An old elementary-school building, in a desperately poor neighborhood in Worcester, houses the best urban high school in Massachusetts. And Massachusetts has the best public schools in the nation, according to the NAEP, the “nation’s report card.” Today we meet the best of the best.
The University Park Campus School (UPCS) has been sending roughly 95 percent of its kids to college since it started graduating the 7th and 8th graders who first began in 1997. Most are in their family’s first generation to go to college.
UPCS’s secret to success? Teach the kids to think deeply.
Don’t prep them to take the state tests, the MCAS, which they ace anyway. Don’t cover tons of content. Teach reflective habits of mind to help students tackle any intellectual challenge. The MCAS is no biggie for deep thinkers.
UPCS’s principal Ricci Hall says, “To me this is the missing component on the national scene.” Presumably referring to school reformers, Hall shrugs, “They think the answer is to get the best canned curriculum or the best tests, and that will solve the problem. But we think that the whole game is to bring students and teachers together with high degrees of respect and collaboration, working with academic language, so they learn to think. We teach the kid, not the content. What matters about the quality of our instruction is the ability to help students engage deeply with the material.
Naturally, UPCS has an array of techniques to support, prod, cajole, and entice their TV-steeped students into becoming intellectually disciplined. Today we begin with the staff’s commitment to model the behavior they want to see.
For example, the book title on each teacher’s door indicates what that adult learner happens to be reading at the moment. Curious adults read.
The staff are learners first, and teachers second. Adults model intellectually rigorous conversation. Learning is not just for kids.
Of course, modeling college-going and college-educated behavior is a whole lot easier when there’s an actual college next door that weaves the school and their rough-around-the-edges students right into their own daily fabric.
In the mid-1990s, leafy, lovely Clark University looked around at the wide moat of urban poverty that surrounded it. To remain institutionally viable, Clark had somehow to wall itself off, or else partner with their neighbors on mutually-beneficial goals. Neighborhood focus groups were loud and clear about wanting schools that would give their kids more options in life.
A block away stood Freeland Street Schoolhouse, a beautiful Victorian building on the National Registry of Historic Places — utterly devoid of shiny modern educational amenities. Clark, however, could make up for its deficits by sharing its gym, library and other facilities with the school’s now-245 students.
UPCS is a Worcester Public School, but available only to students who live in the immediate neighborhood, who are admitted by lottery. On average, the 7th and 8th graders enter the school fully two grade levels behind. Hall says, “It doesn’t matter when you get them, you’ll always want them earlier. The 8th grade is way low. By 10th we see a big bump.”
Seventh and eighth-grade teachers help students ramp up skills allowed to languish at other schools. Perhaps more importantly, teachers and older students induct the youngest students into the culture of the school itself, modeling and teaching them the norms of civilized, non-street behavior.
Clark students also mentor their would-be brethren, grades 7-12.
Clark offers free tuition to any UPCS students accepted through their regular admissions process – no lowering the bar.
UPCS teachers serve as adjunct professors and speakers at the college. Conversely, teachers take classes at Clark, again, modeling the life-long-learning they’d like to see.
Over time, Clark’s education department became dedicated to urban education. Together, professors and UPCS staff have developed successful strategies for the neighborhood’s tough, but fairly typical low-income population.
Hall calls the result “a bare bones program, focused on literature and the basics. We have zero tracking. All kids take all honors courses.” Juniors and seniors can take electives at Clark. But at the high-school itself, all kids get pretty much the same curriculum, but dig into deeper layers of the work according to their abilities.
Hall says, “It’s all about shifting to student learning. First and foremost we are a community of human beings. Our staff has a genuine love of the kids and a desire to be here. That caring is in pockets elsewhere, but here it’s palpable. Parents don’t send their kids here because of the MCAS or the graduation rate. It’s the culture. Everything else flows from that. The kids see the adults collaborating, solving problems, respecting them and each other. That makes fertile ground for what happens in the classroom.”
He continues, “We look for people who value what the kids think, value them as learners. We’re not interested in lesson plans or degrees. We want teachers who fit into the intellectual culture of the building.”
And that culture is about kids and adults both getting personally invested in the content and the work at hand. Engagement is the opposite of compliance and test-prep.
Okay, but how else can schools teach urban kids to think deeply? Next week we’ll observe a classroom’s efforts.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.