"Advancing the transformation of learning and the media"
Summary: A same-gender cohort of inner-city students responded very favorably to daily reinforcement of high expectations of their academic and leadership potentials. Not only did their grade average and attendance exceed all other cohorts at their school, but also other small high schools at the Jefferson Complex, as well. The all-girl cohort also excelled in school leadership, garnering 5 of 7 elected spots in school government.
After a 12 year segue into college lecturing and secondary administration , I accepted the challenge of teaching English to 9th grade classes in East New York while mentoring this cohort of 21 girls. The precipitating occasion was the founding of a small high school centered upon the themes of the performing arts and the technologies that support them—the Performing Arts and Technology High School-- in a second floor cul-de-sac in the perennially troubled Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York. Many are familiar with the look of the front entrance to Jefferson without ever having visited East New York—it was the still shot that Saturday Night Live always used to depict a horrific inner city high school. The small high schools movement, of which PATHS is part, was meant to transform the likes of Jefferson into safe and viable learning communities.
Notwithstanding the considerable scrutiny under which these new small schools were officially opened by Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, we greeted our 108 new students in September in our corner of the second floor of the somewhat decayed facilities of Old Jeff on Pennsylvania Avenue.
As a member of our tiny English department of two on a faculty of seven teachers, I was assigned two daily sections of language arts and one of social studies. My homeroom class and earlier of my two English classes happened to be a class entirely of females, as they had chosen dance as their performing arts area of concentration, and would travel thus from class to class as a cohort. Fortunately, this was consistent with my own prior experience in the world of the dance, as I had been an administrator for the Paul Taylor Dance Company and also a fund raiser for the Boston Ballet. I had also managed about thirty young actors, including seven principals on Broadway, “triple threats” in shows like “Annie,” “a Chorus Line” and Best Little….in Texas.”
In a prior academic role, as assistant principal of arts and humanities at another small high school, I had fashioned a successful scholar-athlete program in basketball at Acorn Community High School which had transformed a group of 27 behaviorally-challenged young men into a schoolwork- observant championship team
that could boast of beating the number two city team, Benjamin Banniker three times without a defeat. Even more importantly, only 6 boys had to drop off the team for academic infractions. The same-gender aspect of my dancer’s homeroom class was another parallel with the basketball venture at Acorn and it occurred to me that there was great potential for breakthrough-level success by my dancing homeroom cohort.
In the two weeks before homeroom class lists were finalized, a significant number of the girls in “244” as the dancer group was called, were notorious for their emotional outbursts, rebelliousness---attitude issues, in brief. Nonetheless, I felt it possible to build a dual role for these dancer-scholars to aspire to, and to try to use the same-gender aspect of the class to forward their growth and success.
To me, their success would be a function of their ability to see themselves in the duality of artist/student, dancer/scholar. With my experiences in the arts, I was immediately comfortable exhorting “244” to examine and define their goals in dance. Most had never even thought beyond their enjoyment of hip hop, African of ballet to the possibility of mastery or careers in dance. With respect to academics, they were the usual heterogeneous inner city grouping, from the well -above -grade -average to diagnosed special education, from average to ELL, from fascinated to bored. Regardless of their range, they immediately became my “intellectual” class, and they couldn’t convince me otherwise, try as they did. “Mr. O’Reilly, you say that to all your classes, just to make them do better,” was their usual retort. I assured them that this was not the case. My other ELA class became my “most creative,” and my world history class my “most powerful,” to cement the distinctions.
“244” bore my constant exhortations, in fact, allowing me to raise the stakes whenever I felt they were ready: I ratcheted up the encouragement: “You are the brightest class, not only of our little school, but of all the schools in Jefferson (for the record, there were three other small schools within the complex and the large, extant Jefferson High which was being phased out) At a point, I noticed that the girls seemed to suspend disbelief and to begin to “bask” in the glow of the unending heightened expectations of them. Their results in schoolwork and community leadership were nothing less than astonishing.
As reading is the cornerstone of any successful academic undertaking, we created a competition among my two ELA classes (the dancers and the actors.) Its purpose was to assess and to augment individual independent student reading. The game required that each student read and fill out an “annotated bibliography” report on each book they read during the first half year. When the final results were in, my dancers had read an average of 10 books per student, while my actors read an average of 9. I rewarded them both with a well-deserved Chinese Food Feast in December.
Amazingly, my dancers ranked first in grade average and overall attendance after the first term among all four student cohorts at our school, just as we had targeted! Moreover, when data was compared among all four new small high schools at Jefferson, our school was the documented leader. That meant that the dancer/scholars of “244” were the best and brightest of all the small high schools, just as I had expected of them.
As leaders, my homeroom was no less impressive, garnering 5 of 7 elected spots in student government at the school.
My other ELA class of actors, “most creative” as you may recall, while somewhat less the academics than my homeroom, nevertheless responded with an outpouring of student-written and performed plays on teen problems which were performed at gatherings of the PTO to great acclaim. The actors cohort also wrote and published the school’s first newsletter, the first issue of which centered on point-of-view stories on the Tsunami disaster in South Asia.
In the second term all my English students tackled the writing of 25-page novellas, black history month projects which included the performance of dramatic monologues in the persona of important figures in black history. In a cross-curricular spirit in the spring, all of my students wrote science research papers to help to offset the challenge of constantly seeing our science teachers (4) leave staff. Many were orally presented to their classes and also received a showcasing in the immense display boards outside my classroom.