“If we had the opportunity to build a school from scratch that followed the same mandate, in terms of improving the college and career outcomes of black and Latino males what might it look like?”

This is the question the ESI Design Fellowship is working to answer. Consisting of EPIC North, EPIC South, and the Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice, the new ESI schools follow a newly designed curriculum with a heavy focus on culturally relevant education and competency-based learning.

During our ESI conference, one of the design fellows, Harvey Chism, spoke on the work being done at the three ESI schools. In the initial year, Chism and 8 other design fellows were chosen from a pool of several hundred through a rigorous interview process and together, along with 20 student fellows, faced the challenge of creating a curriculum and structure, based in practicality, that was relevant to black and Latino males while facing the reality that the schools are more diverse.

What were some the benefits of having students help design the curriculum?

So, in terms of accountability they kept us honest. We can’t say that we are student centered but then lack having a student voice in the mix. Having students present in the design helps keeps us grounded in what we are trying to accomplish. Secondly, there was a lot of insight and innovation that they had that were grounded in practical ideas. Talking about access to the school and thinking about how advisory and college counseling could and should look like was something they gave us direction on.

One of the things we had done with some of our students was to think about how we could create this competency based model, these are challenges we use inside of the three schools. We had some of the students sit and work on what was the equivalent to an AP exam as a challenge just to see if that approach would work. We provided support where students needed it. We expressed to the students that they had total access to whatever they needed. All they had to do was ask. Having the students do this and give us immediate feedback was invaluable. It led us to think very specifically about how we organize and support learning inside the schools. But all of that would just be hypothetical if we had not had access to students.

What sets the ESI design schools apart from other NYC public schools?

The three schools are competency based, which is not to say other schools aren’t, but one of the things that is unique about our competency framework is that it combines academic and socio-emotional skills as targets. Students are assessed and provided feedback and opportunities to master some socio-emotional skills. We weigh these skills as being important to life success as well as college and career success. So it’s not exclusively an academic focus.
I think one of the other things that is unique about the schools and their design is the heavy attention that we paid to culturally responsive and culturally relevant education. The faculty has to vet the curriculum to ensure that each unit has cultural relevancy.

I think that, in a curriculum sense, in CRE more broadly, there are some things that the schools do. We run our rite of passage program as a part of the school day which I think is unique. A lot of schools do it as an after school or voluntary thing for students to opt into. We continue to see value from it, it terms of building community and responding to students developmental needs. We scheduled it in a two hour block weekly as a part of the school day. There’s a big commitment to restorative practices and restorative justice. All of the teachers have been trained on how to run restorative circles. For example as a means for addressing community or classroom based needs. So the first resort is not to necessarily send the student out or pursue suspension. Instead we want this to be a learning opportunity for both the student or the community that was impacted or the individual who was impacted. The fact that this is happening school wide is unique about our model.

By Allyson Gill

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