By Eric J. Cooper and Tonya Johnson
Merrick Academy, the first public charter school in Queens, N.Y., was founded 13 years ago. In all those years, the 2010-11 academic year will be remembered as one of the most difficult for the K-6 school.
A revolving door for principals -- Merrick had five in two years -- and a lack of engaging professional development opportunities had crushed teacher morale. Many students scored far below district standards.
Worse, many of Merrick's 500 students didn't seem to care if they did any better. This worried school administrators and teachers the most as students were seemingly resigned to failure -- growing increasingly frustrated that no matter how they hard they tried on tests and schoolwork, they weren't progressing. As a result, students became unruly -- acting out in passive-aggressive ways against their teachers and each other.
At faculty meetings, teachers wondered aloud how they could help students overcome this dangerous "fixed mindset" and turn disruptive behavior into a positive path for growth -- one that would enable students to push through their doubts to academic success.
Merrick leaders committed themselves to turning things around. And as you read the rest of this post, you'll see how Merrick is proving that private schools and wealthy districts don't have a monopoly on creativity or innovation in education. Working together, students and teachers in public and charter schools, in middle and low-income, urban centers such as Queens, can accelerate learning and create a real reverence for education. This is what this country needs if our children are to break the cycle of poverty and reach their unique potential.
When Merrick's principal enlisted the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education (NUA) two years ago to make a presentation on learning and teaching, teachers assumed it would be more of the same uninspiring drudgery and wouldn't help in the long run.
With NUA's demonstrations in their classrooms, it didn't take long for teachers to have a change of heart, as they found themselves captivated by the presentation on student-centered and culturally responsive instruction, a teaching method that seeks to understand students' culture, tap into their mindsets, and encourage students to engage in the critical and creative thinking that the Common Core State Standards are ushering into their classrooms.
For example, rhythm and rhyming techniques were used to teach vocabulary through strategies called "dancing definitions" and "synonym triplets." Parents were soon reporting back to teachers that their children were creating "dancing definitions" for each week's spelling and vocabulary assignments at home. Additionally, using content from math, language arts, science and social studies students were enlisted to teach these and other strategies derived from cognitive and neuroscience to classmates throughout the school, helping everyone learn new concepts as they were introduced. Lessons no longer were "stale and uninteresting," instead they had become "exciting, entertaining, fulfilling and rewarding," students and teachers alike said. School morale soared and the school's climate turned from one of cynicism to one of renewed hope.
NUA's strategies helped teachers improve student literacy skills, and helped them boost English Language Arts (ELA), math, reading, writing, science and social studies skills as well.
New York City's Progress Report results backed up what teachers and students were experiencing:
- In just one year, Merrick went from a "C" in student performance, a "D" in school environment and an "F" in student progress (2010-11) to an "A" in student performance, "B" in school environment and a "B" in student progress (2011-12).
- For the 2012-2013 school year, Merrick Academy outscored the city district by nearly 8 percentage points in ELA and nearly 5 percentage points in math at the third grade level.
- Last month, results of the NYC Department of Education school survey -- which indicates how parents, teachers and students view learning conditions at their schools -- revealed that Merrick had higher-than-average scores among the city's elementary schools. Positive responses from teachers improved from a low of 72 percent in 2011 to 82 percent in 2012 and a high of 95 percent in 2013.
As education advocates, we know the promise of America is represented by all school children -- not just those with the highest grades or most obvious passion for learning. Merrick Academy's experience reminds us that, with effort and commitment by students, educators and parents, the academic divide among American students can be bridged.
It is in our nation's self-interest to come to understand and embrace the supposition that each child's life trajectory is important to the nation. Success at schools such as Merrick may become beacons of hope for others to emulate.
Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Tonya Johnson is the principal of Merrick Academy. She can be reached at TJohnson@merrickacademy.org.