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Aurora Institute

High Expectations at EPIC North

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

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

Rites of Passage
Students in EPIC North’s Rights of Passage program meet to support each other academically, socially, and personally.

This article is part of a series of case studies of schools in New York City. Read the entire EPIC North series with parts one, two, and three.

As with my first visit to EPIC North, the conversation started with students. I was thrilled to have the chance to talk with sophomores who now had a year and a half under their belts in a mastery-based school. In this post, I’ll review some of the main elements of the EPIC design – cultural relevance, project-based learning, competencies and attainments, and high expectations – while drawing upon the insights of students. (Check out the Epic Playbook for more information.)

Cultural Relevance

Competency-based or mastery-based education can be a powerful enabling force upon which to build cultural relevance. Cultural relevance, one of Epic Schools’ core elements, was a concept developed in the 1990s that “recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.” Mastery-based education allows for students to co-design projects or have choice in how they demonstrate their learning. This is what personalizing education is all about.

However, cultural relevance reminds us that adults may not have the same life or cultural experiences as their students. Adults might not understand what is particularly meaningful or particularly demoralizing without first creating a way to have dialogue. This is particularly true when the race and ethnicity of the teachers are different than the student population. Cultural relevance requires us to go beyond the “golden rule” toward the “platinum rule” of seeking out what is important to other people rather than using our own culture and priorities as a starting point. Essentially this is what building relationships with students is all about – finding out what is important to them. (See the report Culturally Relevant Education (CRE) and the Framework for Great Schools, produced by the Expanding Success Initiative at the NYC DOE, for examples of culturally relevant practices drawn from schools.)

Epic North has developed a weekly Rites of Passage to support young people as they reflect on their lives and develop the attainments that are more related to adolescent development. I was invited to sit in on one of the teams, Brothers for Life (Rites of Passage have been broken into gender specific teams). One of the young men led a call and response for the code of cooperation they had created as the opening activity:

  • Be loyal
  • Trust each other, have faith
  • Work together
  • Respect each other and each other’s differences
  • Have each other’s back
  • Support each other
  • Love one another
  • Be positive
  • Be accountable
  • Have fun

With the last declaration, all said together, “We may not have it together, but together we have it all.”

Before they started the day’s process, one student explained to me that Rites of Passage is a place where “we listen deeply to each other.” From there, they began to check in with each other, talking about how their weekend had been and things that were on their minds. Later, they would begin to dive into an issue, exploring what it meant to them and how they could support each other.

Projects, Pace, and Self-Directed Learning

At the time of my visit, the ninth graders were involved with a project on contagion and the tenth graders on a project explaining nature vs. nurture, which included selecting a topic, designing an experiment, and running a social media campaign. Posters were up throughout the school on gender inequality, incarceration rates, and various diseases that the students were designated to build awareness of.

I had the chance to sit in on a press conference by one of the ninth grade teams in which they took on the roles of mayor, the Commissioner of Public Health, a representative from the CDC, and a public relations official to present their recommendations for dealing with an outbreak of pertussis and streptococcal pharyngitis. The audience, which included staff, students, the NYC Department of Education’s Digital Ready team, and myself, were all invited to ask questions and provide feedback on the presentation using a rubric for Attainment #11, “I can facilitate a meeting or workshop.” The team of students provided their analysis by drawing on science and math as well as a set of recommendations that included a quarantine. Science teacher Tyrone Dash asked probing questions to determine the depth of the understanding of the students on key terms and concepts such as differential diagnosis, epidemiological triangle (host, agent, environment), death rate, and exponential growth.

Principal David Weinberg played a critical role in setting very high expectations for students to have thoroughly thought through the costs and implications of their recommendations. Weinberg was clearly communicating his expectations of the students and signaling that he deeply believed in them and their capacity to excel.

In the discussion with students, Osama jumped in with his thoughts on projects, “In the beginning I didn’t like the school. I didn’t understand what we were learning or why we were learning it. In my old school we rarely had projects. Here it was all projects. I really didn’t like it until I got a lot of help from teachers. When I realized that I was going to get help, the projects became interesting.” Mo expanded, “ In the beginning it was hard. There were projects rather than textbooks. But then I realized I was learning a lot of things. I learned to manage my time and resources. I set goals now and plan my day. I’ve learned to self-regulate myself. I even plan to give myself free time every day.”

Other students chimed in on the topic of flexible pace:

  • “Working at my own pace really helps me. It makes a difference when you need extra help from the teacher. You can take the time to get it.”
  • “Deadlines can really stress you out. You have to work with your advisor a lot in the beginning because everything is self-paced.”
  • “I am learning the skills that are helping me organize my life.”

