HSC’s Leaders Fight To Keep The Dream Alive

From the New Haven Independent:

Brayan Canas was worried that a new principal would wreck his high school. So he complained—and got to help choose which principal to hire.

Only he wasn’t supposed to say the word “principal.”

Because Brayan attends High School in the Community (HSC), an experimental school where the principal is called “building leader.”

Now Brayan and the idealistic new principal—er, “building leader”—he helped hire have begun a new year with high hopes of making HSC live up to its promise as a “social justice” school where teens who march to their own drummer can find a band of like-minded students with whom to learn in unconventional ways. That includes venturing out in the community as part of their studies. It means pursuing “mastery-based learning” at their own pace, judged not by test scores as much as a “portfolio” of work. Under new leadership, the school is looking to build on that model and improve it this year, rather than change it.

Sudden Turnaround

HSC went through turmoil this past year. In June the superintendent suddenly announced that he was removing the three “building leaders.” He announced that, for the first time in history, the Board of Education, not HSC’s teachers, would choose the next building leader.

On top of that, the state is winding down a three-year “turnaround” on the heels of reports that found plummeting four-year graduation rates and friction between the teachers union and its very members. The teachers union’s future role as operator of the school is also in question as a memorandum of understanding with the Board of Ed winds down as well this year.

The sudden announcement of change of school leadership, just as the academic year ended, outraged parents, teachers, and students invested in HSC. They saw a model that worked in ways that graduation rates or test scores can’t measure. And they charged at a Board of Ed meeting that the way school officials handled the process would have flunked HSC’s social justice curriculum.

Brayan and fellow then-freshman Kiana Nhem were among those speaking up. Nhem circulated a petition among students protesting the removal of the building’s leaders. Superintendent of Schools Garth Harries invited them and some of their fellow students for a chat, explained his reasoning. Then he placed Brayan and another student, Sean Nelson, on the committee interviewing the final eight candidates for the new “building leader” post.

Enter Brown, one of those finalists.

Brown knew about HSC (his sister-in-law went there in the 1990s) and about the philosophy. He had been the founding principal of a similar alternative public (not charter) high school in Brooklyn called The Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School (student population 300, compared to HSC’s 271). Founded in conjunction with Outward Bound, it took kids out in nature as part of their studies and had a social-justice orientation. Teachers there had a major role in making decisions. And—an important face for HSC staffers understandably skeptical about central office’s imposed changes— New York’s teachers union had rated Brown the city’s “most trusted principal.”

“I saw an opportunity” to come to a school with a similar mission and build on it, Brown said.

Brayan grilled him at the interview, which took place in July at New Haven’s teachers union headquarters on Chapel Street in Fair Haven, the neighborhood where his family lives.

What makes you different from the other candidates? Brayan asked him.

And, he asked: “We’re a mastery-based learning school, which is real challenge. So how are you going to provide support for new teachers coming into the system?”

Mastering “Mastery”

Brayan had been nervous about participating in that three-day interviewing process with the eight candidates.

“I was worried that I wouldn’t ask the right questions or I wouldn’t know who to pick,” he said in an interview about HSC on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program, in which he was joined by fellow sophomore Kiana and building leader Brown.

But Brayan, whose family emigrated here from Colombia when he was 6 years old, was committed to HSC, to keeping it a place he wanted to attend. His sister Solanlly had told him all about the opportunities for learning at your own piece, in fun ways, she had there; he saw her go on to Fairfield University. (Click here and here to read about her journey.)

“I went to HSC looking for the same thing,” he recalled. “When I got there, first of all the mastery-based learning—I was really confused at first. This whole idea that I could go ahead without needing the help of a teacher to be there and guide me through every step of the way—it was a little scary. But after a few months of trying and studying and listening to the teachers and what they had to say—every teacher has a different opinion. When you put them all together, it makes sense. …

“Students don’t have to follow what the rest of the class is doing. They can move ahead … I was in Algebra 1. I did a lot of extra work after school. By January I was already in Geometry.  There will be four different groups working on the same assignment and helping each other and the teacher walking around helping …

“After I got used to it loved it. At my old school, I had to stay at the pace of my class. I usually got bored. I would be sitting there listening to something I already knew. With mastery based learning I could move on and challenge myself. This allows me to graduate earlier.”

