First Person

The New Kid

This piece originally appeared in Represent magazine and is reprinted in collaboration with Youth Communication.

“School is right around the corner,” my aunt said on an unusually chilly August day two summers ago. She tried to sound casual, but I could hear the slight urgency in her voice.

“So?” I replied.

“So, shouldn’t you be registering or something? It’s up to you to take charge and get things done.”

I hadn’t been to a “regular” high school in almost two years. Instead, I’d been going to the small high school at a residential treatment facility upstate, which had few students and a lot of help from the teachers. But now, after moving from the RTF to my aunt’s house in Brooklyn, I was headed to a new high school, probably a bigger school where I wouldn’t know a single person.

I assumed my aunt or another adult would take the initiative and find a school for me. I’d become pretty reliant on someone else taking control since, in the RTF, adults made the majority of decisions for me. It made me uneasy to realize that finding a school was up to me. For the first time in a while, I was making a big decision on my own. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was just one of the many lessons in “self-empowerment” I was about to face.

Self-empowerment means gaining the strength or power to do something on your own; taking control of your own destiny. It’s especially important to youth in foster care because we struggle through more than the average teenager. Moving to different foster homes; dealing with pain, hurt, and frustration; and navigating life without much family support are all things that most foster kids go through. Since we don’t have as much of a support system as most kids, we have to feel empowered to make a lot of life decisions on our own.

Searching for a School

With that in mind, I began browsing the High School Directory book, where more than 400 New York City high schools are listed. (New York City allows students to apply to any public high school in the city, although some schools have requirements that limit who is accepted.) I narrowed down my choices to five schools and asked for some advice from a trusted adult who knows a lot about local schools. He said I should visit a few schools to make sure I chose the one that suited me best.

I visited two big high schools first, but I didn’t like either one because both had more than 1,000 students. I realized that part of making good decisions is knowing myself and knowing what kind of environment would work for me. A huge school might feel overwhelming to me. My next stop was Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School.

I felt optimistic about BCAM because the school had only around 300 students and it had a theater program — both things I wanted in a school. However, when I visited I got a bad gut feeling. The setting was plain, with no murals or collages on the walls. What I did see on the walls were two roaches. I thought that was straight nasty. I wanted to run around the corner to catch the nearest train.

I thought I had seen the worst of it, but then the parent coordinator looked at me and bluntly said, “You’re going to behave now, right, Mr. Turner? No problems, no acting out or anything of that nature?” I blinked at the lady. I hadn’t even said anything, and I felt like I was already being judged as a delinquent? I felt like she’d instantly labeled me.

“No, I won’t act up,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

“Good. I don’t want any people misbehaving.” Then she muttered, “There are enough rowdy clowns here.” She left me slightly shuddering.

After that, a student who worked as a teacher’s assistant gave me a tour. I hadn’t even gone 10 steps before I heard a loud, threatening voice say, “Yo! Little boy! Come over here. I’m talking to you, little n-gga!” I was ready to turn right back around and punch his face in, but I just ignored him. I’d been kicked out of one school already for making a verbal threat (one of the reasons I’d been in an RTF to begin with) and I wasn’t ready to get kicked out of another before the first day.

Although I was definitely getting negative vibes, I still wanted to give it a shot. I met my guidance counselor and some of the teachers, and they were warm and welcoming. The teachers were talking excitedly and they seemed sincerely happy about starting a new year. “This school won’t be that bad. Maybe I can do this,” I told myself. With that, I enrolled at BCAM. I was proud that I’d taken on the responsibility of choosing a school and that I’d made my own decision.

First-Day Disappointments

On the first day, I woke up with a sudden burst of energy. I wanted everything to be perfect. I brushed my teeth longer than usual, put on a little cologne, and ironed my pants and shirt three times. I was happy about a fresh start in school and I expected everyone to share in my enthusiasm.

I wanted to become a social icon, the kid everyone knew and loved. I could imagine the scene already: I would walk into class with everyone smiling at me. I would go through the halls, getting a lot of daps from my boys and hugs from the ladies. But when I walked into the building that first day, I realized maybe my hopes were too high.

The school, although small, was intimidating. The other students were guarded and didn’t bother to make me feel welcome, even when I initiated a conversation.

“Do you like it here?” I casually asked one kid.

“It’s all right,” he answered, and the conversation was over.

“Is your commute long?” I asked a girl.

“Sometimes it’s long,” she answered.

Every time I tried, that’s how it went. Their two- or three-word answers instantly dampened my mood. It didn’t get much better on the second or third day, and I was discouraged. I didn’t think I should have to go out of my way to say “hi” when I was the new person. I thought the students who had been in the school since 9th grade should open themselves up more and converse freely.

