Future of Schools

An Indianapolis school looks to Africa to teach students “the truth about our histories”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Staff from the Historic Journey meet with teachers at Ignite to discuss how they are using Afrocentric materials.

On a Monday morning in December, fourth graders at Ignite Achievement Academy at School 42 are learning about earthquakes. In one classroom, students discussed how the earth’s plates move and collide. Down the hall, in a room decked in Christmas lights, teacher Julia Barker read her class a story about a Haitian boy trapped after an earthquake.

It’s a pretty typical day for fourth grade, but in subtle ways, the teachers are trying something new: Infusing Afrocentrism into their classes. The approach, which is being slowly incorporated in classes across the school, aims to move beyond the narrow version of black history schools often teach to highlight black contributions to civilization and leadership.

“We have to start telling the truth about our histories,” said Shy-Quon Ely II, a co-principal at the school.

Students are exposed to the approach throughout their classes. For instance, the focus on black history meant Barker’s class read a book about an earthquake in Haiti in 2010 instead of one in San Francisco in 1906. In another class, led by Jukobie Russell, students learned how the ocean current helped shape the slave trade. And when they studied motion and design, students also learned about transportation modes in Africa.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Julia Barker read to her class from a book about the Haitian earthquake.

Ignite school leaders say Afrocentrism is a way of making school relevant and personal for their students as well as instilling a sense of self-worth. It’s the kind of history many of the educators at Ignite seem to wish they themselves had learned in school.

“We were basically, indirectly and directly lied to about a lot of stuff,” Russell said. The only black historical figures he learned about in school were those who were “passive and non-threatening,” he said.

A wave of Afrocentric charter schools opened in the 1990s, but there is little research on whether the approach helps to boost test scores. Martell Teasley, the dean of the the college of social work at University of Utah, led a recent study that found that most Afrocentric charter schools were not meeting federal goals for improving test scores. Poor test scores have left Afrocentric schools in some cities vulnerable to closure.

But although Teasley does not believe Afrocentrism is a panacea for low-performing schools, he said the philosophy has benefits for helping people connect with their heritage.

School 42 is in a poor community on the northwest side of the district. Last year, 12.7 percent of students passed state tests in both math and English, about half the district average. After years of failing grades from the state, Indianapolis Public Schools converted the school to innovation status this year and brought on Ignite to manage the campus.

It is still a neighborhood school, but daily operations are handled entirely by Ignite, which was founded by two principals, Ely and Brooke Beavers, who previously co-led an elementary school in the Tindley charter network.

Nearly 80 percent of Ignite students are black, and more than 96 percent are students of color. The school has prioritized hiring diverse teachers, going to hiring fairs as far as Georgia. Fifty-five percent of their staff are people of color, and a third are men.

Beavers said that ultimately, the aim is to inspire students to become leaders who are connected to their community.

“This is a long-term goal that our children come back and they return to this community and want to make it better — they don’t flee from it,” Beavers said.

Russell, who has taught for about a decade, said Ignite’s approach is a sharp contrast to the black history that is taught in most other schools. When he was at a previous school, for example, a teacher started a black history month timeline with slavery, recalled Russell, who is black. “We didn’t come from slaves.”

Infusing Afrocentrism into his teaching has been a relatively easy transition for Russell. He was frustrated by how history was taught at his previous job, and one of the main reasons he chose to come to Ignite was the Afrocentric approach.

But for some other teachers, the curriculum is an adjustment.

In part, that’s because lots of the material they are teaching students is new for them, said Barker, who is in her second year of teaching and is white. Before she started teaching it at Ignite, for example, she wasn’t aware of how ancient Egyptians used solar energy, she said. That means she is sometimes learning history in order to teach it in her class.

“I’m learning myself,” she said. “We are at the very early stages, but I think it’s very important.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
A student in Jukobie Russell’s class reads about earthquakes.

The school is trying to make the Afrocentric approach as a seamless as possible for teachers who are not steeped in black history by giving them easy access to materials. They have worked with the Historic Journey to create a guide that pairs the subjects students are studying with Afrocentric books and history. Staff from the Historic Journey also regularly visit the school to talk with teachers about how they are using the material and observe them in class.

The Historic Journey is based in Indianapolis and they have worked with other schools in the city’s largest district, as well as schools in Pike and Lawrence townships. But Gary Holland, who founded the program about 7 years ago, said that Ignite is one of the first schools he has worked with that paired the Historic Journey materials with what students are learning school-wide, so teachers do not need to do that work on their own.

Incorporating African history into the school takes work. Educators need to fit it with state guidelines. Teachers have to learn the history they are teaching and find time for to cover new subjects in crowded days. And the school has to offer training and guidance.

But ultimately, school leaders believe it will pay off for students. As one of just a few black students in his classes growing up, Ely hated studying history. When classmates talked about slavery, he wondered if they were thinking about him. The civil rights movement was compressed to a few figures and viewpoints.

That changed for Ely in college, when he started learning a broader version of black history.

“Once I had a perspective of who my ancestors were before, and their contribution to the civilizations that are in power now, that totally gave me a confidence that I didn’t have before,” he said. “I want … (students) to grow up with that confidence.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”