A New Vision for High School: Cornerstone Academy for Social Action High School

A bold and compelling idea will be at the center of our school:

At present, most high schools operate in isolation separate from the rest of the community, and are overly driven by quantitative data. We envision C.A.S.A. High School as a 21st century community school hub that meets the mental, social, emotional, physical, natural, and creative needs of students and their families. Driven by qualitative data, we will use portfolio assessments within our curriculum and will not use letter or numeric grades. We will do this by partnering with local medical centers to provide holistic health services on school grounds, while working with corporations and community based organizations to organize and educate parents, and provide internships to students. In addition we are plugged into the “no grades community” and will partner with educators like Starr Sackstein and Mark Barnes.
A simple belief will guide the daily experience of our students believe: At C.A.S.A. High, all students are Geniuses and Master Learners. This core belief will shape everything that we do.

Throughout the globe, students must be reminded that they are brilliant and important, but this is especially true for the students that we serve in the Bronx. C.A.S.A. High will align student learning experiences to the innate curiosity that all are born with.

We’re living at a time when it’s increasingly common to treat black and brown students from low-income communities as criminals in their own schools. Many of these students are marginalized, punished and made to feel like they deserve a lifetime of second-class status. From “zero tolerance,” “no-excuse” discipline policies, to alienating curriculum, to standardized tests that reinforce feelings of inferiority, many schools are driving away the very students that can benefit from education the most.

Education must free the mind; not keep it in bondage.
C.A.S.A. High is a dream built on the foundation of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School (C.A.S.A. Middle School) in the Bronx. C.A.S.A Middle School is now in its seventh year and has proven itself to be a rare, innovative district school. At C.A.S.A Middle School, students aren’t shamed or unnecessarily punished. They are celebrated, nurtured, and loved. At C.A.S.A. Middle School, students explore social issues by creating hip-hop videos. They learn to code and build their own video games. They study the history of leaders like Bessie Coleman, W.E.B. Du Bois and Sonia Sotomayor. They take leadership classes and are encouraged to pursue and build their own passion projects. They express themselves through dance, spoken word poetry, improvisation, art, and gardening. C.A.S.A. Middle School has rejected the tyranny of standardized testing and has instead focused on building an individualized, caring learning environment that helps its students discover their inner-genius. As a by-product of C.A.S.A.’s approach that values self-actualization over test scores, C.A.S.A. ironically had the #1 combined improvement in test scores of any school in New York City in 2015.

At C.A.S.A. Middle School, the mantra of administrators and teachers is: “At C.A.S.A. we stay in beta. We are content but we are never satisfied. We are thankful for what we have but we are always looking to do better. We maintain the beginner’s mind.” Our goal has been to create the most loving environment possible in a Title 1 school – pushing our students to not only achieve academically, but to be the best human beings they can possibly be. Our ever-evolving school model is working and we now feel prepared to take on the challenge of expanding C.A.S.A. to grades 9-12. C.A.S.A. High School can be a beacon of hope for Title 1 schools, showcasing the innovative tools and approaches that can help kids from low-income communities live up to their inner-greatness. We are so excited to design a school that helps students believe in themselves and have the transformative learning experiences that prepare them to do amazing things in the 21st century. Our parents want this most of all. Believe in us. We’ve got this.

Last year, we started distributing t-shirts to students that are labeled, “Master Learner,” “Born Genius” and “Master Teacher.” We’ve attached a few photos for your perusal. Our bold and compelling idea for XQ is already real and alive in the Bronx, New York.

We believe the spirit of C.A.S.A. Middle School is captured – at least in part – on our website: http://www.casamiddleschool.org. Here you can find photos and videos of C.A.S.A. – and the ingredients we’ll be using to build a Super School that blows the world away.

To ensure that our school truly serves the needs of our community, we plan to get input from young people by:

We plan to hold in-school and after-school ideation sessions through February 2016 for C.A.S.A. Middle School students, teachers, parents and school administrators to dream up the vision for C.A.S.A. High. Our XQ proposal will be a truly collaborative effort that reflects the diverse voices of the very people we plan to serve.
We believe in the design thinking process and will be sure to involve young people in every step of our process.

