Adventures in Learning – El Centro des Etudiantes

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a week long professional development opportunity where I was able to visit three very different schools in Philadelphia, PA, with 4 colleagues.  The conversation that ensued and the discussion that was had was some of the best professional development that I’ve ever had, as we were able to have conversations about what is meaningful and significant in improving student learning.

We went with different intents, given that we were all representing a variety of positions and interests.  There was focus on technology integration into teaching practice, on drawing in and supporting at risk students, on project and inquiry based learning.  Our group of teachers was comprised of myself and another instructional consultant, a school guidance counselor, a learning leader, and a classroom teacher with a focus on the ‘transition’ room.

Our very first school visit was El Centro des Etudiantes (The Big Picture School).  This school in the heart of Philadelphia is one of several schools that follow the Big Picture model based on the original Big Picture school in Rhode Island.  The Big Picture network now includes over sixty schools in the US and the Philadelphia school is one of them.

Our first impression of the building was interesting… we drove past the building a couple of times without realizing that it is a school.  The doors were locked, as they are during the day, as this wasn’t the best area of town.

We entered the school and were greeted by Marie, the secretary.  We were taken into the building where we were given the background and general information about the school, and best of all, we were given the opportunity to ask questions.

This school is a school for students that have been out of the school system for a while or have less than 13 credits.  The main intent of the school is to get students to ‘buy in’ to school and the system.  Therefore, things have to be very different.  The young man who met with us initially was a former ‘advisor’ to the students and now had a teacher role in the special education area at the school.  He was working on his doctoral degree in urban education with a focus on the role of an advisor in the long term success of students.

El Centro des Etudiantes serves 162 students.  One hundred percent of the kids who attend qualify for the free lunch program which is an indicator for poverty in Philadelphia.  It serves kids who struggle to learn and for whom the re-engagement piece is critical. There is an application process to get into the school and since there are three graduations a year, the school is constantly taking in students.  The format of the school is focused on the advisory program and the building of relationships.  Students take two seminar classes a week in which they take math and languages courses, and two days a week they participate in an apprenticeship that they have selected themselves around an area of interest.  The other day is spent working with the advisory group and identifying projects that respond to the other outcomes.  These pictures give you an idea of what the interior of the school itself looked like:

Intially, we had tons of questions.  How do teachers work in a system such as this?  What kind of support do you have?  What does the funding structure look like?  How do you match the outcomes necessary for graduation?  We asked, and they answered.  They spoke of the powerful impact of the advisors and the advisory program, and as we were introduced to students and able to participate in the classes, we could see ourselves how engaged, encouraging and enthusiastic the teachers were in the school.

We were able to go into classrooms from there and meet with the teachers and students.  Many of the advisory groups were out of the building as they had already started their advisory program but we were able to meet with a group that answered questions and talked about their program.  For me, the biggest piece was the advisory and its role in supporting students.  Each of those students told us that their advisory class, their teacher and classmates, and the school community that they had built, was crucial in getting them to stay in school and to continue coming day after day.  The advisor’s role is significant – students can contact them outside of school as needed (weekends, evenings); they make contact home with parents, they support and model and encourage as needed.  They create a relationship with students that have already been burned by ‘the system’.  It is a 24 hour a day job.  They way it was described, 50% of the job was a social work component. There were students of very diverse needs and skill level and yet the program is created in a way that any student can be succesful.  The students told us how the real world piece was key for them and that they were able to make their learning meaningful for themselves.  The sense of ownership in their own learning was obvious as the students talked about all that they were doing in the school.

The school fits under the designation of an alternative school.  They are funded by the School District of Philadelphia with some private funding.  We were told that they received a set amount per student and that everything (teacher salaries and benefits, rent on the building, electricity, food cost to supplement the food provided, transportation, classroom materials, etc.) all come out of that funding.  There is no money for things like laptops and smart boards; there were a few computers in the back of the room but as they told us, they used what they had and just made it work.

In our final conversations with the school administrators, we learned that students did a display of learning every three months where they had to demonstrate their understanding.  If a student did not rise to the challenge, then the staff and students had conversations about how to make positive changes.  The interesting thing was the obvious student ownership and empowerment.  Students held each other to account, for their learning, their behaviour, their engagement.  If students weren’t participating in the way they needed to, their peers called them on their behaviour.  In fact, in meeting with a brand new teacher, she told us that she in her interview ‘practice lesson’, the students were part of the hiring committee and that the questions that they asked her were more difficult than those of her peers.

There was so much to learn.  And of course, no school is perfect.  Where do they struggle?  Funding is always a challenge.  Staffing in a school like this can be hard although they indicated that their retention rate is better than that of the School District.  Stereotypes and assumptions can make it challenging for their students to obtain apprenticeships.  Other schools and the community don’t always buy into the concept of attaining credits through outcomes achieved through projects and apprenticeships.  Getting people to buy in to what they are trying to do is hard.  They don’t have a library, a gym, much access to technology.  There is simply no money for those ‘extras’.  And they are dealing with a high risk group of students for whom time outside of the school can be extremely dangerous.  We took some pictures of the area around the school.

So, all in all, we learned a lot.  1 – The advisory piece is key; relationship building and continuous support is what helps re-engage students that have stopped believing that they can be successful. 2 – Learning doesn’t always fit a traditional model and real world experiences help to engage students in a way that sometimes the traditional model does not.  Furthermore, it empowers students to take ownership of their own learning. 3 – Every school will have its challenges; one must look past those challenges to see where success exists. 4- And this will come up again – leadership is very important.  A focused vision and a determined leader who empowers his or her staff to act in the interests of the students is essential for the success of the school.

It was, truly, an amazing visit.

Next time… Our visit to the Microsoft School of the Future.


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