How One School Changed Culture From Within So Students Could Succeed

Students in Gabrielle Lee's class at PS 89 in the Bronx, New York. (Courtesy Gabrielle Lee)

Like many parents, Nicole Hambric’s two kids are very different from one another. Her older daughter is a straight A student who did well in traditional public school, but her younger daughter, Jada, never really liked school. She would do just enough to get by, but often struggled to understand lessons the first time and felt rushed by the pace of her classes. Hambric was surprised to learn in May of Jada’s fourth grade year that she might not be promoted to the next grade. She spent thousands of dollars on tutoring to help boost Jada’s academics quickly, but she was angry the school hadn’t communicated with her about Jada’s struggles earlier.

All that changed when Hambric moved Jada to P.S. 89 for middle school and into the Big Picture Learning Academy there. “I saw a complete [180] in my daughter,” Hambric said. “At one point learning wasn’t her thing and now she loves going to school; she loves learning.” Not only that, but Jada is bringing home better grades. She made the honor roll for the first time ever, and is motivated to continue working to improve.

“I had never seen a 95 test result in all the years she’s been in school,” Hambric said. “Now I see that she’s focused and she has confidence in herself.” Hambric believes the turnaround has come from the Big Picture Academy’s focus on a tight-knit classroom culture, which allows the teachers to focus on individual learner’s needs.

“Each of us are different and we all learn differently,” Hambric said. “It wasn’t that she wasn’t able to understand what she was being taught, it’s just that she needed a different style of learning.”

There are a lot of schools around the country trying to change the educational experience, but often the most visible examples like High Tech High or Summit Public Schools are charter schools, built from the ground up around a shared vision and with the benefit of outside investment. While those schools can serve as inspiration, it’s often hard for educators in more traditional settings to see how they can apply those models in their own classrooms where there isn’t that same shared vision and extra support. It’s easy to see the accomplishments of educators in shiny new schools as out of reach to the average public school teacher.

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P.S. 89 is not a magnet school or a charter school -- it’s a big, public K-8 school in the Bronx serving a diverse population and many students with high needs. The changes there have not been quick and easy, but rather are the result of a few teachers within the building working to try something different. For the past three years a small group of teachers have been experimenting with bringing aspects of the Big Picture Learning model into this otherwise traditional school.

P.S. 89 teachers aren’t implementing the most radical or actualized version of Big Picture Learning, but teachers and administrators at the school are applying aspects of the model that can work within their constraints and are slowly strategizing how they might include others.

TEACHER PERSPECTIVES

“I really feel like building up the classroom environment to be more family like was really important and different,” said eighth grade special education teacher Gabrielle Lee. “From there I really saw more growth in the students.”

Lee is about to start her third year in the Big Picture Academy; she will have the same 29 kids she has had for the past two years. Keeping students together in smaller, close-knit groups with educators who know them well is one way the Big Picture Academy creates the family feeling Lee described.

Relationships are at the heart of the model. The school had to find ways to make class sizes smaller and to build in time for advisory with a ratio of one adult to twelve kids. They found that opportunity by using a co-teaching model in which a special education teacher and a general education teacher co-teach a smaller group of students in every subject. Half the class are students with special needs, but every student is given individualized attention. Having more adults assigned to these groups of students also means they can break them down into smaller advisories.

At first the model raised eyebrows and some parents wondered if it was a “special education thing,” but parents like Hambric were won over quickly by the changes they saw in their children. And teachers like Lee watched students who were known for behavior problems find their place and begin to shine.

One boy transferred into Lee’s class in the seventh grade. He’d been suspended the year before for bringing a BB gun to school, but in the smaller, more intimate setting he began to thrive. He was able to talk about his mistake with his classmates and even did his passion project on gun control issues.

“He would say he never wanted to participate in other classes, but he just loved that family feel of Big Picture,” Lee said. “He felt like he could be more than what other people were labeling him as.”

Another student started middle school barely verbal. She has autism and never spoke in front of the class. After two years of support and time to build trust with her teachers and classmates she now will present in front of the class. For her passion project, she wrote and illustrated a comic book in which each superhero has an autism characteristic that gives him or her superpowers. She has used this project to help educate her classmates about how she experiences the world. She also won the "Most Good You Can Do" scholarship from Big Picture Learning for her work.

The advisory time is one of the biggest differences between the Big Picture Academy and the rest of P.S. 89’s middle school. Students get one-on-one time with the teacher and they work on projects related to who they are, what they like, and who they want to be. Teachers have slowly started to integrate more of those qualities into the core academics as well.

Student choice and learning through individual interests is a big part of the Big Picture philosophy, but it was hard to implement at P.S. 89 because all grade level teachers were expected to follow a similar trajectory for the year. Still, teachers in the Big Picture Academy experimented with a bigger project in both math and English that would give students space to problem solve, collaborate, tap into expertise beyond the classroom and exhibit their knowledge in different ways.

For example, in Ashley Sims sixth grade class students were given a pretend pot of money to spend remodeling their bedrooms. They had to use the fractions, decimals and percentages they’d been working with all year to figure out how much paint they’d need and what it would cost, along with other construction challenges. A working contractor came to the class to talk about how he uses math in his work and act as an expert for their projects. Sims said even this small reach outside the classroom was important for students: “A lot of kids don’t see the connections in the real world,” she said.

The Big Picture Academy has been such a success that this coming school year the entire P.S. 89 middle school along with some elementary school classrooms are moving to the model. That’s a big shift because previously the teachers involved were those eager to try something different. Now, the “veteran” Big Picture teachers are coaching their more traditional colleagues in the model, trying to smooth the way for a successful implementation.

“When we’re making that whole school or much bigger shift, it’s definitely about figuring out in coaching individual advisors what’s going to get them excited about the model,” said Dana Luria, a regional director for Big Picture Learning who has been helping P.S. 89 implement the pilot program and now the full middle school shift. She’s trying to help advisors see that when they bring their passions and strengths to the advisory time they will form stronger bonds with kids.

For example, a math teacher who is new to the model got really excited about the idea of working on a semester long project to build life-sized catapults with his advisory. “He got so fired up,” Luria said, which is the most important ingredient. “There’s the relationship piece where he’s doing something he enjoys with them.”

The concerns many educators have about trying something new center around the time it takes, whether it will meet the standards and result in good test scores, and whether all the content will get covered. Those are important concerns, but Luria reminds them that few educators got into the profession excited to make kids take high stakes tests or to rush through curriculum. Most are passionate about helping students grow and learn, and those motivations are the building blocks of a successful advisory.

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“Most teachers are in it for the students,” said sixth grade teacher Ashley Sims. “And when you have that heart for kids and that heart for learning, Big Picture is just that.” She said being part of a classroom where kids care for one another and are excited to learn has changed her job for the better. “It makes it more fun. We can actually see the kids having fun and in turn I can have fun as well. It’s not me pulling teeth to get them to pay attention or stay awake.”