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Charter-district school tours kick off with lessons in creativity

The first round of school tours hosted by a group promoting collaboration between the city’s charter and district schools kicked off last week when more than 20 educators visited a high-performing Bronx charter school.

Tuesday’s tour at the Bronx Charter School for Excellence was organized by NYC Collaborates, an initiative that stems from a compact between the Department of Education and more than 85 charter schools to set aside their differences and work together.

“The impetus for the tours … is that there are just not many formal mechanisms for sharing,” said Cara Volpe, who manages NYC Collaborates, part of a national initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. New York became one of nine cities to join the initiative when then-Chancellor Joel Klein signed the foundation’s collaboration compact in 2010.

This month, the group organized four school tours, all in the Bronx. Each has a different theme: Educators will visit KIPP Academy for lessons in character education and the Eagle Academy to learn how new schools can create traditions to build school culture, for example.

Last Tuesday’s tour focused on creativity in the classroom. Sitting in front of blue plastic desks with notepads and pens in their hands, principals, teachers, and other school officials raised their hands to ask questions as they listened to BCSE’s principal, Charlene Reid share tips on how to foster creativity while also achieving strong test scores.

“High-performing charter schools are not synonymous with creativity,” lamented Reid, who said BCSE switched to project-based learning after April’s state tests. “Children need skills but also need to think flexibly.”

The Bronx charter school is thriving after a rocky start. After opening in 2004, the school initially struggled with low test scores and unsteady leadership. After the board brought in Reid in 2007, performance began inching up, and last year, 96 percent of students passed the state’s math exam and 91 percent passed the English test.

One charter school principal, Curtis Palmore, said he specifically signed up to visit Bronx Charter because of the school’s strong reputation. Until last spring, Palmore led a charter school that performed so poorly that it was selected to be taken over by another charter operator, and now he is set to lead a different charter school, Explore Exceed, starting next month.

After the conversation with Reid, teachers on the study tour spread out to observe elementary-grade classes.

“I wanted to come to this [school] because I’m curious about adding creativity to my lessons. I feel like it’s a big problem in charter schools. Often times the achievement gap is prioritized over lessons being creative,” said a first-grade teacher who wanted to be anonymous to avoid identifying her East Harlem charter school.

Soft instrumental music played in the classroom as the teacher crouched down to speak with kindergarteners who were busy coloring. “I want to make my lessons interesting for the kids,” she said.

Reid said she volunteered to host a study tour out of a desire to see charter-district school relations become less polarized.

“The big wedge that drives schools apart is the lack of communication. We are educating the same students,” she said. “I think if we can create more formal ways to communicate and actually work together and collaborate with each other, our co-existence would be more harmonious.”

Most of the educators who signed up for the Bronx tours are from charter schools, despite Volpe’s efforts to raise interest in district schools as well.

“We made sure to get this in the hands of the district schools, which is challenging for sheer communications reasons,” Volpe explained. “We went painstakingly through public information. We pulled every Bronx principal’s email that we could find and then sent them an email and a hard copy” of an announcement.

The handful of district teachers who visited BCSE included Chana Comer, from Baychester Middle School.

“I came here to see what they were incorporating and what their definition of creativity was,” said the sixth-grade science teacher, who added that her principal invited all the teachers at her school to join the school.

Comer said she was impressed with the advice she received at Bronx Charter and emphasized that she doesn’t believe students’ success depends on the type of school they attend.

“I think it really boils down to the administration,” she said. “I think a school is only as good as the administration, whether it’s a public school or a charter school.”

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