Onward and Upward, New School Navigates Rocky Road

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One Saturday last fall, the students and staff of Boston's City on a Hill charter school climbed a mountain. Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, to be exact.

"Sometimes, it was like we were climbing straight up," Jodi Grant, a student at the four-month-old school, recalls. "We could have killed ourselves if we slipped."

"When we did it, I felt like dying," a classmate, Aleida Nunez, pipes in. But "after I did it, it was pretty cool."

No Time To Rest

For the staff of City on a Hill, getting a brand-new school off the ground has been much like climbing a mountain, with little time to stop and savor the view.

It's been a hectic few months, full of exhilarating highs and punctuated with more than a few disappointing lows. Each day brings more hard work and a new set of obstacles to overcome. "Every day is fun," says Sarah Kass, the school's 28-year-old principal. "Every day is tough."

This year, Education Week is visiting City on a Hill to chronicle the ups and downs of creating a new school culture and community. It's just one of many new schools that educational entrepreneurs have launched across the nation in recent years--some charters, some magnets, some schools-within-a-school.

City on a Hill's mission is to cultivate citizenship and a commitment to public service. Like many of this new breed of schools, its initial enrollment is small--just 65 freshmen and sophomores. Eventually, by adding a grade a year, it will evolve into a 7-12 school with 250 students.

When we last checked in, school had just opened in a YMCA that straddles the Northeastern University campus and the theater district. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995.) Sunny, warm September mornings have given way to cold and windy December days that chase the students indoors.

Students stuff coats into lockers in the crowded corridor that funnels traffic along the school's central artery. Where before there was the slightly awkward tension of strangers sizing each other up, now the hallway is filled with laughter and playful jesting.

In English, students are finishing up Homer's Odyssey. They've also tackled the classical period in history, staging a debate on the pros and cons of Athenian and Spartan societies. Once-bare bulletin boards are bedecked with notices and news clippings, and the walls of the common room now sport colorful student self-portraits.

Students have launched a host of extracurricular activities, including a school newspaper, a basketball team, and an art club. And they are getting the hang of their school's version of participatory democracy in their weekly town meetings: Fifty-seven students recently signed a petition requesting more time to get dressed after gym. The faculty agreed. It was a simple but significant victory.

'Flying' and 'Dying'

Encircling a conference table one recent Friday morning for their weekly staff meeting, Ms. Kass, the school's four teachers, and its new executive assistant and program coordinator recount "flying" and "dying" moments--the highs and lows of their week.

For executive assistant Cynthia K. Cheney, "dying" was having her purse stolen. But the tale has a silver lining: Students streamed into her office all week to express their sympathy, and one student turned in a stray purse, only to find later it belonged to another student.

History teacher Oyeshiku B. Carr nominates a highlight from his class that came when his students gave oral presentations that were videotaped and critiqued by their peers. "Anacelia Torres gave her speech yesterday; that will be the first A I will give" this year, he declares.

The discussion shifts to an issue they have been grappling with since day one: Given the wide spectrum of their students' academic abilities, how can they hold all students to the same high standards?

After extensive debate, the faculty decides to pull seven students out of Spanish to give them an extra period of help in the four core academic subjects.

Not surprisingly, there is still reluctance; to some, their remedy sounds a lot like tracking, and they worry that they are eroding the school's commitment to mixed-ability classes. For now, though, they are willing to give it a shot. After all, they rationalize, there are no precedents to look to--or to hold them back.

They weigh whether students should receive a grade for their work in the extra class.

"I see it as an academic class just like any other class, so they should get a grade," math teacher Jesse Solomon proposes. "Whatever we call it, we've established a second tier."

Mr. Carr wonders how the students should be graded. If a student is failing his class now, but earns a C next quarter, does that improvement translate into an A in extra help?

"I think for now what we're saying is this is how we are going to reach them," Ms. Kass interjects. "I think it's about different starting points; it's not about tracks.

