This article is part of a series of case studies of schools in New York City. For the full story, start with my overview of the Magical Mastery Tour and the three biggest takeaways. Part 1 of the Bronx Arena visit can be found here.
Students at BxA are unquestionably at the core of everything the school sets out to accomplish. You can see this in the way students are arranged academically.
Instead of traditional grades, students at BxA are “leveled.” Those assigned to Level 1 are focused on passing the Regents exams based on tenth grade skills, while those at Level 2 are in eleventh and twelfth grades. Students at Level 2 prepare for their senior portfolio, which includes designing their own capstone project for a course. Students select the competencies they will be demonstrating, as well as the rubric that will be used for assessment. This demonstrates that they know how to structure their own learning experiences – a skill that will be very handy in college and taking on new challenges in the workplace.
Designing Curriculum: Two Challenges and a Capstone
BxA has created a course model for teachers to follow. Every course is organized around two “challenges” and a capstone. A challenge is designed around one to two competencies and tends to be a bit larger than a unit. The challenge has a summative project by which students demonstrate proficiency. The capstone is designed for students to transfer the skills into a new context.
Sherwood explained, “The competency structure also allows teachers to be creative in writing courses. The courses can be discipline-specific or interdisciplinary based on the sub-categories and competencies that are selected.”
For example, BxA has curriculum design teams that consist of students and teachers. Each course has two teacher designers, and they usually have three courses being designed at a time. The team provides feedback on alignment, flow, language in the rubric, assessment options, and specific insight on lessons and directions. The goal is for the daily objectives or tasks to arc towards the competencies. New teachers start by designing around one to two competencies, while more experienced teachers can design around up to four.
To date, students have completed capstones on a number of topics, including a presentation on the sustainability of nuclear energy; photographic essays on the impact of the environment of the Bronx on humans (and on the impact of humans on the environment in the Bronx); designing a parenting course; and creating a pitch to Roger Goddell on why there should be a female NFL.
Information Management: Having the Right Conversation with the Right Kid
The central idea at BxA is that they want to be tuned in to the students – for celebration as well as for careful conversation.
No matter what it is Sherwood and Cesene are doing at the time, they drop everything when a student earns another credit. While we spoke, three students walked in to have their “credit signed” and receive hearty congratulations. (It also serves the purpose to make sure the student’s transcript reflects the credit, as they are the currency New York still uses for graduation.)
“We want to be sure we are having the right conversation with the right kid at the right time,” Cesene emphasized. In designing their information management system, BxA wanted want real-time data to drive interactions in addition to the instruction.
As Cesene described it, “Once you drop time as a standard and once you personalize the education process, you need to have minimum standards in place. Self-paced or going at your own pace just gets us into trouble.” To accomplish this, the system tracks tasks, competencies, credits, and attendance. Cesene explained, “We track everything, but we want to be targeted about what information we present back to students (and in what order). This helps us ensure that trends can be recognized and that there isn’t an overload of information that isn’t actionable.”
When a student has submitted a revision in order to demonstrate proficiency, it shows up purple on the information management system. “I want to able to see when students are doing revision,” Cesene said. Sherwood went on to add, “We also want to acknowledge students for continuing to work until they get it. Over time, we expect to see less and less purple as students build up their personal efficacy skills.” Pointing out one student, she said, “As you can see here, we suddenly have more purple, so we know something is going on with this student.”
Cesene added that the culture of revision is really important, “We moved away from the language of mastery because we could never define it. Think about golf – I did it on this swing but not that swing. What we do focus on is demonstrating competency and accepting that it may take several revisions to get there. Our teachers are stars when it comes to revision.”
Among its multiple functionalities, the information system has a “Bank” that increases with tasks completed, and that decreases with incomplete tasks. (A similar system is used to track attendance.) When the Bank becomes too negative, it triggers conversations.
Cesene explained, “We can’t ignore the social-emotional aspects of our students. It’s absolutely intertwined with their academic learning. They need to believe that they can learn new skills and rewrite their past. Our system helps us know when it’s time to have a conversation about how students are handling issues in their lives. We want them to be able to set their goals and to learn the academic behaviors that are going to help them accomplish these goals. It’s not just about fractions, but how students handle things when fractions are hard to learn.”
Cesene and the team at BxA are trying to get the social-emotional elements of the school right, but it’s a difficult process. “We’ve read the research on goal-setting and perseverance, but there isn’t much on how to help older students who have already experienced failure.”
Tips for Designing a Mastery-Based School
Although there are so many insights and lessons to be learned from Bronx Arena, a few stand out to me based on challenges I’ve seen in other schools.
1) Design with Student–Facingness
Cesene encouraged other school designers with, “Schools need to have student-facing language to make sure students will understand it. Students have innate ways of learning, and it is our job to support them. The language and practices need to be designed to be meaningful to the students.”
Too often we lead with language designed to standardize and bureaucratize rather than inspire and engage. Constantly challenging ourselves to have student-facing language, structures, and practices will help us keep students at the center of our decision-making.
2) Live on the Edges of the Ed Code
For schools that are converting from traditional time-based A-F systems, it is often difficult to disentangle oneself from the regulations, operating procedures, and contractual details.
Cesene is emphatic, “Always start with your school culture. Do not ever start with minimal work contracts in designing a school. Many of our assumptions are embedded in contracts and regulations. It’s important to stay focused on the spirit of the law.”
By staying true to the spirit of the law, BxA was able to shake off the idea of an hour-long “period” to create four-hour “arenas.”
3) Transparency Starts with Respecting Staff Enough to be Honest about What they Are Going to Encounter
Cesene and Sherwood caution new staff, “You’ll be a worse teacher in September than you were last June, but you’ll be the best teacher you have ever been by next June.”
Several aspects of a personalized, mastery-based school are likely to require substantial shifts in thinking and practice. First, students can’t fail. The culture of revision impacts both students and teachers. Second, removing many of the boundaries of time that set expectations means constantly negotiating goals and expectations based on individual students. Third, the focus on teaching becomes much more focused on skills than content. It’s a whole new world for many teachers.
Cesene summed it up with, “We aren’t done innovating until 100 percent of our students are graduating.” This is a reminder to all of us. Competency education isn’t really competency education until we figure out how to get all kids to proficiency.