Austin, TX increases access to Garcia boys school

School choice debates are often framed around competition; public district schools vie against public charter schools and private schools to enroll students. However, in Austin things look a little different. The public district celebrates the variety of schooling options available to parents, including Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy.

Last week, the Austin Independent School District announced their plans to provide transportation for any student wishing to attend Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy. The announcement was made at a press conference, which the Austin American-Statesman covered.

The school is a all-boys campus serving grades six through eight. Artist Tyson, an 8th-grade student, was invited to speak at the press conference. He told the audience that Garcia’s single-sex composition was a major factor in its unique value.

“Something we get that you don’t obtain at other schools is brotherhood. The teachers here are phenomenal, but they are not our only educators. Our brothers teach us,” said Tyson. As a single-sex school, its culture and curriculum are tailored to its students. And, like other schools that families choose, it reaps the benefit of buy-in from that selection process.

The Austin district is eager to capitalize on this successful initiative. The school has room to grow in its enrollment, and officials are expecting that the decision regarding transportation will increase the number of students in attendance by at least 120. With enrollment currently at 400 students, this would represent growth of 30%.

Tyson is an example of a student whose family was so drawn to the mission of Garcia that they moved into the district just so he could attend. He summed up the trajectory that the school strives to move students through: “Boys yesterday. Men today. Leaders tomorrow.”

The school’s focus on developing students as young men, as well as scholars, clearly resonates. Sterlin McGruder, Garcia’s principal, said he regularly spoke with parents who wanted to enroll their children if not for the issue of transportation.

Now, thanks to the efforts of the Austin Independent Schools District, more students will benefit from the unique and holistic culture that exists at Garcia.

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia conducted an extensive field research project in ten sectors of American secondary education. This field research included “pedagogical schools,” which Notre Dame sociologist David Sikkink, writing in The Content of Their Characterdescribes as “attempts to realize a full-orbed vision of education that [includes] a guiding mission or philosophy and fairly precise guidelines for school structure and teaching methods.”

Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy has just such a defining mission:

In an environment of brotherhood, the Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy develops scholars who are empathetic, service-oriented problem-solvers—lifelong learners who succeed in high school, college, career and life.

Tyson also noted that he is “surrounded by positive influences, particularly by men of color” and is taught to be a leader.

Education Week provides an interactive snapshot of the location of public single-gender schools for interested parents and educators. As it turns out, Gus Garcia operates in the state with the most single-gender schools.

Focus on character in CA school drives results

Escondido, California’s Conway Elementary School struggled as one of the lowest-performing schools in its district for years, until a new approach to learning focused on character development helped to turn things around.

“We want students to be in charge of their own learning,” principal Cristina Meglich told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Over the last three years, Conway partnered with EL Education to revamp the way teachers educate students, through a $100,000-per-year district grant. The “expeditionary learning” approach sets aside 20 minutes at the beginning and ending of each day for students to hone in on their progress as part of a research-based program that pushes students to “master rigorous content, develop positive character, and produce high-quality work,” according to the EL Education website.

“Every Friday, the students reflect on their learning for the week, and give themselves a score,” Meglisch said.

Students also “set goals based on (state) standards,” she added. “They will identify their reading level, and what they need to work on next.”

The EL Education framework helped Conway meet its academic goals over the last two years, and 5th-graders “pretty much doubled their scores in math and language arts,” the principal said.

The Union-Tribune reports:

A big part of EL Education’s approach is character development. At Conway, that means emphasis on the school’s “EPIC” norms—Excellence, Perseverance, Integrity and Compassion.

“Suspensions went from 18 to four last year,” Meglisch said. “That character piece is essential to what they’re doing.”

Conway’s progress with the program so far also helped the school land a $5,000 grant this year from EL Education to help fund a 4th-grade project—“Protecting and Serving Our Local Watershed.”

The grant was awarded to only 18 schools nationwide as part of EL Education’s “Better World Project,” which will document the school project to serve as an example for other schools.

“My job is to help teachers do these things, and bring the community in,” EL Education’s Adam Krusi-Thom told The Union-Tribune. “That’s what the Better World Project gives to the community—the kids get a sense of something greater than themselves.”

Three 4th-grade teachers designed the project to allow student to explore the local watershed alongside experts at the Escondido Creek Conservancy. Teacher Bonnie Diamond said cement culverts have degraded the creek’s trout habitat, and students are investigating “the ramifications of humans . . . on the creek.”

The project also tasked students with rearing trout fingerlings from eggs, which they released into Miramar Lake as part of an “expedition” that involved lessons in reading, writing, science, and math, according to the news site.

