“Alternative High”: Raising the Bar on Public Education

Graduation cap(Image: Graduation cap via Shutterstock)Brittany, an 18-year-old senior at the Urban Academy Laboratory High School in Manhattan, is sitting in a room with three teachers and a scientist unaffiliated with the school. She looks and sounds confident as she describes an aroma chemistry experiment that she recently completed.

“I was interested in learning how the ratio of ethanol and water impacts the scent, color and consistency of a frankincense extract,” she begins. She then explains her methods – the measurements, the movement of substances from vial to vial, the evaporation and distillation processes. This is followed by questions and it is quickly evident that Brittany understands the scientific method. Her openness, poise and maturity are impressive. “I got results I did not expect,” she admits. She then zooms in on a possible glitch. “I should have used purified or distilled water rather than tap water since there may have been contaminants in the tap water. Next time, I will know that.”

After her presentation, the committee reviews her write-up of the experiment – complete with numerous charts and graphs – and several revisions are suggested. “You need to add the ‘why,'” one teacher recommends. “Is there some bigger meaning to your study? That is, beyond just learning the subject, is this information important for other people?”

Brittany’s hands move rapidly as she jots down her assessors’ ideas and she leaves the room as soon as the meeting is over. She then sits at a computer and starts to input changes. But the typing does not suppress her joy: She is grinning from ear to ear, visibly proud of her successful defense and the critical reception it received.

Were you nervous? I ask. “No, I’m used to speaking in public and defending my ideas,” she says. “That was my sixth defense. I completed my math, literature, creative arts, social studies and criticism defenses earlier.”

Brittany has attended the publicly funded Urban Academy for two and a half years, and will be enrolling in Bard College this fall. Her intended major? “Maybe psychology. Or art. Or one of the sciences.”

Like most of her peers at Urban Academy, Brittany transferred into the school after a bad experience at a traditional high school and says that despite a rigorous admission process – an in-person interview, an essay, several diagnostic tests and a requirement that she sit in on several classes to make sure that the school was a good fit – she is glad she made the switch. “I started at a huge school in Brooklyn with 4,000 students,” she says. “It was awful. Walking down the halls felt like being on the street. I would see different people every day. I need teachers who know me, know my name and are able to give me and my peers some personal attention. I did not get that at my first school and dropped out.” Moving to Urban Academy made a huge difference, she continues, not only in allowing her the freedom to decide what to research, but also in allowing her to sidestep standardized tests in favor of alternative assessments.

These days, such an approach is extremely rare and flies in the face of policies that favor rote memorization and near-constant standardized exams to measure learning. Ann Cook, one of the founders of Urban Academy, has long resisted one-size-fits-all assessments that have become dominant and, along with her colleagues, has persuaded the New York State Board of Regents to grant a variance to a group of New York State public high schools that use rigorous performance-based assessments to replace four of five high-stakes tests required for graduation. The New York Performance Standards Consortium’s approach favors inquiry-based teaching and learning, depth over coverage, extensive professional development and the use of external assessors. “We believe curriculum and instruction should drive assessment and not the other way around,” Cook told Truthout. “Our system fosters a high degree of student engagement and produces work that the students care about and take ownership of.”

Avram Barlowe has taught history at the school since its founding nearly three decades ago. “When we started out in the 1980s, we were just a morning program, a laboratory school, and students from different high schools in the five boroughs would come to us for a half day and then return to their regular schools in the afternoon,” he says. “Ultimately, the place became so dynamic that it became an actual school, the Urban Academy, in 1986.” Barlowe says the school’s founders understood that it was not enough to create a challenging curriculum; an assessment system also needed to be in place to protect the institution from criticism that it was lax. Later, as other schools began to mimic the Urban Academy model, faculty and administrators from these “alternative schools” formed the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The consortium now includes nearly 50 schools.

While critics lambaste consortium schools because they do not offer sweeping survey classes – more traditional educators argue that the group’s more focused approach leads to major knowledge gaps in history, mathematics and the sciences – Cook and Barlowe remain convinced that their approach gives students the tools they need to be lifelong learners.

Creating Rubrics for Assessing Student Mastery of Key Subject Areas

Moreover, the group – now headed by Ann Cook – of principals and teachers have a place to share information, discuss strategies for best practices and develop new rubrics for assessing student proficiency.

