Friday, 6 June 2014

#1 Bronx Guild High School: PBL & Work Placements from the heart of the Bronx

At last! 

I now have the first chance at the end of 2 weeks of school visits, conferences and meetings to sit down and try to make sense of the incredible amount of information that I have received, learning I have observed, interviews I have conducted and project artifacts I have seen!

So here are a series of quick blogs about the great things I have seen in NYC. There will be a series of longer articles to follow once I have had an opportunity to write!

Bronx Guild High School
School Principal Sam Decker & the student orchard.

Bronx Guild High School (BGHS) is located in the tough NYC neighborhood of Parkchester, The Bronx. Principal Sam Decker is open about the challenges facing his team and his students when they enter in the 9th grade. However, this does not dissuade BGHS from trying some pretty progressive stuff to engage students of this community and prepare them to make an impact on the world.

The results are also beginning to show. BGHS has moved from the bottom 21% of schools in NYC in 2010 to the top 33% by 2012. Student achievement on standardised Regents Diploma exams has been on an upward trajectory, as has school enrollment. They are clearly doing something right.

A commitment to curriculum innovation
A senior class working to prepare final projects in an Advisory period.

Despite the need to fulfill the requirements of the NYC Regents Exams (5 high stakes tests sat by every student in global history, U.S. history, English, Mathematics and Science) and the socio-economic barriers to learning, BGHS is committed to a curriculum model that is innovative and engaging. It combines the following components: 

1. Work Based Learning

Learning Through Internships (LTI) programme. 

Apart from a small minority of students who stay at school to complete additional Mathematics and English tuition, almost all young people in grades 10 and 11 attend an array of work placements for one semester at a time every Tuesday and Thursday. New York Botanical Gardens, Ballet Hispanico, Bronx Community Pride Centre, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Citizen’s Advice Bureau, City College of NY, Department of Health, Digi Waxx Media, EMI Music, Harlem Children’s Zone, an array of restaurants, offices of politicians, law firms, shelters and even theatrical production companies all host students on work placements for two days per week every semester (you can see the full and impressive list here). Students work with a ‘Mentor’ at the business, completing an employment linked project as they go.
A student made solar powered phone charger.

Meanwhile 9th graders, who are often not ready for work placements on entry to the school, are instead taken on trips across around the city to show them, as Sam puts it, “…that this city is theirs. And it is right at their front door”. ‘Crew Leaders’ are either out on trips with 9th graders or conducting site visits to student work placements once or twice a week.

All LTI projects end with a Performance Based Task aligned to the enquiry question to demonstrate their learning. I was treated to a Quesadilla made by a 10th grade student showing her proficiency in using a range of cooking techniques following an LTI project at a Manhatten catering company. The solar powered charger (opposite) was made as a result of this student's work placement at an electrical company. Impressive stuff.

2. Project Based Learning

Science in the Garden

9th grade art projects to customise their own allotments.
Science teacher Bill gives me a tour of the garden and orchard created and maintained by the students. The garden is one acre of land technically accessible to any school on the campus site. However, it is the BGHS students (and Compass School, another Big Picture High School located two floors below) that take the lead in transforming this patch into something special. As part of a 9th grade science project students are growing their own plants such as tomatoes to learn about biological structure and photosynthesis. The results of innovative science projects are everywhere. Apple and pear orchards planted on an acre of disused land adjacent to the sports field, a student built chicken coup, coffee plants and a live habitat featuring a snake and (sadly only until recently due to an incident whilst tackling Japanese knot weed) a turtle. 
Science teacher Bill taking care of a 9th grade science project.

Another great science project: student beehives!
3. Small Schools Culture

These curriculum components combined with the benefits of being a small school creates an environment that is purposeful and calm. 


Students are organised into Advisory groups or 'Crew' of between 14-16. ‘Crew Leaders’ at BGHS have such close relationships with their students that it became school policy for teachers to pass on their e-mail and mobile numbers. According to Robin, a 10th grade science teacher, this ensures the students have no excuse for not completing assignments and projects to deadline. They have 24/7 online support from their ‘crew leader’ and subject teachers.

Of course there are always students who occasionally lose their way or do not meet expectations and this challenged appropriately. However, everything is done calmly and with a smile. ‘Crew leaders’ act as coaches guiding students down the right path both in terms of their behaviours, but also in safeguarding the productive and purposeful atmosphere that can be witnessed in classrooms. The effect is an atmosphere that oozes mutual respect and understanding of expectations by everyone on the BGHS floor of the building.

Flat organisation 

This also applies to the staff. Unlike the traditional hierarchy of a large proportion of English state schools, this organisation is less reliant on management systems and structures and more on relationships. Decker sums up the horizontal organizational structure stating that “… all teachers and students feel entitled to barge into my office at any point and complain, show off a project or have a mini breakdown”. Teachers hold each other to account informally for doing the right thing by students. Assistant Principals do not have ‘line-management meetings’ with the staff they ‘manage’. Instead they meet almost every day informally, checking in on the students that they know are struggling or calling by to give a gentle nudge to a young person in need of encouragement.

BGHS: Not perfect, but one to watch

NY Education Department progress reports show that though outperforming schools in a similar context, BGHS is still ‘developing’ and has been awarded a grade B for 2013. But, then these reports do not tell the full story. They do not tell the story of the disaffected 9th grader who would not sit down when he first arrived but through a strange obsession with the life cycle of the mosquito was able to work with a landscaping company to design a school chicken coup as part of a science project. Or the story of the 9th grader, who designed the floor and layout of the new school canteen for the whole building in partnership with a design company from Manhattan and has since gone on to co-design the artwork for subway walls across New York. Most of all, these progress reports do not tell the story of the impressive Presentations of Learning I witnessed for employment linked projects by students from the heart of the Bronx who had worked with lawyers, politicians, museums and charities and were (rightly) proud of their achievements.

BGHS is a vital safe haven for the young people of a challenging area of New York City. However, it is fast becoming far more than simply an island of calm. Despite the turbulence students face outside the school gates they have taken ownership of their learning, are engaged in high school and many go on to college. By their own admission BGHS is not perfect. But it is certainly an innovative school to watch.
Thanks to Sam, Stephanie, Cecilee and all staff and students at Bronx Guild High School for your warm welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Tom, "located two floors below" Can you explain how the multiple schools fit together in one building? Perhaps something we need to learn from as London's density increases? Andrew