by Julia Steiny
Like many urban teens, Jessica Coello was obviously smart and capable, but totally turned off from school. When she was in grade, thinking about high school, someone suggested she visit Blackstone Academy Charter School — recently recognized as 1 of 12 schools "Commended" by the state.
Blackstone's Open House was love at first sight. At the time, she couldn't say why, exactly, but now she says that its atmosphere was "just so personal. Students know their teachers on a personal basis."
She applied. But no. On average, over 200 students apply for 45 ninth-grade seats. She applied again sophomore year. Again, no luck. So for two years she sleepwalked through a fairly typical comprehensive urban high school. She tested into honors classes, "but I fell under the radar. I admit I didn't do my best. I just know that we were super-antsy to get out of there the second the bell rang at 3:00."
Third time's the charm. She entered Blackstone as a junior and almost overnight, this drag-butt student came alive academically. "The minute I got here, I was on the honor roll. I learned graphic design; I participated in class; I was making movies, winning awards, and starting my own photography business. It was the teachers. They opened up whole new worlds I never knew of."
Mind you, vibrant schools can't thrive on great teachers alone, but also engaged students, who've caught the excitement and possibilities of mastery. Adults and kids alike feel part of a community that's cooperating with academic expectations and pursuing personal passions, such as Coello's love of cameras. Great school culture allows everyone to teach and learn at their max.
Blackstone students do senior projects, which involve applying cross-disciplinary skills and knowledge to a real-world product of the kid's choice. Students test-drive skills in a protected environment, confronting whatever lessons lie in wait for them.
For hers, Coello asked to become the teaching assistant in Elizabeth Schibuk's "Film for Social Change" course. This win/win situation gave Coello more time and mentoring with a mentor teacher. And Schibuk got Coello's impressive tech skills in exchange. The class identified and researched three social issues dear to their hearts that became short movies, with Coello's expertise. Coello also wrote a senior thesis about film's power to teach about social issues.
But she didn't ask just to make movies, she also asked to teach. Therein lay some big, nasty surprises.
"I was responsible for the technology portion of the class — how to film, what's a green screen; how to use it; how to use angles and edit footage. But teaching was one of the hardest experiences I've ever had in my life. And the most difficult part of my project. Teaching is about having the ability to get them (the students) interested in what you're saying and then to retain the information. You would think that the hardest part would be the editing process, but they got that. I had real trouble with some students getting their work done. I really could feel that I hadn't had the classes about how to teach. Having them look at you real bored and not understanding was soooo nerve-wracking."
Are you feeling just a bit vindicated, teachers? I would be.
But Schibuk is very familiar with the rude awakenings lurking in senior projects and coached Coello through the challenges to a happy, sunset ending. The Cable Car Cinema agreed to showcase the class's three films — on immigration, bullying and stereotyping — to a house packed with staff, family and friends. A dream come true.
Blackstone's students are 86 percent eligible for subsidized lunch (a poverty indicator). Another senior is going to Wesleyan on a free ride.
I asked Head of School Kyleen Carpenter how they work their magic. She sat up straight and all but barked, "No one wants to hear this, which is why I really want to say: Our school culture kicks butt. Everyone's here to learn; no one's here to screw around. And we will achieve at a high level, whatever that takes. I used to have a line outside my door with kids who said f. u. to a teacher, or did something wrong. No more. You can't buy culture; you can't make it. You have to have consistent expectations in every single class, and to celebrate achievement."
Most incoming Blackstone students go first to a summer program where, frankly, the cultural indoctrination starts. To be a happy, productive community, everyone has to leave street habits at the door; no calling each other ugly names, disrupting or lashing out — not kids; not adults. Carpenter says, "As corny as it sounds, a great culture is a commitment to relentless happiness. Also, throw âno excuses' out the door. These kids have plenty of excuses. But we help them address and remove those excuses so they can get to work. We do not pretend they don't exist. No, it's not all roses and puppy dogs. But we talk about the problems and don't hide them."
And so Coello got off the more-traveled urban path to nowhere. She's going to college to study business.
Carpenter says, "Most importantly, the kids can tell we're setting them up for success."
We'll know education is working when all schools can say that.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.