First Person

Countdown To ‘Guys and Dolls’ In The South Bronx, Pt. 2

By the end of Part 1 of our 100-day countdown to opening night of “Guys and Dolls” at Bronx Prep, 30 percent of our cast members — including the talented 12th-grader who plays Sky Masterson — are on the verge of being kicked out of the show due to grades, I’m on my way to an expulsion hearing for the 10th-grader who plays Nathan Detroit, and as if there weren’t enough going on, I’m also launching into the second trimester of my second pregnancy.

Cast members of "Guys and Dolls" at South Bronx Prep

Here’s Part 2 of our tumultuous — but ultimately, I hope, inspiring — journey. Stay tuned for next week’s final chapter of our countdown to “Guys and Dolls,” in performance at Bronx Prep May 24-26.

46 days until opening night

The expulsion hearing for the young man who plays Nathan is emotionally devastating. All 10 people in the room are openly weeping pretty much the whole time, including the principal and the head of school, the teachers who have come to testify on the student’s behalf, the student’s mother, and the student himself.

In a heart-rending apology delivered with shaking hands and quavering voice, the young man admits that he’d gone against his instincts and committed an illegal action on a school trip in an effort to impress one of his alpha-dog friends who had challenged him to do something he knew was wrong.

His other teachers and I speak, each one us acknowledging this student’s otherwise stellar record of community service and school spirit. We wrestle with the excruciating clash between the value of zero-tolerance tough-love and the importance of judging young people’s actions with flexibility and nuance.

When the verdict is announced and the young man is asked to clean out his locker, his mother collapses with grief.

I’m late to rehearsal because I can’t stop crying.

44 days until opening night

Set crew members paint the backdrop

The expulsion, one of several stemming from the same incident, has sent shockwaves through the school, and we’ve spent a good part of the last two days packed into the gym in deep conversation as a whole school community.

It feels good to be back here in the now-empty space on a Saturday morning, painting with the set crew. When we leave, there is a sunset stretching across the back wall of the gym’s small stage.

42 days until opening night

Today on my regular D train commute from Brooklyn to the Bronx a teenage boy stands up and offers his seat. I may have officially hit the 3-month-mark on the calendar a few weeks ago, but taking the kid’s seat today is the first time this pregnancy feels fully real. I sit on the train with my hands on my belly, thinking about the mothers of the kids I teach. Soon there will be one more person in the world I care about so much it makes my chest ache.

40 days until opening night

Nathan’s understudy, a magnetic, cheerful, naturally talented 12th-grader who has never been in a musical before, misses his first week of rehearsals with his fellow leads. All week I’ve been livid, threatening to kick him out. Then I find out today that he has been attending the wakes of two friends of his who were shot and killed when a scuffle at a party turned violent last weekend. Having been shot himself in the shoulder earlier in the year — the victim of an unprovoked and unexplained drive-by — he’s not only mourning the loss of his friends but also reliving his own traumatic experience.

I pass him on the street on my way out of rehearsal late this afternoon and ask him if he’s doing OK. He pauses and musters a bone-tired smile. “Not really,” he says. Then he hugs me and says, “I’ll be there on Monday.”

37 days until opening night

Kate and creative co-conspirator, Julia

Today’s Saturday rehearsal offers a momentary glimpse of brightness. While the costume crew sorts colorful clothing, a select group of dancers learns authentic Afro Cuban dance forms from dancer/choreographer Rebecca Bliss. Not only am I proud to infuse the usually-corny Havana scene with movements that come from some of our students’ own cultural traditions, I’m also excited to collaborate with Rebecca, a former fellow high school theater cast member, and now a dear friend.

35 days until opening night

Last night at midnight, third quarter grades were posted. Most of our cast members have gotten their GPA’s up high enough to participate. But despite several weeks of intensive tutoring, support, cajoling, and follow-up, our Sky has missed the mark.

This is a kid I’ve known since he was in fifth grade. He’s extremely bright and has always excelled. I don’t know why he’s given up on himself halfway through his senior year. My instinct is that something complex is going on below the surface, but with all the buzz in the air about accountability — not just in connection with our recent expulsions, but also in the national conversations about test scores, teacher firings and school closings — I feel intense pressure to enforce the grading policy I helped create. I reluctantly gear up to tell this young actor we’ll have to replace him.

Then he walks into rehearsal. His shoulders are slumped and his usually bright eyes are vacant and dim under the brim of the baseball cap he knows he’s not allowed to wear in school.

I agonize for a second. Then my teacher hardwiring kicks in. This kid needs accountability, no doubt, but right now my instinct screams that his need for support comes first. I pull the hat off his head, mentally postpone my final decision for one more day and tell him to open his script.

His first run-through is bland and lifeless. I ask him to do it again. Little by little, the role starts to do its work on him. By the third pass, he’s standing up straighter. His eyes come to life. The lines crackle; the jokes land.

Two hours later, he has completely transformed. His diction is crisp and assured. He holds himself with confidence and poise. There is a swagger in his walk.

Still, we both know there’s an elephant in the room. I send him home and tell him that we’ll need to have a big talk before the end of the week. He nods soberly.

34 days until opening night

Dancers learn mambo and Afro-Cuban salsa

I’ve been up most of the night, partly because the baby was kicking me, but mostly because I’ve been stressing about costumes, re-choreographing the end of the opening scene to replace kids who’ve missed too many rehearsals, and struggling over what to do about Sky.

No rehearsal today. My husband and daughter come with me to my 20-week sonogram.  We find out that we’re expecting a boy.

33 days until opening night

This afternoon, after a mad flurry of emails to his teachers—some of whom are supportive of giving him a second chance, others of whom warn me that I’m being manipulated by a clever young con artist who is more like the slick-talking character he plays than I’m giving him credit for — I give Sky an ultimatum. If he’s willing to dig deep and write a letter that explains the causes of his sudden apathy, takes responsibility for his past actions, and lays out a detailed accountability plan for the rest of the school year, I will let him stay with the cast — provided he follows through on the plan he creates.

I give him a deadline of midnight tonight for the letter.

At 11:47 p.m., his email arrives. The letter attached is well-written, courageous, and heart-felt.

I decide to take the gamble.

Stay tuned for the final installment of this three-part series of posts leading up to opening night of “Guys and Dolls” at Bronx Prep. As always, the students featured in this post agreed to let me share their stories; the views expressed here are my own and not those of my school’s administration.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.