First Person

“Guys and Dolls” in the South Bronx: Learning To See The (Real) Value Of Arts Education

A few days ago I got an email that changed everything.

The cast of “Guys and Dolls” take their bows

It’s been a full month — and a seemingly endless succession of graduations, end-of-the-year recitals, awards ceremonies and fundraising benefits — since the kids I teach in the South Bronx put on our school’s annual spring musical, the 1950’s classic, “Guys and Dolls.” This year’s rehearsal process served up an especially overwhelming array of challenges and behind-the-scenes mayhem, all intensified by the parallel unfolding of my second pregnancy. (In case you missed them, here are Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of our 100-day countdown to opening night.)

“Well, OK…” you might be wondering, “So, after all of that dramatic build-up … how did the actual show go? (And why has it taken you so darn long to write about it?)”

Well, if you had asked me last week, before the email arrived, I might have heaved an exhausted sigh and launched into what, in the end, would’ve amounted to a sob story.

For starters, I would’ve told you that due to insane scheduling conflicts, our opening night performance was the first time we’d ever had the whole cast together, so it ran more like a dress rehearsal than an actual show, with huge chunks of missed dialogue, brutally slow pacing, and countless costume and prop malfunctions.

I’d have gone on to tell you that the following night’s performance, despite big improvements in overall energy, was still plagued by major problems, not the least of which was a case of vocal strain so intense for one of our male leads that by the second act he could barely talk, let alone sing.

And then I would have hit you with the real zinger and told you that 15 minutes before the sold-out crowd came in on closing night — after the vocally-challenged male lead had been given a cortisone shot in the neck by the only voice specialist in Manhattan willing to treat a young man from the South Bronx with no insurance on a last-minute, walk-in basis, and I was finally letting out a sigh of relief, thinking we were poised to redeem ourselves by putting on the show of our lives — the lighting designer raced up to me breathless and panicked to tell me that the dimmer rack had  blown out and that 85 percent of the lights were now not working at all.

Then I might have told you that when I emerged from the utility closet two minutes later (following a brief but violent explosion of all the built-up tears I’d managed to hold at bay over the preceding four months) I found that the leader of our set crew had transformed a hastily-assembled army of crew kids into an impromptu lighting team who would now have to operate the dimmer rack manually from backstage, each one of them sticking a finger into one of the switches and pressing down hard to recreate some semblance of the original lighting design for each scene, which, though it didn’t yield foolproof results — (halfway through Act II the lights started flickering because Shakeel’s hands went into muscle spasms and he couldn’t keep pressure on his switch) — nevertheless got us through the show.

At this point, I would have confessed to you that by the time the kids took their bows on closing night, jumping and dancing and beaming with pride, all I wanted to do was go home and fall down.

I would have acknowledged that although I put on a brave face over the next few weeks while the students happily reminisced about their accomplishments, I was still internally obsessing over everything that had gone wrong.

In the end, I would have admitted that for the longest time, even the simple act of sitting down to write this blog post felt so physically overwhelming to me that for weeks I haven’t been able to force myself to chronicle what — despite objective signs of positive outcomes and reminders from supportive friends and family that this work is about process not product — still felt to me like a disappointment.

Eighth-grade dancers light up the Havana scene

But if you asked me right now, at this moment, I would have a very different answer for you — all because of a simple email from our photographer that finally allowed me to pull back and catch a glimpse of what we had created from an objective outsider’s perspective.

12th grader Melanie as “Sarah Brown” sings her heart out

The change happened immediately, as soon as I opened the email and clicked the link to the gallery of photos. I moved through the images, my heart started racing, and click after click, I felt the weight and exhaustion of the last six months loosen their grip and spiral off me, leaving a fresh new feeling of excitement in their place.

10th-grader Norberto entertains as “Nicely Nicely Johnson”

I clicked faster, image after image, amazed at the force of this unexpected perspective-shift, flooded with waves of satisfaction and pride …

Because, yes, there may have been lighting problems …

“Adelaide” (12th-grader Brianne) makes her grand entrance

Click.

And yes, there was the cortisone shot, and the crazy scheduling …

Click. Click.

Not to mention the expulsion hearings …

“Adelaide” and her “Hot Box” dancers

The kids crying after being kicked out of the show due to failing grades …

12th-grader Marcus in his stage debut as “Arvide”

The late nights agonizing over whether my decision to give the actor playing Sky another chance had motivated a struggling student to get his grades up and graduate, or taught a slick kid that he could game the system …

Click. Click. Click.

11th grader George, as “Benny Southstreet,” strikes a pose
11th grader George, as “Benny Southstreet,” strikes a pose
The guys fly high in “Crapshooter’s Dance”

Yes, there were actors who missed rehearsals because they got jumped in the park …

Because they had to visit family members in prison …

Because their mothers had to work and no one else could look after their siblings …

Because two of their friends were shot and killed at a party on a Saturday night …

Fifth- and sixth-grade future stars wave to their fans

Click.

All of these things are true.

And yet …

Looking at these photographs …

Those truths receded and made room for me to step back, really see at what we accomplished, and remember why we started this program in the first place.

When I look at these pictures …

I see integrity.

I see determination.

Most of all, I see joy.

And last Friday afternoon, after I showed the kids a full slideshow of photographs at our end-of-year wrap-up celebration, I was forced to shift my perspective even further. I found myself surrounded by a roomful of engaged, inspired young people who, even after a long and draining year, were chomping at the bit to get started on summer programming, research shows for next year, and step into leadership roles when I go on maternity leave in the fall.

Listening to them speak about what they had learned from putting on the show, I got a fresh outlook on a process whose value — I can now see clearly — undeniably transcends all of the frustration, heartbreak and exhaustion it may have entailed.

Thomas Sosa, an 11th-grader who before this year had never been in a play before, summed it up well.

“I think the biggest thing I learned this year is that faith in your work goes a really long way,” he said, “especially when there are major challenges you have to overcome to get to that end product.”

Amen, Thomas Sosa.

After a year that tested my faith as an educator in countless ways, I’m beyond grateful to be wrapping up the year on that note.

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.

Special thanks to my dear friend, photographer/videographer extraordinaire, Alejandro Duran (all photo credits).

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.