"On some level, I would like to see some culminating report, but I think to give it a grade is to treat it as a second track," she says. "I see it as a supplement to what they are doing, rather than supplanting something else."

In an interview later, English teacher Ann Connolly Tolkoff, a veteran teacher who co-founded the school with Ms. Kass, concedes that pulling students out and postponing study of a second language is not a novel approach.

What is less traditional, however, was the road to that solution. The small, intimate nature of the school enabled the entire staff to sit around one table, scrutinize the problem, review a variety of solutions, and reach a decision by consensus. The lack of an ingrained bureaucracy meant there were no endless forms to fill out, no rules to bend.

Starting a New Class

The staff's flexibility also made restructuring the school's math class a more humane and manageable process.

Before school started, Mr. Solomon had envisioned teaching two courses, Math 1 and Math 2, each integrating algebra and geometry. But, after an early assessment revealed that only a few students had a comprehensive understanding of algebra, he decided to teach four sections of Math 1.

After six weeks, however, it became clear that some had had much more exposure to algebra than others. As a result, Mr. Solomon created a fifth section, envisioning it not as a higher track but the second course in a sequence.

To his disappointment, his students now call Math 2 "the advanced class."

"As much as I try to explain it and talk about it, I think kids still see it as 'smart' and 'dumb,"' he says.

"For the most part, I felt it was a real benefit for the other kids to have [the Math 2 students] around," he says of the decision. "I didn't want to move them out just because they were doing better. But it got to the point where I felt the cost [of keeping the students in Math 1] outweighed the benefits."

Initially, students had to be invited to participate in the class. But then two other students just started showing up on their own. Mr. Solomon has encouraged them to stay.

Getting students to buy in to the rules has been tough at times, Mr. Carr says. Some still don't wear their uniforms. "Sometimes, they try to call me by my first name," he notes. "That is not appropriate. 'You are my student, and I am not your peer,"' he reminds them.

Agreeing To Disagree

When science teacher Paul S. Hays circles his classroom to check homework, he gives a stern dressing-down to students who have not completed the assignment.

"What's the thing we have for 40 minutes where we eat food?" he asks one student. "Right, lunch. You could have come in and talked to me then. Am I insane? Does that make sense?" The student is silent, looking as if he would like to sink into the ground. "Come on, man, you can do it," Mr. Hays encourages him. "Can't do it for you. Time to grow up, son."

Mr. Hays laments later that the school's atmosphere sometimes feels more like a middle school than a high school to him.

"It's not nearly as far along as I would like it to be," he says. "I always have to remind them, 'Don't interrupt adults,' 'Don't interrupt each other."'

At times, he and Ms. Tolkoff find themselves at odds over disciplinary philosophy, like the time they took a group to the Huntington Repertory Theater to see playwright August Wilson's "Seven Guitars."

"I say, you don't let anyone go on a field trip unless they deserve to go, unless they have shown the minimal standard of proper behavior," Mr. Hays contends. If students can't walk from math class to the bathroom without being disruptive, how can they stride purposefully from a museum's impressionist wing to its post-modern wing?

Ms. Tolkoff sees it differently. To her, a trip to the theater is no less an essential part of the curriculum than algebra.

"I'm going to see 'Othello' because it's a fabulous piece of theater. ... I will cry when Desdemona gets it again," she explains. "It's so they can hear Shakespeare out loud, and recognize how much more they under-stand than they would have last year at this time." If students never go to the theater, she asks, how will they learn how to behave there?

The two agree to disagree.

It's the people at City on a Hill, more than its size, that make this possible, Mr. Hays suggests. After all, you can still be stuck working with difficult people in a small school. Here, he says, "everyone is open-minded and professional and respectful."

In the big picture, this nurturing school culture also helps his students, because it helps him enjoy where he is and what he is doing.

"I am empowered in this system, and I do not feel expendable or like a robot on an assembly line. It improves my attitude and the quality of my teaching. Imagine that," he remarks. "It makes me want to stay here longer, work with kids longer."

A High Point

Like Mr. Hays, students come early and stay late--to use the computer room, to go swimming at the Y, or just to hang out.