Currently at C.A.S.A. Middle School, we have a student government in place that will help to facilitate our ideation and design thinking sessions. Our student government was voted in by their peers to provide a more authentic voice to the overall operations of our school.

To get insights into how we can prepare our students for postsecondary education and the future of work, we plan to:

Many of the current practices of C.A.S.A. Middle School are driven by thought leaders such as Tony Wagner (Creating Innovators), Dan Pink (A Whole New Mind), Sir Ken Robinson (Finding The Element), and Neil Degrasse Tyson (Startalk), so we will continue to design curriculum in alignment with their expertise. As a school of innovation, we plan to connect with educators from schools like High Tech High, The City As School, and the NYC iSchool for input. Regarding higher Education, we will look to schools like Olin College, The Stanford d. School, and M.I.T. We will also peruse the XQ website by reading the briefs, and following the websites suggestions for reading recommendations. Film’s like Most Likely to Succeed, Road to Nowhere, and Beyond Measure will greatly inform our practice as well.

We have a number of connections that we plan to leverage to ensure that our proposal reflects the ideas of top educators, employers and colleges. For example, we plan to collaborate with educators at Avenues: The World School and their d4i project collaboration to gain inspiration from what’s happening in top independent, progressive schools, we plan to collaborate with representatives of CUNY to imagine the kind of immersive experiences we can create with local colleges. We also plan to collaborate with companies like [Google] and [Tumblr] – with whom we already have partnerships – to imagine how we could take our partnerships to the next level.
Our school will also build on the inspiring examples, research, and ideas of others:
Howard Gardner’s theory of the multiple intelligences is something I believe our community should thoroughly study. Currently, the diversity of intelligence is absent from school policy and public discourse, and thus we are limiting the scope in which we view teaching and learning in our schools. Our obsession with the standardized testing of math and ELA, polarized in verbal reasoning, has led to a depressed curriculum that has ignored bodily kinesthetic, visual spatial, natural, creative, and cooperative intelligence among others. We all need to expand our view of intelligence, and ultimately, of living in a 21st century world.

Sir Ken Robinson believes that all children possess incredibly gifts and it is our duty as educators to tap into these gifts by creating a nurturing and robust learning environment. C.A.S.A. stands on this principle and by our community studying Sit Ken’s work in the ground breaking book Finding Your Element, in which he shares the narratives of individuals and schools that allow passion to drive their existence, we can move forward and be of like minds as we develop our high school.

To solve the problems of the world today, including poverty, mass incarceration, war, and addiction, we need to produce multiple generations of innovators. That is why; our school community should study Tony Wagner’s groundbreaking books Creating Innovators and The Global Achievement Gap. Wagner paints a picture, for parents, teachers, and school leaders, of how we might reach our full potential by rethinking and redesigning our roles. The traditional models of school are obsolete and we must create schools and communities rooted in 21st century intelligence.
All the elements of our school will come together in powerful learning experiences for students:

1. Community Circle – At C.A.S.A. Middle School, every Friday begins with a 50-minute assembly for students and teachers to come together as a family. At Community Circle students can give shout-outs, make public apologies, express themselves, share inspiring stories, and discuss real issues. The kinds of topics we’ve discussed at Community Circle include violence in our community, the challenges of growing up in single-parent households, and #BlackLivesMatter. You can see some videos from Community Circle here: http://www.casamiddleschool.org/community-circle. At C.A.S.A. High School we will continue this tradition, but given the greater maturity of the students, we’ll be able to tackle issues with more depth and honesty. As a student discovers their voice, Community Circle will be there to give that student a platform for sharing their voice with their community. Community Circle at C.A.S.A High will be very student-led, with students choosing topics, leading discussions, sharing meaningful stories, and inviting in guests from the community.

