How come we can’t call them freshmen—because “they ain’t fresh”? cracked one senior, as students tried to wrap their minds around some radical changes at the city’s newest turnaround school.
The remark came inside High School in the Community (HSC) Wednesday morning, as 20,000 students across the city returned for the first day of school.
Before students headed to class, HSC building leader Erik Good ushered them into the cafeteria to “blow their minds” about some new developments at the school. The changes come as the school becomes a state-sanctioned “turnaround,” on tap to receive at least $1 million per year for three years to fund a new experiment to lift failing test scores. The school, which has been teacher-run since its inception in 1970, is now directly managed by the teachers union. The magnet school serves about 260 kids from New Haven and beyond in an industrial space at 175 Water St.
Good, a teacher, was elected by his peers to run the school, approached the podium wearing a bow tie.
“You’re all out of uniform,” he warned a room full of upperclassmen.
“We gave you an option—black and white stripes or orange jumpsuits.”
After a wave of whispers, Good confessed he was joking. He said amid all the changes, rumors swirled over the summer that students would have uniforms.
There will be no uniforms, he announced, but many other things have changed.
“We’ve all been working hard to imagine something different,” a new way of approaching high school, he said.
What looks different in the school? He asked.
“The poles!” said one student. The pillars in the cafeteria, as well as all the halls, were painted over the summer.
“The teachers,” said another.
“Ten teachers aren’t here anymore,” Good confirmed. He introduced the new faces lined up to replace them.
About a third of the staff changed this year. That’s because when the school became an official turnaround, all teachers had to reapply for their jobs. Those who weren’t selected, or who wanted to leave, were guaranteed jobs elsewhere in the district.
The new crew of staff worked hard all summer to revamp the school, Good said.
“We decided it was time to be risk-takers,” he told the room.
Good then unveiled the biggest change of all—an effort to get rid of the assembly-line approach to high school and promote kids after they’ve mastered material. His challenge Wednesday morning was to begin to sell the idea to a skeptical, and unfamiliar audience.
“The problem with the current system,” he explained, “is that it treats you all the same.”
Good announced that high school as you know it—“as you see in the movies”—was about to change.
“We no longer have 9th-graders.”
“We have students who are coming to us from 8th grade,” Good said with a smile. They’ll be called “foundation-level” students, not “freshmen.”
“They ain’t fresh?”
First-year students will no longer be allowed to skate through high school with D’s, Good said: They’ll have to show mastery of certain skills before they move up. In the new model, kids can zip through school in three years if they work really hard, or they can take five or six years if they need to. They’ll be learning at their own pace.
That sounded good to senior Brittany Caine.
“Why couldn’t I be a foundation-level student?” she asked.
“Because we couldn’t get our act together soon enough,” Good told her.
An aspiring lawyer, Brittany (pictured) later said she would have liked to finish high school in fewer years. She could have done it, she said, “because I work hard.” As a senior, she will leave before the school’s full conversion to the new system, called competency-based learning.
The school is starting this year by getting rid of 9th grade. Next academic year, there will be no more grades 9, 10, 11 or 12. Students will progress only when they’ve mastered certain skills set out for each grade. The milestones will be aligned with the new Common Core State Standards, a national curriculum Connecticut is moving towards.
The school is also getting rid of grades A to F; students will now receive numbers 1 to 4.
Ultimate Goal: No More Classes!
Good said his goal is in five years, to do away with classes: Instead of showing up to Algebra II class, all students would arrive at school with their own learning goals, and proceed at their own pace.
“If it’s not classes, what is it?” asked one student.
“Does gym class count?” asked another.
Good (pictured) asked for a show of hands for who was confused.
“I’m trying to blow your minds a little bit,” he said.
The changes will come with perks, he pledged: By next year, every kid will have an iPad to take home. There will be a Mac computer lab, too.
And lots of field trips. “I’m not talking about trips to Sound School or Hartford.” Overnight trips, he said, to places like Boston and Montreal.
“Yes, that’s Canada!” Good said. “Everyone who graduates from High School in the Community will graduate with a stamp in your passport. That’s one of our goals.”
The trips will be paid for by a $3 million, three-year grant from the state, Good explained. That’s about $1 million per year extra on top of the $3 million annual budget.
“There’s no free three million dollars,” Good warned.
People across the state will be watching to see how the experiment goes, he said. And students will have to work harder.
Good saved the least palatable news for last.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, he announced, students will have to stay after school for an extra hour. It’s called “eagle time,” after the school’s mascot. Students will use that time to work on areas of academic weakness. If they work hard, Good said, they may earn the right to go home early, at 2:15 p.m. instead of 3:15.
Brittany groaned at the suggestion.
“3:15? Those are middle school hours,” she said.
Good acknowledged the adjustment may be tough.
“Some of you are going to be upset about the changes, and some of the teachers who are not here,” he said. “I want you to know that’s OK.”
“I’m not happy that 10 of my friends are not here this year,” he said.
He acknowledged that as with any risk-taking, “some of these things are not going to work.” He urged students to get on board.
“Before you say, ‘Oh Hell no!’, I want you to try.”
“We have trips at stake. We have luxuries that other schools won’t have.”
He sent students on their way to discuss the year ahead with their teachers.
In a second-floor science room, students jotted down questions on Post-It notes:
“Is there really not going to be classes? I need credits. :)”
How do we get out of “eagle time”?
“Why did so many teachers leave?”
“Does Gail still work here?”
“Why is our school called something academy?”
“Where is Montreal?”
Returning science teacher Kelly Baker answered some of those questions. She assured kids that the teachers who left have found other schools.
And the school is now technically called High School in the Community Academy for Law and Social Justice, because it has taken on a new theme.
As they came to understand the changes afoot, students had a range of reactions.
“It’s going to take some getting used to,” said junior Ronald Godin of West Haven. He said he prefers having discrete 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades. “You can’t just smush everyone together.”
“I’m fine with the 3:15 thing,” he said of the extended day. But he wasn’t so sure about the staff overhaul.
“The teachers who left here, I don’t know why they had to leave,” he said. The school replaced some veteran teachers with much younger ones. Ronald said the young teachers can relate to kids, but “I like the older teachers because they have experience.”
First-year student Serena Santiago said she’s on the fence about not being a freshman: She’d like to finish high school in fewer than four years, “but I also want the high school experience.”
Brittany gave a mixed review.
The longer day? “I’m not feeling it.”
She said she is looking forward to getting to know the new hires: Several new teachers sported glasses and tucked-in shirts, she noted. “Just by their appearance, they look pretty smart.”
Good said Wednesday was just the “beginning of the sell” on the new school model. It will take a lot more explaining, he said.
“We’re going to make sure we’re making the case for why we’re doing what we’re doing,” both to students and their parents, in coming weeks, he said.
“People have very fixed ideas of what high school is.”
Past Independent stories on High School in the Community: