Holistic Schools

There are 1.1 million children taught by 75,000 teachers in 1,800 schools throughout New York City. A city that is bigger than most states in America. It was therefore incredibly humbling to learn that based on the 2015 New York State test results, our school had the highest combined average growth scores in the entire city. 

Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School (CASA) opened its doors in 2009, and has a track record of performing well on state exams. During the school report card era, Cornerstone never received less than a B as a grade. Prior to this year, our best year was 2012 in which Cornerstone received an A on its report card and was ranked in the top 17% of all New York City middle schools. 

As Schools nationwide continue to struggle to close the so called achievement gap, we continue to perform relatively well with a student body that is 100% Black and Latino. 

Quite often, when discussing the values, ideals, and results of my school, I have to clarify that we are not a charter school. We do not hold lotteries and do not have policies that allow us to discard students if those policies aren’t followed. Our students are allowed to speak freely during breakfast, lunch, and hallway transitions, as long as they speak respectfully of others and the learning environment. And lastly, our teachers are union — proud empowered members of the United Federation of Teachers.  

So what does it all mean? Although I am very happy for our school community, and proud of our most recent results, I know very well these results only tell a small portion of our story. I also know that the current climate of standardized testing does more harm than good to students. First, success on standardized tests are not predictive of college and career happiness or success. In Crossing The Finish Line, written by two former college presidents, based on their review of detailed data from 68 colleges the college board and the SAT, the authors concluded that the most accurate predictor of college completion was not the standardized SAT or ACT scores, but rather, the high school GPA of students. This is a clear indicator that it is the teacher’s expertise that should be more highly regarded throughout K-12 education above an arbitrary standardized exam. Further, in his landmark book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough tells the story of KIPP’s first graduating class. Although KIPP’s inaugural class had the fifth highest math test scores in New York City in 2003, only 21 percent of the cohort — 8 students, had completed college by age 26. Despite awesome standardized test results. Something obviously was missing. 

Numerous research, including the work of Howard Gardner and Sir Ken Robinson, show that state exams only measure a narrow view of intelligence. Because of this, it is even more damaging when schools align their curriculum and pedagogy to the narrow focus of the state exams, while simultaneously ignoring the innate curiosity of children and the 21st century skills needed to thrive in our current economy. The state exams do not measure creativity, verbal communication, real world problem solving, spatial intelligence, collaboration, initiative, or adaptability among others competencies. Only schools can do that. The intuitive brilliance of students is ignored by state exams and I would argue that it is exactly intuitive brilliance of students that is widely needed to rescue our economy and humanity from the damage of old mindsets and policies that continue to facilitate inequality and despair. 

After 15 years of testing in this way, and over 25 years of Teach for America, the so called achievement gap, wage gap, and some might argue depression and anxiety have grown. It is time to have different conversations and enact new education policy. Maybe CASA can be a major part of this new conversation. 

First, considering the above, the state exam is not a focus of our learning environment. Because of this, we are free to meet the individual, holistic needs of each student, while co-designing an authentic curriculum. Our curricula includes the multiple intelligences and space for additional academic supports where needed. With that, our students receive 450-600 minutes of literacy instruction per week, depending upon their needs. This instruction takes the form of large group, small group, and individualized instruction where necessary. 

We anchor our literacy instruction in writing performance tasks which help us to align the reading, writing, listening, and speaking standards in a more organic and cohesive fashion. With this, we can read and have critical dialogue on any topic and our students develop stronger skills in narrative, argument, and expository writing. 

Our students also receive at least 300 minutes of math instruction per week in large and small groups while also leveraging the efficiency and differentiating abilities of technology. Students also receive 375 minutes of S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) per week in which they work on projects directly designed to build their 21st century competencies. 

What’s just as important with our curricula is what happens outside of the “core subjects.” Our students receive recess daily. Gym, dance, and creative arts occur 2-3 times per week, as does technology and game design. Students also have a class called Genius Hour where they have the opportunity to work on projects aligned to their passions and interests.
We also have after school programming five days a week, where students can learn audio engineering, gardening, fine arts, robotics, sports, and receive additional tutoring where needed. 
Although the technical aspects of our learning environment are important, what I’m personally most proud of are the words used by visitors after a tour of our school and some interaction with our students and staff. They speak more to the tone, mood, and spirit of our school community. 

From filmmaker Michael Elliot: 
This school is unlike any other. If you visit, the first thing you notice is joy. Joy in the faces of students. 

From Fordham professor Mark Naison: 

Clearly the message being promoted in this school from the top down, is that these students are the carriers of a proud cultural tradition created in the communities in which they lived. 

Former student Yahira Ruiz Rameriz: 
I told my mom my first internship is going to be working at Home (CASA).

I see a clear connection between knowledge of self and joy, and that is the learning environment we’ve tried to create from the very beginning. Because Black lives matter in education as well, our students tackle issues within their community, and learn about their history and culture. This is all part of our restorative justice framework, as we work to restore what has been historically been stripped from our students. Further, we have a social worker and guidance counselor who work together to meet the psycho/social/emotional needs of students. As opposed to suspending students on a whim, we build quality relationships with students and families and hold mediations and restorative circles as needed. 
All of this helps us to create a safe learning environment and home for our students. Words like love and family are natural words to be used when describing our school. I love my students as my children and I love my teachers as my family. And it is this feeling, first and foremost, that drive everything that happens at CASA.
Finally, the most important aspect of any great school are the staff members. To use a sports analogy, championships aren’t won without great players. Thankfully, we have “great players.” 

All too often I read and hear stories about teachers being bullied, intimidated, disempowered, and alienated. In the climate of high stakes accountability and lack of proper resources and supports, I can see how this creates toxic learning environments filled with apathy and despair within school communities. I see this same overwhelming stress as I observe the entire public education system. Parents, teachers, and the elected officials are constantly at odds over what should be happening in public education. While we fight, children continue to suffer. 
At CASA we aim to do the exact opposite. Teachers have a voice in everything that we do. Teachers are empowered to share their ideas and genius with the school community at all times. We try to create a culture that’s transparent so there are no surprises, secrets or fears. Our environment is rooted in trust so teachers are free to take risks and feel supported in their continued learning and development. The growth and improvement of teachers is not just supported by me, but by their colleagues as well. We know we are the lead learners in our school community so we must model the way for parents and students. 

Further, our organizational structure is horizontal. We embrace the understanding that great ideas come from anyone at anytime, and anyone can take the lead on a project. From the school aide to the school principal all are encouraged to pursue their ideas to make our school great. Dan Pink, who highlights the research done by MIT, illustrates that people are driven by purpose, not “carrots and sticks.” This understanding informs our school culture. When staff members are personally invested with their ideas, it invigorates the entire learning community. 

Our staff members are awesome and we want to continue to empower them to be awesome. Supporting staff excellence has continued to create a culture of love, joy, and family. And that, above anything, is what makes our school great.

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6 thoughts on “Holistic Schools

  1. All I can say is: wow. You’re right, CASA should be a model to be emulated everywhere. Joy a dominant emotion in middle school? Not supposed to happen!

    You probably got into this to help the children you’re actually working with. But using what you’re doing to promote this brilliantly successful approach to education means you can help many, many more children than you will ever meet.

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  2. How would you describe the relationship culture of you students with students and adults with students and Cornerstine with parents and Cirnerstone with school partners. What practices and goals to support Cornerstone’ relation (social, emotional, academic, creative) culture?

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    1. Open, honest, human, loving. I think in the piece I say “I love my students as my own and I love my teachers as my family.” That might be the best way to describe it, however the family of the students are our family as well. We are all one community. Parents and students have my cell number, I’m present daily for a handshake hug and hello, and my teachers are as well. Not perfect. Always looking to improve, but the love drives us so we feel secure.

      Community partners must align with the culturally competent holistic culture that we’re always trying to create and improve. Whether it’s through hip hop, social action, or dance these are all aligned to holistic student achievement and development and again rooted in being open, honest, human and loving.

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  3. Jamaal, thank you for this beautiful, deep statement, and for the great work you do!

    Reading this makes me feel as if high stakes testing and school reform has been a terrible and damaging nightmare, but that it’s finally morning, time to go to work, stand up for our rights, and throw off the “school reform” that has been oppressing public school students.

    To everyone who reads this, please share it with the parents and teachers you know. This essay is a perfect back-to-school gift!

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  4. You and your school community are indeed an inspiration!

    School reform has often been aimed at black and brown children. Yet, as you state, these reforms further restrict the curriculum in such a way that students who have the least access to a rich life of art and music and extracurricular activities become even more restricted in the name of education! Oh, what fools we are to think that is reform.

    Educational community with JOY at it’s center? That is the key to not just passing the test, but to a thriving, meaningful existence! Cheers to you!

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  5. While EVERYTHING Mr. Bowman said is true, let me give insight from a teacher’s point of view. I am a 6th grade humanities teacher at CASA. I am dually licensed in general and special education.

    There are three words I use to describe what makes CASA work-love, collaboration, and trust.

    We love our students and support them 100%. Also, as a staff, we show love and respect to each other always. This sets the example for our students to follow. Our students are a real representative sample of the inner city with all the good and bad.

    Next, we are constantly collaborating. It is not just a buzz word in our school. The teachers meet at the contracted times but you will ALWAYS see teachers having unscheduled meetings during lunch and preps. We assist each other daily with lessons, grading, and sharing ideas from outside PD’s.

    Lastly, the trust we share is like none I’ve seen before. Mr. Bowman allows his staff to teach! We are able to bring ALL our special gifts as teachers and human beings into the classroom for a smoother more meaningful experience. A lesson may not always be perfect but the school atmosphere lends itself to reviewing, revising, and re-teaching. As teachers, we observe each other’s classes regularly for new ideas and strategies.

    My vision for all the students in the NYC DOE is that ALL the 1,800 schools put the students first, support the teachers 100%, and incorporate real S.T.E.A.M. classes and programs into your schools. We have to believe in our students and each other.

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