2. Genius Hour – Borrowing from the 20% time concept of Google, we give students at C.A.S.A Middle School two 60-minute blocks per week to work on passion projects. To be honest, we’re still learning how to help students and teachers make the best use of this time. At C.A.S.A. High School, Genius Hour can evolve in a few different directions. Will it be a free space for students to work on their own capstone projects? Will it be a time for guided challenges where students work to solve issues in their communities? Will it be a training ground where students are pushed to build their own projects, clubs, events, campaigns, nonprofits, apps and companies? We know what’s important is that students are exploring their passions, developing mastery, taking risks, and learning to recover from failure. Genius Hour will offer the framework for these kinds of experiences to take place.

3. Leadership Training – Inspired by “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers,” we give students at C.A.S.A Middle School two 60-minute blocks per week to learn and practice leadership skills like communication and reflection. (You can watch a video that students created about the 7 Habits here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztelKnaRSMk) . At C.A.S.A. High School, this Leadership Training class will be expanded to teach the real-world skills that students need to successfully execute their projects and thrive in the 21st century. C.A.S.A. will ask local experts to design workshops to help students to master skills like Campaign Building, Storytelling, Photoshop and Budgeting. Each local expert will be pushed to not only teach a core skill, but also to share their story and explain clearly how that skill can be applied in real-world challenges and opportunities. Over time, we will build out pathways towards mastery that students can pursue to dive deeper into their areas of interest and earn badges towards their learning portfolio. While in middle school, our students have already been involved in campaigns such as breast cancer awareness, LGBT rights, and #BlackLivesMatter.

4. Cultural Studies – We want students to feel proud of where they come from so we help students learn about their Latino and black heritage. A part of this includes embracing hip hop culture; for example, check out this video that students wrote and produced during the Ebola crisis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4aNgOMsOn8. At C.A.S.A. High School, students will dive deeper into understanding the heritage of Latino, black and Asian-Americans, reading literature, meeting local leaders, and participating in local and national campaigns to address the issues facing the communities. We plan to make our curriculum and lessons available to the public, allowing students and teachers everywhere to adapt our curriculum and help their schools embrace diversity.

5. Design Challenges for Social Impact – We can’t forget that C.A.S.A. stands for Cornerstone Academy for Social Impact; empowering students to make a positive dent in the universe is core to our vision. We will train our students and teachers in design thinking and introduce a new design thinking challenge every 8 weeks. A member of the community will come into the school and present a social and/or environmental challenge. Students will have 8 weeks to explore the issue and design and test solutions; they will present their results to a panel of people that will be impacted by their solution at the culmination of the 8 weeks. Over the course of the year, students will be exposed to a variety of issues – food security, mass incarceration, domestic violence, etc. – and will be encouraged to focus on becoming experts in the issue(s) they are most passionate about.

6. Internships – Our students will take on internships to get real-world, on-the-job experience at top companies, nonprofits and startups in NYC.

Discover Phase

Students in the 21st Century

College is more of a necessity than ever before. At C.A.S.A. High School students will engage in their community and understand the complexities and challenges in a nuanced way. Critical thinking, creative problem solving, and communicating with diverse audiences are essential and must be embedded throughout a student’s learning experiences in high school. We are preparing students to learn how to learn so that they are cognitively agile as they are most like to have multiple careers after college. Our curriculum helps students to become self -managers who take initiative to search for an embrace learning opportunities.

In our community, the majority of our students, based on measures currently in place, continue to perform below grade level in both reading and math. Further, because of issues related to race and class, our students experience trauma and stress at disproportionately high levels. As a result, academic, social, and emotional interventions need to be embedded within our school schedule and curriculum. Therefore, while ensuring that the executive functions of our students are explicitly strengthened along with identified academic deficiencies, we must continue to challenge them with 21st century pedagogy.

Our school must partner with community based organizations, medical professionals, and thriving corporations, to ensure that learning extends beyond the walls of our school, and is applicable to the challenges of a 21st century global economy. Within school, the curriculum must remain rooted in an interdisciplinary approach. Learning in silos is obsolete. Students must learn to see, understand, and learn to manipulate interconnections between seemingly disparate elements. 21st century skills are transferable across disciplines. This approach will be the hallmark of the C.A.S.A. High School experience.

