rapper's delight

They might have 99 problems, but Regents prep ain't one

New Design High School social studies teacher Tad Donozo, right, helps coach 11th grade U.S. history students for next week's Regents exam.
New Design High School social studies teacher Tad Donozo, right, helps coach 11th grade U.S. history students for next week

It was exactly a week before juniors at New Design High School would sit for their American History Regents exam, but you might not know it from the hip-hop beats emanating from a stereo at the front of the class.

But you’d know by listening to the song’s lyrics, which discussed essay-writing strategy.

And after the song ended, one student kept going. “Don’t just describe — analyze,” he rapped. “Write what you mean, discuss the theme.”

The class was in the midst of reviewing the U.S. History Regents curriculum using a pilot program called Fresh Prep, which wrote its own hip-hop songs to help students remember facts, concepts and test-taking strategies.

The program’s creators are trying to prove that music and arts can help boost student test scores in core subjects like history and English. They’ve already seen some success: When they ran the program on a smaller scale last year, the vast majority of students passed their exams.

Listen to one of Fresh Prep’s U.S. History Regents songs, “Turn of the Century.” You can listen to all of the program’s songs on its website.

Organizers won’t begin to know until they have this year’s Regents pass rates at New Design, the site of Fresh Prep’s first school-wide pilot. I visited the school the week before students sat for the exam, and we’ll check back when the results are in.

A musical experiment

New Design is a small school co-founded in 2003 by the city and Urban Arts Partnership, a non-profit that runs arts programs in needy schools. The school currently has a 70 percent  four-year graduation rate, which school leaders are hoping to boost.

High school students need to pass five Regents exams with a grade of 65 or higher in order to graduate with a regular diploma. The exams are one of the biggest obstacles to graduation for many New Design students, said Philip Courtney, the head of Urban Arts. Last school year, 66 percent of the school’s students passed the English Regents and around half passed the math and American history exams. Just 39 percent passed the Global History test, commonly regarded as the most difficult.

Last July, New Design and Urban Arts launched Fresh Prep as a remedial program for 30 students preparing to take the Global History Regents exam. All of the students had failed the exam between one and five times before; the average number of times the students had failed the test was three. They spent 12 six-hour days working through through Fresh Prep’s songs and activities.

The day after the program ended, the students sat for the exam. Nearly 80 percent of the students passed, and all of the special education students in the group did.

Another small pilot followed last fall for the English curriculum. This time, hoping to prove a correlation between Fresh Prep and high pass rates, organizers compared the scores of students who prepared with the hip-hop program to a similar group who didn’t. Around 94 percent of the students who had gone through the program passed the exam, compared to half the students who hadn’t used the curriculum to prepare.

The program now has songs and class activities written for the Global History, U.S. History and English exams, and for the first time, all New Design students in those classes went through the program for two weeks before the exams were given. If the students do well, Urban Arts hopes to expand the program to other schools. Organizers also hope to expand the curriculum from its current form as a two-week cram session to something that can be used throughout the year.

Fresh Prep is taking an unusual, data-driven approach to arts in education. Urban Arts is the first arts group to be funded by the Robin Hood foundation, in part because the group was beginning to prove its effectiveness with test scores, Courtney said.

But Scott Conti, New Design’s principal, said that the program helps students with more than just memorizing facts for a one-day test.

“What we’re really packaging to the kids is how to do study skills,” Conti said, explaining that the idea is to help integrate studying into the interests and activities students already have. “You can say ‘study study study,’ but if you package it to them in a way they’ll go for, it’s much better.”

“Music makes you want to”

In addition to the original songs, the prep course also includes activities designed to incorporate the energetic, competitive nature of hip-hop culture, said Tracee Worley, a former teacher at New Design and now a curriculum specialist at Urban Arts. Many of the class activities are game-based, and workbooks reference rapper and actor Will Smith’s 90s-era television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and feature its characters, whom students seemed to recognize even though the show went off the air when they were toddlers.

Students in an American history class at New Design divided into teams for a review contest a week before the test. A student stood with flashcards, describing the terms and concepts they contained without naming them. The rest of the class racked up points for being the first to correctly identify the term.

“People who think that government shouldn’t get involved in business…”
—”Laissez faire!”
“This has to do with Turkey and Greece.”
—”The Truman Doctrine!”

Kashawn Henry, 16, was part of the original group that went through Fresh Prep to pass the Global History Regents exam last summer, and used the program to prepare for the American history exam this year.

“Some of the things catch my ear,” he said. “The fact that it’s music makes you want to listen to it.”

“I’m seeing students really getting into it, studying in the hallway, memorizing the songs,” Worley said. “I think it creates a lighter atmosphere for something that’s incredibly heavy and prone to inducing anxiety.”

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.