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Aurora Institute

Bronx Arena: Organizing Spaghetti (Part 1)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Learn Lessons from the Field

BronxThis article is part of a series of case studies of schools in New York City. For the full story, start with the overview of the Magical Mastery Tour and the three biggest takeaways. Part 2 about Bronx Arena is below.

Ty Cesene and Samantha (Sam) Sherwood, co-principals at Bronx Arena (BxA), opened our conversation with an unexpected reference to spaghetti:

Competency-based structures are just one part of our school. In fact, for us, they’re the back-end. Our primary focus has always been to have a student-facing school that makes sense to students and also constantly reminds staff that our job is to support students.

Once you take away the element of time, as we did, the door is opened wide to everything you ever wanted kids to know and do. Of course, then there has to be some way of prioritizing. That’s where defining the competencies has become really important for us. Yes, there may be lots of ways to organize instruction, but we know exactly what we want kids to be able to do when they graduate from Bronx Arena.

As we started to put together all the ideas – asynchronous learning; responding to the intersection of our students’ social-emotional lives and their cognitive development; competency-based learning; flexibility in staffing, structures, and how we use time – we felt like we were trying to organize spaghetti. 


Bronx Arena, is in its fourth year of operation, is offering a personalized educational experience that motivates students, responds to the trauma that has infiltrated their lives and shaped their psyches, and ensures they learn what they need to know in order to succeed in life, college, and careers. In collaboration with SCO Family of Services (their community-based partner funded through NYC Learning to Work policy) and the Department of Education, this is accomplished within a very specific context: BxA is a transfer school designed for students that are over-age and under-credit, and who need to complete the 44-5 gateway (44 credits and 5 Regents exams). The school has a total of 200 students ranging in age from sixteen to twenty-two.

As you read this mini case study, please remember that this is a highly integrated school that is still (and may forever be) in the process of innovating. We share the examples of their program to inform and inspire. However, any one practice or tool has to be considered in the context of a highly integrated, sophisticated, ever-changing model.

Can You Create a Transformational Experience Within a Traditional High School Model?

It’s not the easiest thing to understand the Arena model because they’ve inverted many of the traditional structures and processes. In fact, it sometimes feels like they’ve flipped everything over on its head and are reconstructing what it means to be a school.

Cesene explained the starting point for the school, “We had to provide kids a different experience than they had gotten in the past. We wanted a transformative experience that would help them figure out how to travel the distance of who they are now and who they want to be.” Sherwood emphasized the point with, “We recognized that it is difficult to provide a transformational experience within the traditional high school experience. We threw out the high school structure of students bouncing between six to eight teachers with 45 minutes within one limited context so we could create a comprehensive approach that responded to students, their experiences, and their lives.”

But what happens when you dump out the time, the credits, and the chance to fail?

“When you remove time, everything opens up,” Cesene said. “Trying to organize all the key concepts into something that is meaningful for students is huge. It’s the educational equivalent of landing on the moon.”

Organizing Resources (or Time, Schedules, and Staffing)

Sherwood and Cesene refer to the deployment of staff across the schedules as “the boxes.” And I understand why they do. There is no easy reason to separate the school schedule from the creative staffing pattern that has been established to support asynchronous learning (personalized and self-paced) in asynchronous classrooms.

Let’s start with the staffing triad:

  1. Generalist Teachers are the primary teachers, authorized to help students get to graduation.
  2. Advocate Counselors (AC) come to BxA from SCO Family of Services. They have the job of working closely with the Generalist Teachers to address the social-emotional issues that are emerging.
  3. Content Specialist Teachers jump in whenever students need help, designing courses and ensuring that students are proficient. (Interestingly, at BxA, Content Specialist Teachers have the flex time rather than students. This way, they make sure students get the help they need when they need it.)

The schedule is organized around Arenas, which are classrooms of twenty-five students who meet in a four-hour block to work on the class or course that makes sense for them (any class/course can be happening at any time for any student). These are led by the Generalist Teacher using a co-teaching model with the Advocate Counselor and Content Specialist Teachers. Courses are all online, with students working in different courses, at different paces, and in a variety of ways.

