National School Choice Week is January 22-28, 2017. According to the website, “The goal of National School Choice Week (NSCW) is to raise public awareness of all types of education options for children. These options include traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and homeschooling.”
There is a historical marker in Durham noting a segregation protest at an ice cream parlor on the site in 1957. The protest led to a court case testing dual racial facilities.
On this site now is the Global Scholars Academy, a K-8 charter school serving 100 percent students of color.
The vision of Jim Johnson, a professor at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, and Dr. Kenneth Ray Hammond, the pastor of Union Baptist Church, the Global Scholars Academy began in 2009 as an independent school before converting to a charter school in 2011. The church built this beautiful, 21st century learning environment complete with spaces for flexible use just across the street under the shadow of its steeple.
According to the website, the school’s vision is to build bridges to the economic mainstream for vulnerable students by offering a “high touch” educational experience that identifies their needs and attributes, broadens and deepens their learning, diversifies their personal networks, and expands their access to life-changing domestic and global experiences.
But that’s not what is remarkable about this school.
I have been in a lot of our schools over the past two years. It is my favorite part of my job. I have been in a school where I did not see a single child learning in any of the classrooms I visited. The Global Scholars Academy is on the other end of that spectrum. In every class I visited, every single child was engaged in active learning.
Jason Jowers is the principal and Miya Plummer is the assistant principal of the Global Scholars Academy. Both started last summer, and they make a great team. All of the faculty are new except for five teachers and three teaching assistants. Jowers and Plummer are in and out of classrooms all day every day setting high expectations and providing instructional feedback to the teachers.
At the Global Scholars Academy, 55 percent of the students are African American, 42 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent are multi-racial. As we enter this kindergarten class, Jowers says, “A lot of kids come to us with no pre-K. This is their first school.”
These kindergartners are learning to read by taking turns marking and then reading out loud to the class sentences on the whiteboard. There is a teacher and an assistant teacher in the class. A student is hearing impaired, and several of the Hispanic students are still learning English. As we watch the teacher using sign language and instructional strategies to teach all of the students to read, Jowers says, “they are all learning language together.” The teacher was crouched down on the students’ level during the entire lesson.
In this third grade classroom, Glenda Narcisse is teaching a math lesson on rounding with jazz playing in the background. A couple of students are finishing up breakfast while they work. Most of the students are collectively answering questions Narcisse asks the class. Other students are working independently. Jowers explains “x-tra math” to me. “We make sure that basic math mastery happens here in third grade. We grab 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there to make sure that happens.”
In this fourth grade class, every student has a laptop. Jowers says, “schools may have the technology, but teachers don’t always know the best ways to use it.” Once a month at the Global Scholars Academy, tech professional development is provided for teachers to share best practices in using technology to foster learning.
In this classroom, Jowers points out “anchor charts.” Instead of posters to decorate classrooms, which he calls propaganda, he insists on anchor charts — charts for student reference to enhance learning. They cover the walls of every classroom in the school.
This is what learning looks like in this fifth grade class taught by Anna Hinden. Plummer explains that the guided reading in this class focuses on comprehension, word work, vocabulary, and higher order thinking skills. Students were collaborating and working intently.
Jhamari shares with us his thoughts about the traits of good students. He thinks being honest, respectful, and responsible are the most important.
In this sixth grade class, the teacher Nikia Glass is giving a student the opportunity to teach. The class is proofing a sentence, and the student is guiding them through correcting capitalization, spelling, punctuation, etc.
Joseph Adelman teaches this eighth grade math class. The students at the Global Scholars Academy are required to spend 60 minutes working on Kahn Academy, an online global classroom, which guides math “learners from kindergarten to calculus using state-of-the-art, adaptive technology that identifies strengths and learning gaps.” Forty-five minutes happens in extended day, and the students have to find another 15 minutes throughout their school day to complete the online course work. Then Adelman, based on the data he receives back from Kahn Academy about the performance of his learners, addresses skills deficits in class.
The students at the Global Scholars Academy are not asleep. They are not disengaged. They are not acting out. They are not bored.
“No kid can get lost here,” says Jowers. “We are responsible for growing every kid.”
Everything is intentional
Steven Pearson is the manager of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs for IBM in North Carolina. He is also a board member of the Global Scholars Academy. When Pearson tells me about the academy, he says, “The school is designed so that all the parents have to do is provide housing, dinner, a shower, and transportation to school. We love for parents to be more involved, but if we need to, the Global Scholars Academy can and will handle the rest.”
