Aaliyah Staton stepped into a time machine—one that transported her to a school that doesn’t exist yet, but will in years to come.
Aaliyah, who’s 14, showed up last week to High School in the Community (HSC) to find her normal routine turned on its head. It was supposed to be February break. School system officials canceled the break to make up days lost to a historic blizzard. So staff at teacher-run HSC made use of the off week—when many students and some teachers were absent—to try out, temporarily, their most radical experiment to date in reinventing high school.
In this first year of a “turnaround” experiment run by the teachers union, teachers have already scrapped the idea of “freshmen” and the expectation that kids will finish school in four years. Students now learn at their own pace, moving on only when they’ve mastered a given skill.
Last week, teachers tried out how it would work to overturn the fundamental idea of a “class.”
When she arrived at school, Aaliyah found herself at the beginning of a choose-your-own adventure. Instead of following her prescribed routine, she had newfound freedom to pick her own schedule with whichever teachers she needed to work with.
“I was surprised,” said Aaliyah. “They actually trusted the students” to determine the course of the day.
The experiment met with a mix of frustration and enthusiasm. Some students struggled with trying to learn on their own in a less structured environment. Most kids, even one who grumbled that he “hates school,” said they enjoyed the added freedom.
Despite some organizational and instructional challenges, teachers reported a surge in enthusiasm and a sense of purpose from kids.
The week gave a glimpse of daily life at the HSC of the future, said Building Leader (aka “Principal”) Erik Good.
HSC is in its first year of phasing out the “factory assembly line” model of high school, in which kids move through school on a uniform timeline. This year, they converted all freshman classes, and about half of the classes in the school, to a “mastery-based” system, in which kids can no longer skate through school with Ds. They are now supposed to show “mastery” of a subject in order to move up.
Four other city high schools—Sound School, Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, New Haven Academy and Metropolitan Business Academy—plan to implement some form of mastery-based learning next year.
HSC aims to switch the whole school over to independent pacing in the next four years—and eventually to let kids navigate school as they did last week, working independently with teachers on a schedule they choose. Good said last week’s experiment went so well that HSC aims to implement the classless system school-wide as soon as 2015.
For Aaliyah, the week brought a new kind of journey—at times solitary, exhilarating, and daunting—through high school.
Aaliyah, a first-year student, began school last Thursday the usual way, by sitting down with her advisory group. This time, however, she got to pick how she’d spend the next six hours. She received a blank schedule with five open slots. In each one, she could pick which teacher to see.
Students had some limits: If they were behind in a specific class, or if the band teacher needed them third-period to complete a quintet, a teacher could file a special request to see them. And students had to work around teachers’ prep periods. The exercise went smoothly, with a few kinks.
“You can pick those teachers, but not in that order,” teacher Gail Emilsson directed one student in the advisory who had scheduled a class during a teacher’s free period.
Aaliyah filled out her schedule with a red, leopard-print mechanical pencil. Then she pulled out her iPhone to reach her best friend, Serena Santiago. The pair, who attended middle school together at John C. Daniels School, have most of their classes together. Communicating by text message from their separate advisory groups, they conspired to stick together as much as they could through the rest of the day. After learning Serena’s whereabouts, Aaliyah erased one teacher’s name and wrote another’s.
Once the details were sorted out, the kids’ schedules got uploaded to a shared Google Doc so that all the teachers could see where each student was supposed to be at any given time.
Aaliyah and Serena met first-period in MarcAnthony Solli’s second-floor English classroom. There, they pulled upside-down chairs from their perches and sat down to read Catcher in the Rye.
Soon, other kids filed in. They weren’t the usual kids in Aaliyah’s class; they were older kids studying mythology. Solli split the group in two: The older students went to the computer lab to work on a research project. Aaliyah, Serena and another student stayed behind to read.
Before opening the book, they looked around for their peers. The day before, Serena and Aaliyah had taken part in an impromptu book club inside that same classroom. Five kids gathered round and took turns reading pages of Catcher in the Rye. Solli said the group proved to be a shining example of self-directed learning: Kids plowed through two chapters and generated an organic discussion that required little guidance from the teacher.
On Thursday, Serena and Aaliyah’s peers weren’t there. They texted them to see if they were around. Due to the new choose-your-own-adventure schedule, those students had chosen other subjects during that period. So Aaliyah and Serena proceeded with a two-person reading group, taking turns reading aloud one page at a time.
“I’m a goddamn spendthrift at heart,’” began Aaliyah at the top of one page, pausing shyly before the swear word. They helped each other sound out new words—“heighth,” “bourgeois,” “inferiority.”
“I’m Not Even Here”
After getting the other kids started in the library, and leaving them under the librarian’s supervision, Solli worked with Aaliyah, Serena and a third freshman who was reading alone to discuss the book between periods of quiet reading.
“I’m not going to direct you,” he told them. “I want you to do that. You guys are almost at the park or the Starbucks and having a discussion. I’m not even here.”
