A taste of the Big Apple

New York school Daniel Hale Williams shows how a strong vision and shared long-term goals can have a transformational effect.

In addition to building on successful initiatives in Scotland, the Scottish Attainment Challenge is learning from models in other parts of the world that have achieved success in closing the attainment gap in education. During her recent visit to New York, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon visited Brooklyn Elementary School P. S. 307 Daniel Hale Williams, which has been recognised for its remarkable transition from “chaos and confusion” to a situation where disadvantaged pupils are gaining success both in and out of the classroom. Teaching Scotland spoke exclusively to Principal Roberta Davenport, who is attributed with turning the school around, to learn some of the secrets to the school’s achievement.

The seeds of success

Roberta recalled that when she began in post 12 years ago, “the focus in the school was not on teaching and learning, but more on behaviour”. And so she started from scratch, by building a vision for the school. “We began by pulling together members of the school community to talk about what kind of school we wanted and that led us to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment,” Roberta explained. “We looked at the attendance rate, test scores, the number of incidents and disciplinary issues over time, the classroom environments, class work, class size, the materials and resources that we were using in the building and the curriculum.

“Safety came first, and so we created a code of conduct. We also came up with our core values, which are respect, responsibility, resiliency and reasoning, and made sure that all of our decisions were looked at through those expectations. We made sure that teachers’ voices were heard, and that they were part of the decision-making process and helped to shape the vision, mission and goals for the school.”

Balanced against a strong academic programme was a strategy of enrichment that involved the introduction of an arts programme to the school. Behind this was the need to focus on pupils’ strengths, talents and interests. Roberta said: “We needed to expose children to different aspects of the world, the arts in particular. And so we brought in a violin programme and a dance programme with a local ballet company, for example.”

Social emotional learning

Social and emotional learning has been key to transforming the school and Roberta sees this aspect of learning as in fact “the missing link in all our schools”. One of the ways this has been introduced is through peer mediation and conflict resolution. “Our aim with this is to help children understand that conflict is a part of life and we must learn the skills and the attitude to resolve conflict appropriately. We’ve worked diligently on helping children understand that, no matter what they do, we want them and they belong to us – ‘We’re not angry at you; we’re going to hold you to certain standards and expectations.’ And if they do something that is seriously wrong, we help them understand that there are consequences.”

Restorative justice circles is a powerful technique used to help the children understand the impact of their actions, and prepare them for life beyond school. Roberta explained the practice: “We bring the child who caused the harm into a circle with everyone in the building who has been impacted by the decision of that child. Every person who joins the circle says to the student, ‘When you did that, this is how it affected me.’ The environment is very safe, and it’s aimed at helping a child understand that your choices have an impact on the entire school community.”

Celebrating children

Roberta added that the school also places great emphasis on celebrating children’s effort, perseverance and growth. “When children finish a unit in writing, for example, we invite the entire school community to come in and give positive feedback on each child’s work. Because our children come out of very challenging backgrounds, they’re not often championed or celebrated and so we’ve made that part of our culture. Again, this has helped to transform behaviour.”

Partnerships

Partnerships between the school and community organisations have also played an important role in the school’s success, helping to extend the school day, extend the school year, enrich the educational experience for children and provide funding support for particular initiatives. Ms Davenport explained that the school’s partnerships have been built out of a vision for the whole community. “When our partners come in, I talk with them about the school’s purpose and identity and what we’re trying to accomplish and they ask, ‘How can we help?’ And ‘How can we be part of this?'”

New York take aways

One “Children who come out of impoverished circumstances need structure because many of them are coming out of disorganised homes. They need to know how the building works, that they can depend on order and organisation and predictability.”

Two “Knowing every child and every child understanding, believing and feeling that he or she is so important and so valuable. Instilling that sense of ‘no matter what I do, I belong’.”

Three “If we want kids in this 21st-century world that we live in to be engaged in school, we have got to create relevant classroom experiences for them.”