November 27, 2012
This post is the fourth in a series about opening a new school, Harvest Collegiate High School. In previous posts, I offered three different answers for why I decided to help start the school. This piece deals with what exactly I am helping to build from the ground up.
When I meet educators from across the country and tell them about my new school, they ask one question more than any other: “What is new and innovative about Harvest?” I am increasingly comfortable and proud of the following answer: absolutely nothing.
Or, perhaps, Isaac Newton’s line is most apt: “If [we] have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
At Harvest Collegiate High School, we are taking the best elements of many other schools. We are a traditional school, but our tradition is one of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Ted Sizer, and Deborah Meier, educators with a decidedly nontraditional outlook. We are taking the lessons our staff learned while working at wonderful schools in New York City and elsewhere — including East Side Community High School, Humanities Prep, The Met, Bronx Lab School, the Academy for Young Writers, and The Facing History School — as well as inspiration from other members of the Coalition of Essential Schools, particularly Urban Academy, the Parker School, and Wildwood School.
We are different from many other new schools in the city in that we do not have a career focus or theme for our school beyond helping students develop intellectually and as complete human beings. Our students will go through cycles of inquiry to construct meaning and take action in the world. Our aim is for students to be reflective producers, rather than simply consumers. We aspire to being, and to contributing creatively to, a “sane society,” one of peace, growth, even joy. We believe all young people flourish in conditions that challenge and support, so in our commitment to excellence through diversity and equity, we aim to serve the varied students of the city.
Making up our school’s spine are seven “Habits of Mind and Heart,” which are a common language of assessment and striving inspired by Meier’s Central Park East, among others. We hope it will become second nature for our students to consider multiple Perspectives, support their own with Evidence, make Connections, and express all of this in a distinct Voice. In doing so, we aim for students to develop the Habits of Responsibility, Creative Contribution, and Curiosity.
As at Urban Academy and Humanities Prep, the majority of our classes will contain students from multiple grades. Not only does research show that this structure benefits all students’ learning, but it also allows us to offer choices from a variety of themed courses in English, history, and science, not to mention electives. While at first glance multi-grade classes might sound radical, most “grades” in city schools are already multi-age — my freshmen range in age from 13 to 16 — filled with a tremendous range of abilities.
Each student will be part of a small advisory that is his or her socio-emotional home at our school. Our expectations for advisers are most directly inspired by East Side Community High School, though our focus on physical and mental health throughout all four years of advisory might be unique.
Like many schools, including Bronx Lab, we will stop classes in the middle of the year for students to take a single course for one or two weeks, allowing students to explore in-depth opportunities not typically present in the curriculum. Courses in our January Intensive this year are likely to include producing a play, preparing for mock trial competition, understanding the role of sports in our society, and looking intensively at current American politics — a course that will culminate in a trip to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration.
Our staff culture is one of consensus decision-making and constant reflection. While the use of “data” in education has been given a bad name lately, we believe that the problem with data-driven instruction has been that good data have not been available. So we developed our own Benchmark Performance Assessments to track students’ growth in each discipline over their four years with us. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Academy of Young Writers for their assessment system, from which we drew inspiration.
Are we idealistic and ambitious? Of course. Do we expect a pure implementation where everything just works? Certainly not. At the same time, our staff possess a humility, a rootedness in the work of those who came before us, and a wealth of experience not only in the implementation of similar programs, but also in the implementation of the very same programs, that together give me tremendous hope and faith for our success.