“At Urban Academy and other consortium schools, regardless of the subject areas students are studying, they needs to do original, analytic research on something that is of interest to them,” Barlowe explains. “For example, I teach a year-long Civil War and Reconstruction class and students get inspired to delve more deeply into some of the subjects we touch on. They have done papers on who is responsible for ending legal slavery in the US; how to assess John Brown as an historical figure; how to evaluate the Emancipation Proclamation; and why slavery was finally ended. The material we cover in class can factor into the final paper, but each student has to do independent research. They have to support a viewpoint and critique other arguments. They also have to do revisions. This paper is considered a prerequisite for their social studies proficiency project.”

It goes without saying that Urban Academy takes the idea of proficiency seriously and the student handbook underscores the rigor that is expected: “The proficiencies are projects – such as papers, exhibits, presentations and experiments – that allow students to demonstrate their abilities to use the skills they have developed in their courses. Proficiencies ensure that Urban Academy graduates are well educated, and have achieved a depth of academic experience during their high school career. They require persistence as well as competence. These proficiencies all require work over an extended period of time, sometimes a year or more. In addition, students are required to document their progress every semester in the following proficiency areas: Community Service, Urban Academy community contribution, class participation and reading.”

Ezra, 17, says that he spent a year writing an analytical paper about the impact of setting on the characters in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, something he enjoyed. But even better was his creative arts project. “Everyone has to do an arts proficiency. Some people write a play or short story or create a piece of art or take a series of photos. I made a seven-minute narrative film, thanks to the school’s in-house editing software, about a high school boy whose girlfriend is cheating on him with his best friend.”

Ezra’s interest in filmmaking got a huge jump-start, he adds, thanks to an internship at a nonprofit education organization called Downtown Community Television; all Urban Academy students are required to volunteer in hospitals, nursing homes, galleries, museums or community agencies one half day per week. “While I was at DCTV, I worked on a documentary about people who are forced into homelessness by poverty compared to people who are part of the freegan movement and basically choose to be homeless,” he says. “It was a great experience. I now hope to study film when I get to Wesleyan University in the fall.”

This happy ending, he adds, might not have happened had he stayed in his original high school. “I started at this really big, impersonal high school. For the first three weeks, my teachers didn’t know my name. I started to cut classes and developed some really bad habits because no one seemed to care if I was there or not. Plus, the work was monotonous. Now I know my teachers, and they know me. At my first school, everyone was treated as if they were exactly the same.”

Both Ezra and Brittany credit the individualized attention they’re received at Urban Academy for getting them back on track. And they’re not anomalies. In fact, schools that are part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium report a 9.9 percent dropout rate, compared to a citywide average of 19.3 percent. What’s more, it’s worth noting that students at these schools excel despite poverty and language and developmental deficits; 60.7 percent of the students enrolled in consortium schools qualify for free lunches, nearly 10 percent are English language learners and 12 percent are in need of special services due to disability.

More Than 90 Percent of Graduates Will Attend College

That said, more than 90 percent of consortium students opt to continue their education – and most finish. At Urban Academy, a bulletin board offers scholarship information and lists the colleges that have accepted this year’s graduating seniors: Bard, Columbia, Drew, Earlham, Eugene Lang, Goucher, Hampshire, Lehman, Oberlin, the State University of New York and Wesleyan – this, despite ongoing financial worries that continually undermine the school’s ability to plan programs and events. It’s an impressive roster, homage to both the tenacious students who attend the school and the 15 teachers and one administrator who have mentored them.

Renowned teacher and scholar Henry Giroux has said that “critical educators, in concert with concerned citizens, need to raise the bar so as to demand modes of education in which teachers are knowledgeable and reflexive, function as agents of civic education, and create pedagogies that are provocative and illuminating in their ability to get students to come to terms with their own power as individuals and social agents.”

Schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium, like the Urban Academy, have done this in spades, and students who attend these often-small programs know that they are lucky to have been admitted. “The teachers at Urban Academy are always willing to help you and you never feel as if you are completely on your own,” says Brittany, the graduating senior. “They make the classes interesting and fun. My constitutional law class went to DC to see the Supreme Court discuss a case about Miranda rights. It was really amazing.”