The Final Judgment: Juries Assess Students at New School

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The young man paces in the hallway, waiting for the jury to reach its verdict. Finally, the door opens and a representative of the jury sticks his head out. "You can come in now."

Sean Donovan has been sweating out his fate for only five minutes, but it feels like an eternity.

"It was a good presentation," one juror begins. "I had a little difficulty hearing you. But I was particularly impressed by your responses to our questions. It showed you had really thought about this in a more complex way, and you could see both sides of the argument."

But this is no ordinary courtroom, and it certainly is no ordinary jury.

Late last month, more than 70 local citizens descended on the City on a Hill school here to participate in a new kind of jury duty. Their job: to help evaluate the performance of each student at the year-old charter school.

Instead of showing up in T-shirts and shorts to take a battery of final written exams, the students donned suits and dresses to give oral presentations in each of their four four core academic classes. Panels of teachers, students, and community members assessed each student's performance, and their evaluations were factored into year-end grades.

A Rite of Passage

The jury process was a final rite of passage for the school's 65 freshmen and sophomores. Education Week has visited City on a Hill periodically since it opened last September to chronicle the ups and downs of a new school in its first year of life. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995, and Jan. 10 and March 27, 1996.)

City on a Hill's mission is to cultivate citizenship and a commitment to public service. Earlier this year, students ventured into the community to complete two-week internships.

Last month, the community came to the school. Volunteer jurors included college professors, doctors, lawyers, firefighters, and students' parents.

Most learned about the need for jurors by word of mouth. Staff members invited friends and family members, colleagues from other schools, and representatives from such education organizations as the Education Development Center in nearby Newton, Mass. They culled names from the school's database of supporters and wrote an open letter to The Boston Globe seeking prospective jurors.

"We welcome the taxpayers' authority to scrutinize our work, and to close our doors in five years if our students are not performing," the letter read. "Our students need you--their community--to tell them how they are doing."

In the Spotlight

Each morning for six days, visiting jurors are welcomed with coffee, doughnuts, and a packet of instructions prepared by Erin Connor, a recent alumna of the Harvard graduate school of education who was hired as a consultant to coordinate the jury process.

The day, Ms. Connor explains, will be divided into three shifts, each lasting about two hours. During a shift, four students will appear before the jury, each for 25 minutes.

On Wednesday morning, Ceasar L. McDowell, an assistant professor of education at Harvard, sits on the four-person jury for the school's history class. Joining him are a teacher, a student, and Jay Jacobs, the executive director from the Summer Search Foundation, a Boston group that gives scholarships for young people to attend Outward Bound-type programs.

Each of the four students has prepared a two-minute speech about his or her ideal form of government. First on deck is Kelia Reece. As she walks toward the podium, she introduces herself to the jurors and shakes their hands.

"My form of government is a dictator because I think it is better than the other forms of government," Ms. Reece begins. "Say you have a society of 20 people, and all 20 people are talking. You would have to wait for them to finish, and then you can say whatever you want to say. With me being a dictator, it would be more easier for me because my society would have to sit and listen," she asserts.

After Ms. Reece finishes, the jurors pepper her with questions.

"Would you like to live in a society where someone else besides you was the dictator?" Mr. McDowell asks. "No," the young woman responds. "But if it was my society, they would have to do what I say."

"Do they have to do it?" he continues. "Yes, they do it, or they would be killed," she says.

"OK," he presses, "I am going to push you a little: If a dictator asked you to do something or you would be killed, would you always do it?" She nods her head in assent.

"Would there be a limit, something you would not do?" he asks. "Yeah, stuff, like taking drugs, or violence," she answers.

After the exchange, Ms. Reece leaves the room while the jurors, using criteria established by history teacher Oy‚shiku B. Carr, complete written evaluations.

When Ms. Reece returns, Mr. McDowell begins by praising her strong points. "You took an unpopular position, which is hard to do," he notes. But, he says, she could have spoken a little louder and made more eye contact.

After echoing Mr. McDowell's praise, Mr. Jacobs adds a few additional points of constructive criticism. "Where I would perhaps make some changes is to be better versed in the counterpoint, or arguments against your position," he suggests. "Like what you are going to do with those 20 people in your country who disagree with you."

'A Shock to the System'

During a break between sessions, Mr. McDowell says he is glad he was asked to volunteer as a juror. "It's so seldom that kids get an opportunity to engage a set of adults in this kind of responsive environment, with a supportive critique," he says.

At week's end, Mr. Carr says he's pleased with his students' performance. "It was different faces, seeing people they didn't know, which heightened the importance of the process," he notes. "I think it was a real shock to the system; it made them realize: 'Like, wow, this school is really serious when it says that they want us to have skills that we can articulate and demonstrate.'"