Youth Experiences and Aspirations

Young people want to engage in learning experiences that are relevant, authentic and challenging. Students want to know that their assignments aren’t just designed for teachers to grade, or for the purposes of passing time. Young people want to have a voice and choice in what is learned and how it is learned.
Authentic learning experiences are real world, concrete, and current. They align directly to the challenges of a 21st century economy, but more importantly, they align to what students face in their families and communities every day. Relationship building is key as the more we know about young people as a school, the mores strategic we can be in co-designing their learning experiences. Issues related to civic responsible, depression and mental health, gang violence, and economic justice are just a few of the topics students consistently identify as being important to them. Real world topics, will be the content that drives the curriculum at C.A.S.A. High School.

Further, challenging play opportunities creates an environment of aesthetic learning experiences for students and brings deeper purpose and meaning to the overall school experience. When assignments are rudimentary, boredom and apathy toward both the school environment and the concept of learning sets in. When students engage in design thinking, for example, they are able to put themselves and their communities at the center of a creative process that challenges them to solve authentic and relevant problems within their community. Design thinking revolutionizes the classroom experience as children work both independently and collaboratively to generate ideas, receive feedback, be meta-cognitive, and creatively problem solve.

The Science of Adolescent Learning

The brain is incredibly malleable, even into the adolescent years, so we must design learning experiences and environments that are invigorating, challenging and diverse. Because many students enter high school multiple grade levels behind in reading and math behind, teachers often believed that academic growth was limited during adolescents. However, if school is designed to both meet the foundational needs of students, while challenging students to solve interdisciplinary problems, synapses ignite and the brain gets stronger throughout their high school experience.
Using brain science to design our learning environment will help our students begin to develop more self-confidence and self-worth. As such, students will begin to seek out additional learning and leadership opportunities. At C.A.S.A. High School each learning experience will align strategically with the learning preferences and interests of students. This will help to solidify cognitive cohesion and strengthen executive functions. Learning will be mobile, fluid, and gives students the opportunity to work in pairs, small groups, independently, on a computer, and in a seminar style format as well.

We look forward to taking learning outside of the school so that students are learning in nature, professional settings, and students from other communities. Students will also be hands on as they build, design, and create prototypes in alignment with their ideas. Reading diverse texts, vigorous conversation, and writing will continue to be essential as communication skills are still extremely important in the 21st century. Foundational skills development builds fluency and allows for brain energy to be more focused on the deeper dive project based learning. Therefore, student schedules must meet their diverse needs. Finally, as we will implement anecdotal self-assessment with teacher guidance, students will learn to be meta-cognitive, accountable, and self-aware, and serve as a compliment and possible replacement to New York’s current five regent requirement for graduation.

Design Phase

School Mission and Culture

All children are brilliant. Therefore, our mission is to develop scholar activists by design learning environments and experiences that nurture and cultivate the brilliance inherent in every child. Our intended impact is to help students self-actualize and become change agents in their communities, as well as the global economy. Our theory of change involves dealing with the pain and suffering in the world directly and using the design thinking process to self-analyze and work toward solutions for both small and large scale problems.

Social Action and knowledge of self, will anchor the culture of C.A.S.A. High School in a purpose driven learning environment. We aim to eradicate poverty, depression, addiction, mass incarceration, broken families, as well as the economic and opportunity gap. We believe that every inhabitant on earth should have clean water, food, and shelter, and be given the right to freedom, justice, equality and love.

Teaching and Learning

All learning experiences will be aligned to the State Standards and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills rubric.

First, students discover by individually identifying problems they are passionate about solving. This happens via conversation and ideation. Students then work collaboratively to vote on the top three problems from the generated list. From the list of three, one problem is highlighted for the project. After the problem is identified, students will design solutions, either with a partner, group of three, or independently. Designs are created using hands on materials and might include a website, campaign, workshop, display board, or documentary. Students then receive feedback on their designs before going deeper into the development stage.