“They created a field guide, they made informative trading cards,” 4th-grade teacher Lana Brady said. “There is more buy-in . . . It’s giving them real-world skills—talking to adults.”

That excitement has also infected parents, with 90% attending a recent event—far more engagement than in the past.

“Students are communicating the importance of them (parents) coming” to see what they’re doing in class, Meglich said.

While many low-performing schools turn to test preparation to improve academics, Conway’s EL approach relies on character formation to push students to take control of their own education and apply it in their own community.

Jeffrey Guhin, a scholar with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, recently conducted research in urban public schools around the United States for the Institute’s School Cultures and Student Formation project and observed a striking pattern.

“Self-actualization was by far the most important moral idea in any of the schools, on both an aggregate and individual level,” Guhin wrote. “It represented what schools were supposed to do according to administrators and to district, state, and federal programs. It was what the teachers and principals wanted for the students, and what the students themselves wanted.”

The EL approach to character formation moves the focus from self-actualization to deep learning by helping students to “master rigorous content, develop positive character, and produce high-quality work.”

At Conway, students studied their own local watershed, and then they “wrote letters and presented their findings to city officials.” Academics are improving because “the students are excited about something and actually feel like they have a voice,” Brady said.

Guhin’s research into character and citizenship formation in U.S. high schools will appear in the new book The Content of Their Character, to be published in February. Preorders are now available at a discount from CultureFeed.

Charlotte teacher combats negative media coverage

In Charlotte, NC, a reporter showed up to research an unsigned letter about a culture of fear at West Mecklenburg High School—and then failed to show up when invited to attend a senior award ceremony. One teacher is resisting that sensationalist bias.

In a commentary published by the Charlotte Post, Marquitta Mitchell criticized the media for unbalanced coverage. The press emphasizes reports of disruptive behavior and “fails to report the positives,” she wrote, a trend that discourages local businesses from sponsoring their neighborhood school.

Principal Casey Jones believes the media target urban schools that have a large number of minority students, portraying those schools as dangerous environments when they are not.

The stories we tell shape how we view ourselves. When media organizations cover only—or primarily—the negative, schools and communities can build negative narratives that become self-fulfilling prophecies. Community leaders who “flip the script” are key to transforming school cultures.

It is extraordinarily hard to flip the script if the purpose of a school is measured merely by test scores or graduation rates. Schools need a grander animating mission—a story about ourselves—that can overcome failures or sensationalist media coverage.

Eastern University Professor Jeffrey Dill and Great Hearts Academy co-founder Dan Scoggin offer direction in a piece they co-authored for The Hedgehog Review. “Communities should identify areas of overlapping agreement within a particular moral ecology. This will look different in different contexts,” they write. “Private schools may draw on religious sources or a specific pedagogical philosophy (think Waldorf or Classical). Charter schools will draw on a particular vision or mission within their charter. Traditional public schools must figure out how they might address these questions in ways that accommodate their specific communities.”

Marquitta Mitchell is doing just that at West Meck. She is pressing for a vision that can galvanize the school community and provide a narrative that continues to define who they are becoming.

Sue-Ann Rosch crafted this vision for the Community School for Social Justice, a public high school in the South Bronx. As its name suggests, it has a distinct identity and ethos that guides the entire school community to who they are becoming, not the history of violence that marks many students’ lives. In this inspiring talk, Rosch provides an example that Mitchell and others can follow in resisting negative narratives from students, family, or the media.

South Bronx students take responsibility for peer mediation

Community School for Social Justice founder Sue-Ann Rosch discussed how administrators at the South Bronx school help students take responsibility for their actions with peer mediation during an Education Leaders Roundtable at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture this spring.

“. . . Peer meditations are led by two students from the peer mediation class, and by the social worker who teaches that class, and sometimes it’s just led by the two students without the adults if we feel they have the capacity to do that,” Rosch said, adding that the student mediators also conduct a crucial follow up with their peers to make sure issues are resolved.

The Community School for Social Justice publishes its restorative justice policies and practices on its website, in full transparency for the school and community, and as a resource for others looking to implement their own restorative justice practices.

South Bronx school uses advisory groups to craft restorative justice model

Sue-Ann Rosch founded the Community School for Social Justice in the South Bronx, where administrators used advisory groups to craft a Restorative Justice Model for student discipline and address rising student suspensions and chronic absences in a violent inner-city neighborhood.

Rosch discussed how the advisory groups helped to shape the core values that drive the school’s restorative justice work during an Education Leaders Roundtable at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture in March.

“We ended up with four community values that we live by . . . one—respect, two—supportive community, three—everyone has a voice, and four—social justice.”

The Community School for Social Justice includes information on its approach to restorative justice on its website.