For the teachers, the evaluation process offered an opportunity for professional development. Math teacher Jesse Solomon found it enlightening to assess his students alongside colleagues from the Education Development Center and terc, two education groups that had helped him design his math curriculum. "We often talk about math and math teaching," he says, "but this was a chance for us to have a common interaction with real live kids."

To prepare for the science jury, teacher Paul S. Hays had asked his students to use their knowledge of earth science to design their own planet and to describe its atmosphere, satellites, and geologic history.

All but two of his 64 students finished the project. And those two do not get off easy; they are still required to answer a series of questions before a jury.

When one arrives for his jury, Mr. Hays points him to an overhead projector. "Show us where the sun is," he tells the student. "Now, draw the Earth next to your sun. What would the axis look like? Where is the Northern Hemisphere?"

After the boy leaves the room, one juror observes that, despite the fact the student hadn't studied much, he clearly grasped the basic concepts and could answer most questions correctly. "It seems like he's pulling it from his rear end," the juror says.

When the boy returns, the panel gives him a stern talking-to.

"I am disappointed," Mr. Hays begins. "You have the knowledge. You have a great deal of ability and great resources at your disposal, and it is a great privilege to go to this school, in this city, in this society. You don't want to squander it."

Taking Stock

In the end, some students triumphed, and some stumbled, but everyone survived. After it was all over, the students were exhilarated and exhausted.

Ms. Connor and another consultant will analyze the students' scores this month and look for trends, such as whether outside jurors' scores differed from those given by teachers or students. "A lot of this will help us figure out what a '4' [the highest score] looks like, and if that matches with what a teacher thinks a '4' is, and what a student thinks a '4' is."

Next year, she would like to see the day broken up a bit more. With 12 or 13 juries in a row, she says, "it's an exceptionally long day for the teacher, and they have almost no break. They haven't complained at all, but they look haggard."

Although the jury process was put through its paces for the first time this year, it has already garnered some strong endorsements.

"The process was a good model, in that they had clear, concrete, measurable objectives that they wanted kids to learn," Paul Herdman, the assistant director for charter schools in Massachusetts, says. "They, I am sure, have work to do to further clarify things. But they are definitely moving in a direction we think is good."

'The Velcro Kids'

This fall will bring changes to the school that board president Charlie Rose calls "the miracle on Huntington Avenue.'' For starters, construction workers have already started to renovate several classrooms at the YMCA where the school is housed. New space is needed for the 30 to 35 new freshmen who will arrive in September.

There will also be at least two more teachers. Rami Alwan, a scientist at the Polaroid Corp. and a former teacher, will teach math and science, and the school will hire another teacher to teach English and history.

The growth does not come without some sadness. Mr. Solomon, ever the idealist, wishes the school could stay small. "If it were up to me--and luckily it is not, because I am probably not the most politically realistic of the bunch--I would have kept it at 65 kids. ... But we will gain a lot. The older kids are going to start to mentor the younger kids and teach them the ropes."

The school's co-founders, Principal Sarah Kass and English teacher Ann Connolly Tolkoff, say they are pleased that at least 60 of the 65 original students are expected to return in September. A few special-needs students may transfer to other programs that can better meet their needs.

In the end, there is one lost soul of sorts, a girl who eventually stopped coming to school except to pick up her bus pass. "We asked her to work," Mr. Hays says. But, he notes grimly, she decided to transfer to another school where she saw friends who were not pushed to achieve academically.

Still, Ms. Tolkoff and her colleagues think, it is not a bad track record for a brand-new school open to all students by lottery. "City on a Hill is inclusive; it works with the hand it is dealt," she says.

It is Ms. Tolkoff, the veteran of the team, who seems the most concerned that building one good institution is not enough.

"What are we giving back to the system?" is a question they must constantly ask themselves, she says. "If there is going to be some cross-fertilization of ideas, we need to build some time and opportunity for that to happen, and I see that as a major problem for year two and three."

But looking back, Mr. Solomon is proud of the school's accomplishments. On the first official day of summer vacation, he points out, at least 10 students drop by the school. "The Velcro kids," Ms. Tolkoff jokingly calls them.

"For some of these kids, there is a big gap now, like they had this safe place they liked to go every day, and all of a sudden it has been taken away," Mr. Solomon says. "It is a place that people feel invested in, and I think that is the most important thing about this building."

Vol. 15, Issue 40, Pages 14-16

Published in Print: July 10, 1996, as The Final Judgment: Juries Assess Students at New School
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