"There's definitely a kind of culture of kids stepping up to start something," Ms. Kass notes.

At first, she says, she would get flak when she would ask a student to move some chairs or to sweep the school's common room. "'Aw, Ms. Kass, why do we have to do this?"' they would moan. Now, the job just gets done.

A recent high point for Ms. Kass was seeing a truant student return to school. The young woman had run away from home, and Ms. Kass had even offered to have the student come live with her.

She decided to try to make students a part of the solution. They wrote letters and called the young woman, urging her to return. When she finally came back, students walked up to Ms. Kass all day, whispering excitedly, "Ms. Kass, did you see her? She's back."

"They really took it on as something they cared about" she says. "There's a sense that they feel safe here, and that they really care about the quality of life here."

A Semester at City on a Hill

Sept. 6: School opens.

Sept. 19: The Brookline Tab publishes "Charter Control," a critical column about charter schools by Arthur Wellington Conquest III, a columnist for the weekly newspaper in suburban Boston. Mr. Conquest complains that none of the Boston charter schools is controlled by African-American or Latino educators and questions why "two European-American females" should be given a charter to educate a predominantly minority student body.

Sept. 28: Parents and friends of City on a Hill attend an open house at the school.

Oct. 14: Sarah Kass, a school founder, and several students speak about City on a Hill to a class at the Harvard graduate school of education, one of two speaking engagements that students and staff members will accept during the first semester.

Oct. 16: Students and staff members go on a field trip to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.

Late October-early November: The teachers spend the better part of two weekends preparing midterm student progress reports. The nine-page reports include extensive written comments as well as letter grades in citizenship, history, science, Spanish, English, mathematics, physical education, and writing. Students also assess themselves in citizenship, noting whether they have participated in such activities as "wrote a letter or made a phone call for information concerning a public issue" or "voted in a school election."

Nov. 4: Students and teachers, attending a town meeting, observe a moment of silence in memory of Yitzak Rabin, the slain prime minister of Israel.

Nov. 8-9: A South African basketball team, the Soweto Liberty's Rhythm of the Nation, visits the school while on a nine-game exhibition tour of New England. Students attend its opening game in Boston against Northeastern University.

Nov. 15: Students receive their midterm reports.

Nov. 14: The Brookline Tab publishes six letters from students responding to Mr. Conquest's Sept. 19 column. The newspaper notes that it received more than 30 letters from City on a Hill students but could only print a selection. Students invite the columnist to visit the school, an offer he has not yet accepted.

Nov. 16: The school's board of trustees meets. Linda Horan, the mother of student Sean Donovan, takes office as the parent/guardian representative on the board.

Nov. 17: Students attend a performance of playwright August Wilson's "The Seven Guitars" at the Huntington Theater nearby.

Nov. 17: Fifty-seven of the school's 65 students sign a petition that they present at a town meeting requesting that they be given an additional five minutes after gym class to get ready for their next class. The faculty agrees.

Nov. 29: After the first snowfall of the season, a spontaneous, friendly snowball fight breaks out after school between students and teachers.

Dec. 1: Students at a town meeting debate whether President Clinton should send U.S. troops to Bosnia. Students sign up for the student-launched basketball team and the school newspaper. A final draft of a student-drafted pledge is approved, and the first two students take the pledge on Dec. 15.

Dec. 3: Students come to school over the weekend to rearrange the furniture in teacher Paul S. Hays' science room.

Dec. 4: The pranksters return Monday to find the room mysteriously in its original state. (Mr. Hays tries to convince them that he has the janitors at the YMCA on rapid-response alert.)

Dec. 13: The faculty, students and their families, and friends of the school celebrate the holidays and the first anniversary of City on a Hill's charter with a party at the school.

Dec. 21-Jan. 1: The school breaks for winter recess.

Vol. 15, Issue 16, Pages 8-10

Published in Print: January 10, 1996, as Onward and Upward, New School Navigates Rocky Road
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