An additional 21st century skill is the ability to understand and write in code. Our second learning experience involves our technology teacher setting up code competitions on iMacs. Students can work independently or form a team of three as they practice code via Code Academy, code.org, and participating in the nationwide Hour of Code. Friendly competition provides additional motivation for students as they learn sportsmanship in an academic setting. The competition continues as we transition toward our Globaloria game design program where student create action oriented educational games for their peers and younger students to play.

In both settings, teachers serve as facilitators, and computers and laptops are used throughout. Students develop excellent communication skills, the ability to ideate and create, and creative problem solving skills. Students also learn about Java Script HTML, and Flash. Learning takes place both in and out of school as the design activity requires students to interview community members as well. Most importantly, students learn to work on a team, take initiative, and be agile in their learning as design thinking requires both technical and adaptive (non-cognitive) skills.

Student Agency and Engagement

Knowledge of self is the foundation of all transformational learning, so we intend to create an environment that supports self-awareness by using student surveys as a tool to facilitate curriculum engagement.

Natasha Rivers came to our school while she was still living in a shelter. As a victim of poverty, there were many nights where Natasha did not know where her meal was coming from. Through initial interviews, Natasha struggled to envision a future for herself. However, after completing personality surveys, and building relationships with her teachers, Natasha began to learn a lot more about her interests and non-cognitive skills, and thus became very interested in the possibilities of college. During our weekly community circle after hearing a speech from Mr. Bowman about the impact of xenophobia on historically disenfranchised groups, Natasha decided that she wanted to become a lawyer. During her Junior Year as part of her college essay, she wrote about that morning in community circle and how it put her on a path to pursuing college and impact her community. Natasha graduated with a 3.7 G.P.A. and will attend the University of Albany as a freshman.
Lisa Martinez, a diminutive 9th grade student, came to us reading three grade levels behind. Thankfully, our school is designed to provide small group instruction within classrooms, a study hall space with teacher support, and additional academic interventions throughout the day and after school. Because of the availability of these services, and the relationships her teachers built with her, Lisa took advantage of these opportunities and by the end of her sophomore year Lisa was on grade level in reading. Lisa continued this ascension throughout high school and went on to join the National Honor Society, take AP English, join the soccer team, and attend Cornell University.

Networks and Partnerships

As hands on learning, social justice, computer technology, and a whole child approach are the pillars of the C.A.S.A. High School culture; we will look to partner with college, corporate, and nonprofit entities to invigorate our learning environment and enhance student agency.

Partnerships will be incredibly fluid as student surveys and self-assessments will help to determine what partnerships we need to pursue. Agency strengthens as student voice is included in developing partnerships. While serving as principal of C.A.S.A. Middle School, we developed partnerships with social action Hip Hop organizations Negus World and Hip Hop Saves Lives. Through these partnerships, our students tackled topics from Ebola to #blacklivesmatter. When we couldn’t afford a dance teacher, we partnered with Standard Collaboration dance studio to teach dance two days a week.

Further, at CASA, our partnership with the Department of Youth and Community Development allowed us to provide extended day services five days a week for three additional hours which helped to provide visual arts programming, leadership training, sports and homework help.

We will work to ensure that our curriculum and pedagogy are aligned to the content and skills students are going to need in higher education and careers. Students at C.A.S.A. High School will be given the opportunity to take college courses as this can greatly reduce college tuition. Partnerships with innovative companies will be essential as our school aims to produce innovators to solve real world problems. We hope to leverage the expertise of college faculty, as well as corporate and nonprofit employees, to assist with teacher professional development, parent engagement, and real world student learning opportunities.

Partners will meet once a month with school faculty to create a School Leadership Team in which we will work together to develop a comprehensive education plan, set goals, and review processes.


2 thoughts on “A New Vision for High School: Cornerstone Academy for Social Action High School

  1. There are so many wonderful things about this. There are so many opportunities in the world, but so many young people have no idea what they are. I am hopeful that through this approach and through opportunity seminars and internships, the world will expand for these young people. Good fortune.


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