Kiana, who lives in Hamden (HSC is a regional magnet), also embraced the school her freshman year, both the new style of learning and the social atmosphere. “In Hamden I only hung out with certain people, there weren’t many people in it. We were just very distant with everyone. Now that I came to HSC, I’m very social with a lot of people.”

Both students participated in a community project with Yale students, devising alternatives to incarceration for young people arrested for minor offenses.

So when the news broke in June about the pending changes, Kiana shed some tears. Both students—and Kiana’s mother, as a member of HSC’s Parent Teacher Student Organization—got busy along with their colleagues. Instead of mourning, they organized.

Brown was the unanimous choice of the interviewing committee, which besides Brayan and fellow student Sean Nelson (pictured speaking at June Board of Ed meeting) included two teachers union leaders, two HSC teachers, a guidance counselor, and Kiana’s mom.

Now he has to deliver.

Work Habits

Brown has two new assistant building leaders—both HSC teachers, Michelle Cabaldon (now the school “culture leader”) and Cari Strand (school “curriculum leader”)—to help him do that, along with invested teachers and students like Kiana and Brayan.

Brown—who is 45 and did stints with the Peace Corps and Teach for America—described an approach of building on the existing approach rather than switching course.

The social-justice-themed curriculum remains in place. The school year began as in the past with students choosing social-justice campaigns they thought would make good courses-cum-community campaigns. Then they pitched their ideas to teachers at an assembly. Teachers chose a dozen projects to sign on to, ranging from “environmental stewardship” to animal rights, from climate change to more conventional clubs like musical theater, for one-hour weekly “production companies” or “procos.”

Mastery-based learning remains in place, too. Brown said the school’s goal is to strengthen how that works by having teachers chart students’ progress more intensely and focusing on “work habits” to help them succeed. And communicating more often with students and parents about that progress and those habits.

He said HSC should make sure that “self-pacing doesn’t mean that teenagers are solely driving the rate at which they meet these performance standards.

“They are partners with experts who are teachers in terms of ‘Here’s the profile … Here’s you’re reading level. Here’s your writing level. And here’s the standard. And I’m the expert as the teacher. I think I can get you that standard within this window of time. And now what you’re doing as a student, you’re coming to me and sharing with you me where you feel you can be a part of that. And my role is to a) push you when maybe the way you’re feeling you’re a part of that is not as ambitious as it could be. And at the same time to listen to you when you’re having trouble and say, ‘Hey, here’s a place where particularly I have trouble and I need these kinds of supports.’”

Brown has also given a lot of thoughts to the question Brayan asked at the job interview about new teachers. Each new HSC teacher gets a mentor (citywide policy) with expertise in mastery-based learning (HSC’s touch). Each week the school has two staff-development periods with a focus on the subject. And HSC has set up extensive “coaching” for teachers with classroom visits that focus on the mastery-based learning.

About Those Graduation Rates…

How will his and HSC’s success be measured?

Graduation rates were one barometer that city and state officials used in criticizing the school’s performance these past three years.

Brown, Kiana and Brayan questioned the reliance on those metrics. Brown spoke of how HSC’s very model—not just promoting students at the end of each school year, but rather doing so sooner or later depending on their progress—runs up against relying on such numbers.

He noted that throughout the country, including in New Haven, the traditional focus on those rates has produced a generation of students who arrive in college—and find they need remedial writing courses as a prerequisite. Or they don’t last long in college.

“When we have a tremendous amount of students taking remedial classes and paying for what we were supposed to giving them for free. I’m not sure it’s the right metric,” Brown reflected.

That said, he said he does aim to up HSC’s graduation rate as well as that “college persistence” metric—in part with that focus on study habits. Another idea: replicating a program a student started at his old Brooklyn school as a senior project. The student, Joshua Davis, decided he lacked black male mentors to help him succeed in high school and make it in college. So he developed such a program. Brown’s school brought him back when he was in college to develop it further, then obtained a grant to bring it to three schools. The program (called the Brotherhood, later expanded to included a Sisterhood) brought alumni of the high school who were now successful in college back to campus to spend hours each week with students—both struggling students and those already headed for success. The research, Brown argued, shows that such mentorship efforts pay off handsomely.

Brown would also like to see school start more like 8:30 a.m. than 7:30 a.m. for high schoolers. (This year HSC nudged starting time up ten minutes to 7:40.) He got a hearty seconding on that idea from Kiana and Brayan. But that’s another question—for the whole school system.


Article by Paul Bass, Published on Sept. 30, 2015