The school is small. Enrollment is capped at 225 students, and in 2016-17, 201 students are being served. There is one class per grade.
The school day is long. Drop off starts at 7:30 am and all of the students stay through an extended day program that lasts until 6pm. Homework happens during extended day, but so does exposure to music, art, chess, step team, archery, performing arts, SCIENCE FUN for Everyone, Girls on the Run, Lego Engineering, and more. Tutoring is offered through HillRAP (Reading Achievement Program). Mentoring will be provided by 8th graders to kindergartners through a program called Eagles Guiding Eagles.
Walter, a seventh grader, tells me, “It’s pretty easy to manage the day. But if you don’t get enough sleep, then it’s a long day.” Noelia, another seventh grader, chimes in, “Extended day is better to get help with homework, especially if your parents can’t help.” Students wear uniforms, and the creed is posted in the classrooms.
Ninety-four percent of the children in this school qualify for free and reduced price lunch. Even though charter schools are not required to provide school lunch, the Global Scholars Academy provides breakfast, lunch, and a snack — and they are seeking a USDA grant that would allow them to provide dinner too. The first ten minutes of lunch are silent.
The Global Scholars Academy uses the federal definition of highly qualified staff: most faculty members hold at least a bachelor’s degree from a college or university, are fully certified or licensed by the state, and demonstrate competence in each core academic subject area in which the teacher teachers.
All of the students learn Mandarin Chinese. Jowers says, “We are preparing our students for the world outside of Durham.”
The academy is an A+ School of the North Carolina Arts Council, and art is integrated into all learning.
Jowers tells me at the beginning of our day together that part of the vision of Academy is to provide a quality education in a safe environment for this community. Discipline is not an issue, he says. Systems matter. The principal and the assistant principal have to be visible to the students and to the teachers. “We are building an environment,” says Jowers. “We will take anybody, and we are creating an atmosphere where anybody can succeed.” This builds resilience, he says.
Plummer says it starts with how the students walk down the hallway. This is how K-2 students are expected to move through the school.
But discipline also includes creating incentives for good behavior. The academy implements PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports). The day I visited the school, K-2 students were attending an assembly, called the NED Show, about being champions in school and life. Students earn Eagle Bucks, and they can use them to buy school supplies, including very cool headphones that the students seem to covet.
On the rare occasion when there is a discipline problem, “we pull them,” says Jowers. The students come to his office and sit with him. And he helps them do their work. Instead of ISS, Jowers says, “there is a realness to this approach. Students get that we really do care about them.”
In a small group discussion with students, Plummer asks the students, “Are we strict on y’all?” Heads nod. But Elias, a sixth graders, says, “If you put in the work, it’s easy.” If you don’t do the work, students know “they face the wrath of Ms. Plummer.”
Plummer says that she and Jowers are “relatable” to the students, and that is clear in the authentic interactions I observe. The idea is to create a learning environment where the relationships students have with school leaders deter behavior issues and incent loyalty to the school and their academic experience.
This is why school leadership matters.
Serving children of color
The Global Scholars Academy serves 100 percent children of color.
Admission to the school is based on a lottery. Nothing prevents white children from applying or being admitted, but Jowers says, “in my experience, white families and even middle or upper class black families aren’t going to apply for their kids to attend a school that is serving this many kids who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.”
Walter aspires to attend Yale or Harvard and become an anesthesiologist. He and I talked about what it is like to attend a school where all the students were African American and Hispanic. He said, “In the school I went to before, there were a couple of African American students in my class. The teachers slowed learning down for us…but I didn’t need that.”
Jowers says that we need creative schools where administrators can figure out what motivates kids, and then they have the flexibility to build authentic learning environments that will serve the students well.
Elias, a Hispanic sixth grader, uses the word “cherish” to describe the opportunity to work on a research paper on Mexican history. He enjoyed learning about his culture. But more importantly in learning about Mexico being invaded by France, he learned not just about independence or winning, but about defeating a much larger army, he says.
“Student voice and choice is embedded in learning,” says Plummer. “Our students are interested in what they are learning, they are supported to dig deeper into their interests. There is more value in the educational experience if they come up with it.”
Walter says, “This school encourages hard work. They encourage us to try again and do better. They teach us to never give up.”