How One NYC School “Does School Differently.”

(Photo credits to Finlay Mackay)

On March 15, 2019, Springpoint, whose mission is to enable all students, regardless of environment or background, to succeed in high school, college, and beyond, held a dinner to celebrate the Opportunity by Design initiative.

Launched in 2013 and catalyzed by a challenge paper from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Opportunity by Design aims to leverage 10 integrated school design principles as a way to help districts and networks design and open new high schools that prepare all students for the type of postsecondary learning necessary for the global economy. Since its launch, Opportunity by Design has resulted in 16 new high schools nationwide, which will serve over 6,000 students at capacity.

One of those schools is Urban Assembly Maker Academy, a New York City Department of Ed Educational Option (Ed Opt) school. We spoke to Principal Luke Bauer about how they “do school differently.”

We do school differently in a couple of different ways. We’re a full mastery-based school. We figure out what are the skills and content — we call them standards — we think kids should be able to master by the end of the year. From there, we create a series of performance tasks which give students the opportunity to demonstrate that they know those standards. Teachers pull those apart into specific skills, different learning targets that we sequence into benchmarks.

One of our first Algebra projects is called “Joy to the World.” Students are given a question: What factors contribute to happiness? They are examining different data sets, learning how to do things like lines of regression and creating linear equations. The same skills you would learn in any algebra class, but through a more authentic context.

We’re working toward being more interdisciplinary. When teachers accidentally stumble into doing something interdisciplinary, they find the kids are much more excited. We’re thinking, what if next year every course had at least one interdisciplinary unit where two teachers are working together to co-create and co-teach those untils, as opposed to doing siloed classes.

Our CTE (Career Technical Education) pathways is another aspect of our school. Our students take a sequence of courses in either computer science or digital media. One of the coolest things they do in Year Three is learn how a website like Pandora or Amazon know what you like? There’s a lot of computer code that goes into doing that and a lot of jobs that require people to know how to program that. They basically build their own version of Pandora.

We’re putting a lot of resources into partnerships, which we know is the most powerful thing about CTE programs. It’s not a sticker on a diploma, it’s about giving kids the opportunity to interact with our partners, even in a mock setting.

Our students wrote cover letters and resumes and applied to Amazon. We had some visitors come to give feedback. The woman literally looked at the cover letter for two seconds and just passed it back. She said, ‘You would be turned away based off the grammar in this first sentence.”

The kid was like, “Oh, my God, all the things my teachers tell me are real!”

We have a partnership with Intersection, they’re the ones that made those kiosks where you can charge your phones with the fun facts on them. We’ve had internships at Amplify and Parsons. The one that I’m the most excited about is called Stacks and Joules. They realized that in any building anywhere, all the lights are run on automation, which is run off a code. Companies like General Electric can’t find people for those jobs. S&J can train kids and get them into the middle class, which is ultimately my goal.

My judgment of my success will be, four years after each graduating class, what percentage of these kids is in the middle-class? I don’t care if that’s with a college degree or without. 100 perceent of our kids apply to college, but times are different.  What’s required from entry level employees is different. We have to figure that out.

We’re an Ed Opt school. We figure out what each student’s academic level is, not just going off a 7th grade test score. We use DRP, which is a reading assessment. We think literacy is the key to success. Urban Assembly has done great research showing that every single Regents, even math, is directly aligned to your reading level. We don’t have an individualized solution for every child. Our teachers will do things like modify a text. We might have three versions of a text. The kids are reading texts on their grade level, even if they’re multiple years behind. That’s how we think kids can get caught up. We do everything we can to get kids reading, writing, talking, and reading some more. We give that assessment three times a year to gauge how successful we are being.

We start with a foundations class, which is a year-long class. It’s an introduction to Computer Science and Digital Media. We have projects where kids start with color theory and they put that onto a website that they build out over the course of a year. This gives them just enough introduction into block-based coding to figure out which path they’re interested in going down, digital media where you take some courses in animation and Design Studio and work in Adobe, or do you want to go into game design, video game programming and physical computing, where they’re building circuits and sensors to turn lights on and off.

A kid that would do well at our school is a kid who’s aware that we’re doing computer science and design. We still get kids through the DOE admissions process who are like, “Oh, no, computers! I don’t like computers!” It’s not a deal-breaker, but your baseline should be you’re excited about computers. We’re trying to get the word out to guidance counselors that we’re not a “tech” school. That word brings about a lot of emotions. We call ourselves a design school. Whether you’re designing in a computer science classroom or designing in Photoshop, that’s what you’re doing.

We believe that people — not just kids, but also adults, you, me — learn by having an authentic challenge and finding the tools and resources, often with some support and working collaboratively, to come up with a solution.

Generally, the first solution will be really terrible. But we continue to work on that. We try to make that happen at all levels. With the principal, with the way we run professional development, and with the way our kids learn.

What do you think?

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