Sherwood explained it as, “The Generalist Teacher co-teaches with Content Specialist Teachers who rotate in and out of class. Sometimes they are pushing in and sometimes pulling out. It might be individual work or small group work based on what is happening with students.”

In addition to Arenas, there are extra classes focused on helping students with gaps in their functional literacy or math, as well as high-interest courses. Students will take more or less ELA, math, and high-interest courses as needed based on their own learning and goals.

Similarly, the Advocate Counselor (or social worker) provided by SCO Family of Services is in each Arena class. As Sherwood described it, “Advocate Counselors take the lead on social-emotional learning. However, it’s impossible to divide up a young person into two parts: one part academic and the other social-emotional. What’s important is understanding how students respond to challenges, especially young people who have been traumatized. They may have developed many protective responses that get in their way of learning.”

The tighter that Generalist Teachers and Advocate Counselors can work together, the better the Arena system works.

A Generalist Teacher plays many roles within the BxA setting. Arena is trying to identify these to better support teachers. For example, Sherwood described Generalist Teachers as authentic problem-solvers. “When authority and expertise aren’t the ones shaping the relationship, teachers and students can dig into problems together.”

To help enhance this idea, BxA provides support to teachers to become comfortable as facilitators and provide effective feedback. They identify seven facilitation modes that teachers may use in a blended classroom:

  1. One to One Support
  2. Small Group Mini-Lessons
  3. Small Group Discussions
  4. Conferencing
  5. Whole Group Instruction
  6. Peer Interaction
  7. Circulation

Teachers meet on a monthly basis with students for goal-setting, including identifying courses or credits they want to complete and what is required to accomplish it. Advocate Counselors also work with students to continue to build up academic behaviors, address different feelings that come up along the way, and coach students as they navigate challenging situations.

Organizing Learning

Organizing spaghetti, landing on the moon…these types of analogies made sense once I started to examine the way BxA organizes their learning. Organizing around students and not curriculum can mean that the strucutures and processes aren’t step-by-step or linear.

Sherwood described the process of creating the competency framework as:

When we started to figure out what we expected students to learn, the Common Core seemed like a good place to start – we broke it down and identified commonalities across content areas. We also found a few holes and some huge gaps.

For us, Common Core has two big problems. First, it doesn’t include the foundational skills in the high school academic levels. It assumes students already know everything from the lower levels, which is certainly not the case for our students. We needed to be thinking about vocabulary, fluency, and the basics in math. Second, it doesn’t include social-emotional learning, which is a huge issue for helping our students who have endured trauma as well as years of failure in school.

We realized we needed to have a philosophy of learning behind the curriculum that would be an organizing principle, not just a long list. 

At first they had five buckets of learning, with plans to expand to six. The structure has four levels (two of which are seen below): Categories, sub-categories, competencies (around ten to eleven in each sub-category), and arcs (the skills that are needed to demonstrate a competency that can be used to create daily lessons).

Bronx Arena Skills (Category and Sub-Category)

Thinking: Cyclical & Symbolic Thinking; Reasoning, Analysis, and Interpretation (Linear); Problem Solving; and Creative & Divergent Thinking

Self and Community: Personal Efficacy; Social/Group Efficacy and Global Citizenship

Numeracy: Number & Quantity; Algebra; Functions; Modeling; Geometry; Statistics & Probability

Literacy: Comprehension; Fluency; Academic Vocabulary; Recognition and Phonics

Expression: Writing Organization & Structure; Voice & Style; Grammar, Mechanics, & Syntax; Group Discussion

Competencies may be included under more than one sub-category. Sherwood explained, “When teachers design courses, they pick sub-categories that students will be learning and then the competencies by which they will be assessed. Because competencies are included under different sub-categories, we see how the students can transfer their strength from one area to another. For example, using evidence to support argument is equally important in ELA as it is mathematics. It was important to us that we structure the competencies so that they could be interconnected and create a strength-based approach.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Bronx Arena visit, where we’ll look at specific BxA innovations designed to improve graduation rates.