Instead of being the social icon I’d hoped to be, I felt like a loner and an outcast. (If you’ve ever been the “new kid,” you know what I’m talking about.) Walking the crowded halls felt like walking through a maze that never ended. And there was clearly a social order that I was not part of.

As I shoved my way through the sea of students, I saw the popular kids with their fancy designer outfits and it seemed like they had bulletproof confidence. While all these “popular kids” spread out everywhere during lunch, laughing and having a good time, the kids who were considered “lames” or “virgins” were forced to sit in a small unpleasant area near the garbage.

The “virgins” and “lames” walked cautiously with their heads down, and their voices didn’t sound too confident. I think it was this atmosphere that made kids unwilling to put themselves out there by saying “hi” to the new kid.

Showing Off?

I hoped that at least my classes would be good. At first I was really hype about my science class. I raised my hand a lot — until I realized my peers thought I was showing off.

“You trying to act smart now, boy?” said one guy.

“He just trying to show off,” a girl added, smacking her gum loudly. I didn’t know how to feel. I wasn’t trying to show off; I was just enthusiastic about learning. Was that so bad?

I realized that the other kids didn’t raise their hands much at all. It seemed like even the really smart kids “dumbed down,” and made fun of people who applied themselves. I stopped raising my hand as much and started fooling around in class. It was stupid to follow others, I know, but I wanted to blend in.

For the first three months, I found that I constantly wanted to transfer. I tried to convince myself that I was overreacting, but the school just didn’t feel inviting and I didn’t know how to change my situation. I had worked hard to find a school that seemed right for me, and I was upset to realize that it was going to take time and energy to find a social group that worked for me, too.

I decided to get involved in activities I liked, where I might meet people like me who were open and friendly. I tried joining the basketball team, but I wasn’t good enough. I tried to volunteer as a tutor, but they told me I hadn’t been in the school long enough to tutor anyone. I joined the newspaper club, but almost no one attended the meetings.

When I realized no one came to the newspaper meetings I felt somewhat hopeless. It obviously wasn’t the end of the world, but it was disappointing that writing, one of my favorite things to do, was an extracurricular activity that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy in school. I still felt driven — I thought there must be some club or activity for me to join — but I also felt a tinge of doubt after trying out so many clubs already. I still wasn’t part of things the way I wanted to be and it felt lonely.

Try, Try Again

It took time and persistence, but I did eventually find some groups that I liked: I’m now involved in yearbook and a college-readiness program called College Now. I grew fond of some of the kids in those groups and we started to hang out.

Eventually, I also gave up on becoming a social icon. I realized that it was an entertaining yet unrealistic expectation. And it wasn’t really me, anyway. I prefer to spend my time with a few close friends rather than having 20 acquaintances that I small-talk with.

Realizing this helped me clearly identify the people I like to hang with and who I’m most comfortable with. I ended up making a good friend, Ty, in my English class. Usually, we crack jokes or read parodies off the Web. Having a best friend made my high school experience a little better.

Finding my niche and putting aside the idea that I needed to be a social icon made me feel less stressed. I didn’t have to try too hard to make everyone like me. Also, after watching the popular kids, I saw that popularity isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. You need lots of money, fancy clothes, and a certain style to maintain your status. That’s mad work. Of course, I’m still vulnerable to my peers’ influence, but I realize that’s my own insecurity coming out.

Relying On Myself

I’m glad I took the initiative to choose a high school because, although it’s not the best school, it felt good to have some control over my own future. Plus, choosing a school on my own taught me something significant: Taking care of your business is important because there won’t always be a parent or caseworker to guide you.

The same applies to finding your social circle in school. Just because you’re an outgoing and friendly person doesn’t mean that you’re automatically going to make friends with everyone in the school. And if you rely on others to define you, you might end up changing your personality to fit in. It’s better to be yourself and, even if it takes time and effort, develop real friendships with people who are loyal, have your back, and respect you for who you are as a person.

The challenge of starting over at a new school is never an easy task, but it’s not an impossible one, either. I’m now in my second year at BCAM. On the first day of school this year, I saw a lot of freshmen who all seemed as enthusiastic as I was my first day. Walking to my advisory class I saw a freshman who was obviously lost.

“Hey you,” I said in a sarcastic but cheery way. She looked all around wondering where the voice was coming from until I walked up and introduced myself. Then I showed her where room 214 was.

“Thank you,” she said smiling. “It’s pretty hard to find people to talk to here.”

I smiled and said, “I know. I felt the exact same way last year.”

Anthony Turner is a student at Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School. This piece originally appeared in Represent magazine. It is reprinted with permission from Youth Communication, a nonprofit that aims to helps youth reach their full potential through reading and writing.

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.