Uncommon Schools and leverage leadership in Brooklyn.

Uncommon Schools and leverage leadership in Brooklyn.

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Mention affordable and excellent education in South Africa, and people will probably draw your attention to SPARK Schools, a network of 11 affordable schools providing education for 4,000 students in Gauteng and the Western Cape. Having had the opportunity to visit a SPARK school in Maboneng, Johannesburg, it was indeed excellent and to a degree it was ‘affordable’ – if you have R20,000 PA to spend on school fees – but what about their model, their education philosophy, their influences? In SPARK Maboneng, the influence of Uncommon Schools on teaching approaches, and leadership styles, was plain to see. Uncommon Schools originates in the US, where Ocean Hill Collegiate, Brooklyn, is one of 52 schools that serves 18,000 students in Boston, Camdem, Newark, New York, Rochester and Troy.

Ocean Hill Collegiate, Brooklyn, New York

It is 10.10 in the morning and the 8th graders at Ocean Hill Collegiate, Brooklyn, New York, are about to enter their music theory lesson. They walk down the corridor in perfect time, in a perfect line – silently – pause for a moment outside their classroom, await further instruction from a teacher, after which they ‘about turn’ and enter the classroom, again in perfect time, in a perfect line – silently – ready to begin their lesson.

One might presume that the ‘band’ Mr Alexander had previously referred must be a ‘marching’ band, and that this must be a ‘drill’ – but it is not a drill. It is one of more than 50 techniques that Uncommon Schools use to propel student learning, particularly those not born to privilege; who achieve dramatically higher results.

100% of ‘graduates’ at Uncommon Schools go on to attend a 4-year course at college or university, high compared to the 70% in New York schools that are managed by the Department of Education, and high compared to South Africa, where only 40% of students matriculate with the grades to study for a ‘Bachelors’ Degree at University each year.

Uncommon Schools have high expectations, believing every student has what it takes to go to college, so much so that they even name their classrooms after colleges, since this is where their students are heading – every second of the day is utilized with this objective in mind.

The ‘drill’ is known as the ‘Entry Routine’ – or technique #28 – because Uncommon believe structured entry expedites the beginning of instruction (teaching). ‘Tight Transitions’ between classes, and at lunch – technique #30 – ensure everything runs like clockwork and the least amount of time is wasted. Transitions are scripted and rehearsed.

No bells signal the end / start of lessons, there is no rushing through corridors, just seamless transitions, carefully marshalled by teachers who appear at the right time, in the right place. The efficiency continues once students are in class, where the use of simple hand gestures, known as ‘Seat Signals’ – technique #33 – to request a sharp pencil or to use the bathroom; signals eliminate the interruptions that routine requests can cause, time that could be utilized for teaching. Teachers simplify their language too, again to save time, from using count-down from 5 to signify when it is time to finish-off, put down pencils, close books, pack away, and so on. The phrase ‘Track me’ is shorthand for look at the teachers or pay attention, stop what you’re doing / working on. Should a student misbehave, there are ‘No Warnings’ – technique #42 – teachers respond early, in the form of demerit points, when the behavior is still only a minor problem…to wait for an issue to escalate risks disrupting the class and wasting time that would have been better spent on instruction, on results, on getting to college.

Although, like the Reggio Approach, every student at Uncommon is seen as capable and competent, the focus on passing exams, means there does not appear to be a lot of room for creativity and innovation in class, despite Uncommon’s claim to be, ‘…fiercely committed to cultivating the intellectual curiosity’ (2017).

Perhaps not every teaching technique lends itself to the kind of cognitively flexible, collaborative, creative, decision-making, emotional intelligent, negotiators, people-managing and service-orientated citizens that an equally and integrated South Africa requires, but some techniques are relevant / desirable, for example, #1 ‘No Opt Out’ where teachers’ high expectations of students means they don’t accept “I don’t know,” but expect students to have a go or “give it a shot”. Similarly, ‘Stretch It’ – technique #3 – which pushes teachers to take correct answers and ask students to add depth or nuance to their answers, would serve South African society well. Whilst ‘Take a Stand – technique #21 – which encourages students to have opinions and to stand by those opinions, is something needed to see the kind of change in society.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Uncommon Schools is that all teachers really do teach. They appear to be highly motivated individuals who, knowing what they’re aiming at, are fully committed to their students. Lessons are well planned with clear aims and objectives. Pre-prepared worksheets allow students to progress through a series of activities to achieve these aims. Teachers teach all the time whilst in class; supporting students to develop skills, clarifying where necessary, keeping students on task and giving feedback.