Solli (pictured) said he found himself jumping in more than he had the day before, with the larger group. He guided a discussion about Holden Caulfield’s mysterious dating life, his concern over shabby suitcases, and his train-station run-in with an attractive nun.
Students said they enjoyed the text.
“I am Holden,” blurted out one boy during a period of quiet reading. “I like a girl, but I don’t have the guts to ask her out.”
Solli later called the week’s experiment “superb.” “Students who I didn’t expect to arrive were showing up in my class” ready to learn. They strode in the door and asked, “What can I work on?”
“There was a joy in the learning that you don’t get when it’s not self-directed,” Solli observed.
Solli said he didn’t expect that student buy-in to last, but it did. “It’s been three days, and I’ve seen a real sense of purpose.”
After English class, Aaliyah and Serena headed to Stephen Zepecki’s science room. Zepecki put them to work on a biology lab, examining how yeast releases carbon dioxide through fermentation.
He gave them a stapled packet to read with instructions to set up the experiment.
In this much larger class, some students had a harder time settling down and working on their own.
First, Aaliyah tried to find a seat among a new crew of students. The class filled with 13 other kids from five total classes, all launching individual trajectories. Zepecki had prepared for them all with multi-day lab experiments that kids could take at their own pace. The group included a lot of new faces: because four teachers were absent due to pre-planned vacations on February break, kids were allowed to choose a teacher whom they didn’t normally have for class. Zepecki said he was teaching many of those students for the first time.
Once she found a seat, Aaliyah sat down and looked at the lab. She froze in the face of the task at hand.
“Serena, read that for me,” she pleaded.
Serena was busy accepting Facebook birthday greetings on her LG MyTouch Q Android smartphone.
“Get off Facebook,” Aaliyah urged.
The environment proved distracting, Aaliyah said. Behind her, a senior sat on a desk and took out his cell phone. He cursed the school’s wi-fi system and switched on his data plan. He asked around about Lil’ Toot, a kid from Bridgeport whom some other kids were calling a “rat.”
Zepecki turned away a couple of students who walked into the room because their names were not on his list of students for that session.
“You’re not signed up for this class,” he told a student named Alex.
“I’m not signed up for any class,” Alex replied. He had come into school late and didn’t have a schedule. Zepecki sent him to the guidance counselor to create a plan for the day.
Zepecki made the rounds helping kids get on track. While many worked diligently alone, others got a slow start.
After a few minutes, Aaliyah approached Zepecki for help.
“Look at me. This is going to be something you’re going to do almost 100 percent on your own,” Zepecki (pictured) told Aaliyah.
She retreated to her desk. She took out Serena’s MyTouch to Google an unfamiliar word. Mon·o·sac·cha·ride: Any of the class of sugars (e.g., glucose) that cannot be hydrolyzed to give a simpler sugar.
Within 25 minutes, the room was quiet; most kids were working on task. Aaliyah and Serena made their way through a worksheet to the fun part of class: feeding the “animals” (yeast) to make them “fart” (exude CO2 through fermentation). They peered at a milky yeast concoction brewing on a shelf (“ewwww!”) and got to work.
Zepecki ended up giving an impromptu lesson to a small group of kids who were grappling with how much yeast, molasses and water to pour into their test tubes to start the fermentation. He moved around between kids working alone and in groups on a range of different tasks.
After a frustrating start to the period, Aaliyah got her lab done and stashed her test tubes on the shelf, ready to ferment. She later called the class the most enjoyable one of the day.
Sophomore Tariq Richardson (pictured), who was a day ahead of Aaliyah and others on the lab, worked alone, listening to Nicki Minaj and Chris Brown on ear buds. He declared the new school system “wonderful.” He said he liked getting more 1-on-1 help instead of group instruction. “You learn more,” he said.
He did confess he had been avoiding attending math class, where he tends to get into arguments with the teacher. In the classless system, the burden falls on teachers to keep track of which kids haven’t seen them recently, and to make a point to request their attendance.
Senior Trevor Smith also applauded the new system. He admitted having “zoned out” for about 25 minutes at the beginning of class before getting to work on his lab. But he said overall he found the week productive. He got a lot done in mythology, where he’s ahead of the rest of his class. He said he enjoyed the week. “It gives us the freedom to decide when and what classes we want to take on a different day.”
“They should do this the whole rest of the year,” Trevor said.
Zepecki later said the day proved “eye-opening” for him and his students, as even honors students struggled with the newfound autonomy. While several students cruised ahead with the experiments without problems, “some students were afraid of trusting their own actions. They were afraid of messing up or, for some reason, unable to trust themselves in the learning process. Many of the students came to me completely frustrated with not being able to comprehend laboratory flexibility,” he wrote in an email. Several students reported feeling “unintelligent and insecure” because they had trouble setting up the experiment, he said.
“I absolutely agree that the environment of our experiment was distracting,” Zepecki added, though he said the classes before and after Aaliyah’s class were more focused, with 100 percent of kids on task. Overall, about 80 percent of students completed their two-day labs, he said.