It was clear that at Epic North, pace isn’t about fast or slow. Managing the pacing of your studies and implementing complex projects is part of learning to be a self-directed learner.

Competencies and Attainments

One student explained to me, “Some competencies are academic and some are more emotional or social. For example, working collaboratively is on the emotional side.” Jaciah, a tenth grader explained, “An attainment is a skill that you need to master before you get to college. There are sixty-six attainments that you will need for jobs or college.” Another student emphasized that attainments make it easy to do interdisciplinary projects. He described the skills he was learning through the nature vs. nurture project, including learning about the scientific method, how to design an experiment, how to think about independent variables, how to be better at directing his learning, and how to design and implement a campaign.

EPIC has 19 competencies and 66 attainments established as “I can” statements. The competencies are a mix of academic skills and benchmarks for adolescent development. I find the Epic competencies particularly interesting, as the descriptions feel as if there is real value in each for how students are living their lives now and in the future. A few of my favorites:

  • I can show strength and take action even in the face of fear.
  • I can analyze how things change as they grow.
  • I can develop or strengthen my writing by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
  • I can make it through tough situations and recover from challenges and setbacks.

The competencies don’t feel like they were drawn out of Common Core or state standards. They feel rooted in the lives of the young people in the school. The students explained that even though sixty-six attainments is a lot, it’s not when you think that you have four years to reach them all. Students explained that when they feel that they have met an attainment, they go to a teacher with the evidence of their skill and ask them to sign off. Some attainments, such as those related to science, will need to be signed by Mr. Dash the science teacher. Others, such as writing-related attainments, might be approved by any teacher.

There are a number of incentives designed to help support students reach attainment. There is an awards ceremony every two weeks. If students really excelled on an attainment, they can ask someone to nominate them and write a speech about the experience of reaching that attainment. An award is given for each attainment. When students build up another ten attainments, they get a hoodie. However, you can lose the award of the attainment if your behavior changes or you fail to be consistently meeting it.

There is a strong emphasis on communication and presentation at Epic. I realized it during my first visit, as students had been very well coached on how to meet and network with a visitor. As we talked about the importance of communication, one student pointed out that he had met college-ready levels for presentation skills, including professionalism, making eye contact, knowing content well, and precision in talking about the topic. Another student was teaching others how to make presentations and helping them learn how to provide helpful criticism. Students also described the symposiums where the three Epic schools all gather together and present ideas to each other.

19 Competencies

  • Read analytically
  • Communicate & be creative
  • Write effectively
  • Think critically and design solutions
  • Connect to environment
  • Conceptualize growth & development
  • Synthesize systems and processes
  • Investigate scientifically
  • Apply numeracy
  • Evaluate spaces, shapes & conditions
  • Practice social responsibility
  • Apply history in a number of ways
  • Design my future
  • Develop myself
  • Manage my relationships
  • Use technology & media purposefully
  • Stay healthy
  • Direct my learning
  • Analyze data and information

All Leading to High Expectations

High expectations. Rigor. Deeper Learning. These are all terms that fly around the rhetorical world of education. But what do they really mean in terms of the day-to-day lives of students and teachers? You can count how many AP courses there are or how many students are passing the exam. Of course, the proxy of teaching grade level standards isn’t the same as students actually learning the pre-requisite skills they need to attain them.

Epic North’s way of approaching high expectations is rooted in relationships. As I mentioned above, part of that is signaling to students that they can do even better. One ninth grader described her experience in coming to Epic North as, “I was taught at my elementary and middle school that no one is going to give a crap. Teachers can fail you because they don’t like you. The learning style here is different. The adults here care and they push us to do things that we wouldn’t do otherwise.”

Jaciah explained his own experience. “The kids don’t like how much the teachers expect of us,” he said. “It feel like too much pressure. Mr. Dash expected so much from me. We all had goals to write a page but he wanted me to write three pages per section for a total of thirty pages. I wanted to give up and not do any of the work. I thought I should just drop out. But he pushed me and wouldn’t let me give up. I’m glad he pushed me. I found out that I had more strengths than I realized.”

Students all agreed that their groups in advisory and in the Rites of Passage help them to stay with it even when it gets hard. One explained, “It’s not easy to get used to how much teachers on are your case. Students are used to being left alone. It was a big adjustment and lots of students struggled. But we helped each other and we all are used to it by sophomore year.”

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