhood?
“Good curriculum,” said principal Richard Gonzalez.
That means “making [school] accessible, making it understandable and based on the real world.”
“And we do a lot of culture-building,” continued Gonzalez, whose jaunty bow tie and cufflinks send a daily signal that becoming educated is worth dressing up for, and who refers to his students, when speaking to them, as “scholars.”
“On the very first day, I got up in front of them and said, ‘You are all graduating in four years. I’ll be standing up here, shaking your hands and handing out diplomas.’”
That would be quite an achievement, given the starting point. Last summer, planning for the school’s first year, Gonzalez and his teachers realized that the incoming students’ reading levels were generally so low that extra measures were called for: every student would be required to take remedial reading and math, in addition to the usual 9th-grade material.
In two of the students’ five daily classes, there is a second teacher whose job is largely to give added support to students most needing to catch up.
At the same time that the students are playing catchup on basic skills of math and reading, they’re leapfrogging forward on sophisticated concepts. Economics, for instance, isn’t usually taught until 10th or 11th grade in New York schools. But Katzenberg is teaching her 9th graders “how to think about economic problems.”
She is a first-year teacher, fresh from Vassar College and Columbia University’s Teachers College. “I knew it would be a lot of work, coming into a brand-new school,” she said. “But I really do love it.”
On the day I observed her, she seemed to pour boundless energy into her class, never lecturing but always leading another activity: the Four Corners game, or a reading passage followed by quick questions and oral answers, or a speed-writing assignment as a warmup to a more formal paper to come. Her students didn’t sit and listen; they did things.
“I never used to like Social Studies, but now I’m getting straight As” said Emily Cacho, 14. “I really work hard to get my grades up. My whole life has been based on working hard. Both my parents” — immigrants from Honduras — “have had to struggle, and they came to New York and they are my inspiration.”
Ms. Cacho wants to be a pediatrician, the first doctor from her family, and show people “they can do anything they want so long as they put their minds to it.”
Is it working? Gonzalez said the students seem to be on track to meet the Regents exam standards by the end of the year. But to really see where they’re at, and to make sure the school’s philosophy is working, he planned to test the students in math and reading at the end of the February — giving them the same test they took in the summer, to see if there’s any growth. No one mandated the test. It was Gonzalez’ idea. If the school isn’t producing the results that everybody wants, he said, he wants to know it.
He has made another daring decision. He plans to tell the kids what the tests show about their reading and math levels. He doesn’t want them to wind up like so many thousands of college students who arrive on campuses with exaggerated ideas of their abilities because they scored well in their high school, only to find that compared with the larger world, they’re way behind.
Gonzalez’s boss, Richard Chaluisan, said the principal is absolutely correct to level with the kids about their shortcomings, a frankness that might have been avoided in earlier decades for fear of damaging students’ self-esteem.
“He’s straight up with them,” said Chaluisan, New Vision’s vice president for charters. “He’s saying, ‘This is where you need to get to. We’re going to work with you. And you’re not leaving.’”
The school’s over-arching philosophy reflects Chaluisan’s belief in challenge based learning, an approach which presumes that, in this age of easy access to information, it’s far more important for students to learn, judge and assess different pieces of information, and to solve real-world problems, than to regurgitate facts.
“For me, the big question is, ‘How do you constantly get kids to be thinking?’,” Chaluisan said. “They should be tired because they’re thinking.”
Next year, Hum II, as the school is called, will add a new freshman class. The following year, another, and so on until it becomes a full four-year school.
The conventional wisdom holds that if a kid has a serious deficit in reading or math, you dumb down the coursework.
Put Gonzalez and his staff at Hum II in the “strongly disagree” corner.
“Just because you lack a basic skill doesn’t mean you can’t conceptualize,” the principal said.
“Your vocabulary may be low and your fluency may be low because you don’t read enough or you didn’t have reading material in your house — and you need to read a lot to have those skills — but that doesn’t affect your ability to come up with ideas or participate in a class discussion.”
Story and photos by Howard Goodman