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Aurora Institute

A Visit to Phoenix Multicultural Academy (Detroit)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

phoenix post pictureI first met Dr. Cintron as he jetted down the hall, waving his iPad, calling, “I’m on my way to do observations!” He took a circular path to becoming principal at Phoenix, starting first as a teacher at Phoenix, then at DPS to manage Title III, and then as principal by the Education Achievement Authority to re-invent the school as a Student-Centered Learning model.  (Please read the post on EAA to understand the SCL model and how mastery-based learning is embedded in the overall approach.)

Phoenix is a K-9 school in the middle of the Hispanic community known as Mexicantown in Detroit.  Its student body is 70% Latino (of which 70% are English language learners), 10% African-American, and the remaining a mix of white and multi-racial students. Phoenix also has a number of students age 13-17 that are refugees from Guatemala and Hungary that high schools wouldn’t accept because the students’ education has been so interrupted.

Phoenix got results even in their first year of operation. They were the fifth most improved of all schools, according to Excellent Schools Detroit. As a result, enrollment is increasing with 100 additional students this year.

Responsiveness Leads to Innovation: One of the key characteristics of Phoenix is its problem-solving mode of operations that generates innovation along the way.  One example is how it morphed into the unusual structure of a K-9 school. Originally it was K-8, and eighth graders, upon graduation, had no choice but to attend a large high school outside of their neighborhood because the local high school had been closed. Knowing that there was going to be a lot of gang conflict, Phoenix added a 9th grade academy to their existing K-8 structure, in which the 9th grade students would spend part of their day at Phoenix, continuing to build up their language skills, and 2/3 at the  Central High School.

Another example of innovation is the Learning Village, where three teachers have integrated their 1st and 2nd grade classes to better manage the environment in order to support the students.  The majority of the students did not have any pre-K experience and are ELL.  They found that the transition between the stations, from receiving new instruction to practicing or demonstrating, was challenging for many of them.  Using the three classrooms along a dedicated hallway, the teachers use one classroom for new instruction, one for tutoring, and the other for two stations, small teacher-led group and technology-based practice. In this way, they can help the students orient themselves and make the transitions more clear. They also have flexibility to group students along levels so that regardless of age or grade, students at or below Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 all have a chance to work together.

Dr. Mary Esselman, Chief Academic Officer of the EAA, explained that, in the first year of implementation, the focus was on structure, and in the second year, teachers can begin to explore what technology allows you to leverage – time, talent, resources, and space.

Student-Centered Starts with Caring:  Like the other schools I visited, the EAA SCL schools start with caring. It’s in the greetings among staff, and between staff and children. With Dr. Esselman as my guide, we walked the hallways entering every classroom to say hi, observe the classroom, and talk to the children. As Dr. Esselman says, “You can’t do observations without talking to the students.” Among the many encouraging posters in Phoenix hallways, this one caught my heart: “Love gives you wings.”

Routines and Rituals:  It was fascinating to see the same types of rituals in each classroom with a strong dose of creativity and personal flair.  It was also amazing how similarly these classrooms looked to the ones I’ve visited in Barack Obama Charter School and in Maine.  They are all part of creating a transparent classroom where students know exactly what they are working on, what proficiency looks like, and what they need to do next. It’s also the tools for teachers to manage a personalized classroom. What you’ll see are:

  • Shared Vision – Created with the students to set the tone and culture of the classroom.
  • Common Language – This helps students learn the language of being in an SCL school.
  • “Where Am I?” Board – Students use it to signal to the teacher how they are doing and whether they need help, or when  they are ready to show evidence of their learning.
  • Target Tracker – A way for students to proudly indicate that they are progressing. It complements how student progress is tracked in Buzz.
  • Parking Lot – Students can add questions, comments, ideas, and “aha’s.”
  • Word Wall – This wall helps low-income students and students learning English build their vocabulary.
  • Evidence Board – Teachers use it to show what proficiency looks like by putting student work on the wall.

Dr. Esselman emphasized that these routines are all-important, as is the urgent transition from one station to the next in the blended classroom. Teachers work carefully with students to understand the flow from one station to the next and how their orientation to learning will change. I watched one teacher announce, “We are ready to go to our next station. Point to where you are going”, and within a minute students were at their next station, opening books, getting pencils out, or putting headphones on. Teachers emphasize digital citizenship and a classroom work ethic. The students like working on the computers and they understand that there isn’t a 2nd chance at the technology station. When they get there, it’s time to work.

Buzz and Blended Learning:  It was interesting to note the different adaptive software that is being used at Phoenix as compared to Brenda Scott Academy for the Theatre Arts. At Phoenix with its emphasis on building up English language skills, the content in Buzz includes, Mango, Imagine Learning, ST Math, ALEKS, Compass, Storytown and even Rosetta Stone to help students build up their Spanish skills.

Dr. Esselman made sure that I understood the point that Buzz allows students to have options in which software or activity they choose, “Teachers don’t want one model or program. They want to be able to pick what’s best for their kids.  And they want to be able to create activities that build on what is going on in the classroom.” I have to admit that it took me a bit to understand the big difference in a personalized, blended environment for teachers – they plan units, not lesson plans.  In planning units, teachers think about choices for their class in terms of the stages of learning (Learn, Practice, and Apply), and how they will assess the learning.

Teachers also think ahead about what specific students, who are struggling or have some type of special need, may need to succeed. For example, it is standard practice for students who are two or more years behind in reading and English language arts to spend 30 minutes a day on Imagine Learning. It’s fluency component provides opportunity for students to practice, and teachers can listen to them read later on to see how they are progressing and where they need more help.

Orientation and Empowerment:  For 1st and 2nd graders, learning the routines of a SCL classroom is mostly about coaching and reminders.  For older students it may require unlearning, as well as cracking down defensive routines for those students who already think they are “dumb” and that failure is a permanent status.  Dr. Esselman said that for the young grades, they expect students to take ownership by late October. This means that you can ask children what they are learning and they can tell you their learning target, what they need to do to demonstrate it, and what they’ll be working on next. By the end of three months, students should usually be on task in a classroom and not having to wait for a teacher to move ahead.

Lessons for Leaders:  Dr. Cintron shared his advise for any principal turning around a school: Collaborate, stay open-minded and flexible, provide autonomy for staff to innovate, don’t be afraid to fail, know your own capacity, and engage others where you don’t have the capacity. He emphasized that embracing your team is really important as no one has enough bandwidth to know how everything is going to fit together. It’s the team of educators working together that are going to bring all the pieces together, sharing their expertise and ideas along the way.  It is important to note here that, as an EAA turnaround school, Dr. Cintron was able to hire his own staff.

A big thanks to everyone at Phoenix Multicultural Academy for showing me your school!