On Her Own
After science, Aaliyah parted ways with her friend. She had assigned herself to a science lab with Gail Emilsson, who was filling in for Aaliyah’s other science teacher. Alone, at the threshold of the door, Aaliyah didn’t want to go in. Nor did she feel like following Serena to history class.
“It’s a struggle,” she said. “I don’t want to go to either class.”
She resigned to sit down and open her textbook, Foundations of Physical Science. The room was quiet, with six other students scribbling away. She filled out a worksheet on magnets.
Aaliyah got work done. But “it was boring working by myself,” she later reported. There was no Serena, nor were there any peers from her class, to keep her company. “Nobody else was working on what I was working on.”
Classes were smaller than usual: About 75 percent of the 235 kids in the school showed up Thursday, compared to 91 percent on an average day, according to Good, the principal.
Aaliyah reunited with her friends over roasted chicken and rice in the school cafeteria, then headed up to art room for a daily, 20-minute sustained silent reading period. Serena pulled out Catcher in the Rye. Aaliyah paged through Indigo Summer by Monica McKayhan.
They stayed there for a final class with art teacher Donna Frederick-Neznek. Aaliyah took out her phone to find a picture of a fish to draw. Then she copied the image onto her sketchbook.
Frederick-Neznek said she thought the new system worked well for art class, where kids tend to work independently, at their own pace. Instead of getting a set amount of homework each night, students have to fill out a set list of assignments in their sketchbooks over the course of the year.
She applauded the experiment for allowing students “to feel empowered.” “We have to have a place where they’re in control, because they don’t have a lot of places where they have control.”
“But they still need guided instruction,” she noted. She called the week “an excellent first step” in finding the right balance between student choice and teacher direction.
“If we get this right, we’re on the cutting edge of education reform,” Frederick-Neznek said.
Teachers generally gave the week a positive review, despite some challenges.
Zepecki, the science teacher, later said his day proved especially difficult because he was teaching many students for the first time, since their regular classroom teachers were out on vacation.
“At the end of the day on Thursday, I was completely frazzled and frustrated with the process of this experiment. I am extremely fit and healthy, and never have I been as physically and mentally exhausted as I have in this past week.” He said it would be easier to evaluate the how the no-classes system works if all teachers had their assigned students.
However, Zepecki remained hopeful: “I feel strongly that this approach would be successful with the right training (of the students and teachers) and consistent expectations and routine from the teachers and students.”
“This experiment did just what it was intended to do—challenge the norms of education and truly open our eyes to what is missing in our practices. I know, as with every challenge that the HSC staff has taken, there will be a lot of dynamic conversations and further experimentation with the future of education.”
Good, the principal, said the new system, which mixed up kids in new combinations with older and younger peers, had a positive effect on kids’ behavior: teachers didn’t have to kick anyone out of class for creating a disruption.
Good did agree that some kids really struggled with learning on their own.
“We’re definitely having that problem,” Good said. “They want us to feed everything to them.” However, he said, kids need to develop autonomy. “We’re not going to be going with them to college.”
Good said he had been fully prepared to “pull the plug” on the experiment after two days if it didn’t go well. But the plan met such success, he said, that he decided to extend the experiment throughout the week—and hasten its future implementation.
Before last week, Good said, he thought HSC might be able to eventually do away the traditional notion of a “class.” After the dry run last week, he said he felt confident the school will do away with “classes,” as soon as 2015.
“Worked For Me”
Students gave their own reviews, and self-analyses, in advisory periods at the end of the day.
A sophomore named Shawn, who grumbled that he “hates school,” began the day by staring blankly at his schedule.
“Where are my classes?” he asked. He didn’t fill anything out until a teacher came over and guided him through it.
At the end of the day, he said he preferred the system to the normal way of doing things.
“I like this better. I have more choices,” he said. He said the day proved a good way to catch up: “I just picked the classes I struggle in the most.”
Aaliyah saw pros and cons. Working alone, in the one class where her schedule didn’t align with her peers, was less fun. But being without her usual group of peers lessened the distractions throughout the day. And the setup “gave me the opportunity to catch up.”
“This new thing worked for me,” she concluded in a feedback form.
Then she stepped out of school, back into 2013.
Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:
• Gay-Rights Teach-In Goes Off-Script
• Nikita Makes It Home
• 15 Seniors Head To College Early
• No More “B And A Smile”
• Students Protest: “Give Us Homework!”
• Meadow Street Clamps Down On Turnaround
• School Votes For Hats; District Brass Balks
• Students Invoke Free Speech In Great Hat Debate
• Guv: End Social Promotion
• History Class Hits The Streets
• “Misfit Josh” & Alex Get A 2nd Chance
• Guess Who’s Assigning The Homework Now
• On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World
• Frank Reports Detail Experiment’s Ups & Downs
• School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”
• State “Invites” HSC To Commissioner’s Network
• Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”