Student Voices 19.4

Students Share Perspectives on Their Small School

Photo: Skjold Photography

The following pieces are excerpted from essays written by graduates of East Side Community High School, a small progressive public school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The school opened in 1993 with 60 seventh graders and a commitment to providing engaging academic experiences to a non-selective group of low-income students of color. Adding a grade each year, the first class graduated in 1998, and the school had approximately 500 students in grades seven-12. As a former East Side teacher and doctoral student tracking the schools’ graduates through post-secondary schooling, I believe student voices are critical to understanding what small makes possible.

Two often-cited measures of success for small schools are graduation rates and college enrollment percentages. East Side Community High School boasts retention rates close to 70 percent, compared to 35 percent at neighboring large schools serving similar populations, and college enrollment rates in the 90th percentile. Another measure of success is what high school graduates take into their higher education; these pieces describe that success.

Graduates’ narrations of their high school experiences reveal the impact the school’s values and structures have on students. They recognize the importance of the school’s characteristics: an inquiry-based, culturally relevant approach to teaching and learning; the use of performance-based/portfolio assessment; positive student-teacher relationships; a focus on the valuable development of student voice; a college-preparatory curriculum for all students; and the creation of community. The voices below reflect only a small sampling of graduates. They do not represent students from an “honors” program — such a program does not exist. Students at East Side Community High School have a shared academic experience, which stands in contrast to the typical urban high school experience.

— Lori Chalet

Preparing for Real Life 
By Yahaira Degro

I am a member of East Side’s second graduating class, class of ’99. When I entered East Side as a ninth grader, I worried it was not a “regular high school,” like the ones my friends attended. I questioned the quality of the education I would receive. However, East Side was my only option; my mother refused to let me attend the violent schools in my neighborhood.

East Side’s environment impressed me: We called teachers by their first names, classes were interdisciplinary, and each was two hours long. Teachers talked about real life and the obstacles we would face in the real world. The staff taught us about diversity and the oppression of minorities. I can recall when we had our first political debate about Puerto Rico in ninth grade: Should it be a commonwealth, U.S. state, or an independent country? The debate was intense, and we learned from everyone’s point of view; we still talk about that powerful experience today.

We became public speakers and learned to do research. Weeks before our portfolio presentations, we worked hard making revisions to our work and performance-assessment tasks. We wrote papers, typed outlines of presentations, and prepared to defend our work to educator panels. These finals stood instead of Regents exams. We felt like college students. Teachers at East Side allowed us to mess up and gave us the chance to correct our own mistakes.

Entering college, I worried I would not have the knowledge students from upper-class backgrounds or traditional high schools had. My worries were misguided. What I learned in high school allowed me to succeed in college. I took a six-week rhetoric class with a tremendous amount of writing. I was one of the few students that knew how to effectively use constructive criticism from professors to revise papers. I could think critically and write five-page papers in one day, while many students I met hadn’t written more than two pages in high school. I was also able to give proficient presentations.

I attended SUNY Binghamton University for my undergraduate studies. I graduated in 2003 with a double major in Sociology and African-American Studies. I am currently in the Elementary Education graduate program at Adelphi University. East Side teachers never gave us the answers; they gave us guidance. This allowed every student, including myself, to become independent and prepared.

Expressing Opinions 
By Brian Rutty

Had I not gone to East Side, I probably would have ended up in DeWitt Clinton, slogging through Regents-driven curricula and pulling my hair out. Since that didn’t happen, I’d say the first thing a small school provides is what I always wanted in education: a voice to say nearly anything I wanted to. Before high school, the teachers I had never allowed free-form discussion because it strayed too far from what they had to teach. And, when rare opinion questions came up, my classmates and I were already too used to sitting in nervous silence to offer ours.

Freedom to discuss topics ranging from Columbus’ piracy to the Cuban Missile Crisis makes the benefits of small classes obvious. A simple concept, calling teachers by their first names, breaks the ice. Student-led discussion, as opposed to 45-minute lectures with occasional class contributions, are much more interactive. In college this is par for the course, so familiarity with student-led discussion in high school is a huge plus.

A feeling of control in class boosts morale and actually makes students want to discuss ideas in class. With control over the classroom, even dry topics provoke thoughts that can sometimes carry over into the lunchroom, long after class is over. Those thoughts become part of the “exhibitions” (essays), where students convincingly argue their points. When all those exhibitions come together for the portfolio, it feels like an actual accomplishment. To see a folder bulging with work from just one class is rewarding, especially when compared to taking a final exam.

In my four years at a small school, best of all I learned not to dread going to boring classes. Going to a small school showed me that school could be interesting, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to express my opinions.

Developing Relationships 
By Erika Sequiera

East Side “students” are really brothers and sisters waiting for the next time they’ll meet up with the entire family.

My teachers were my first friends at East Side. It sounds nerdy, but they were and continue to be my supports. East Side boasts some of the best student-teacher relationships in any school setting. I was comfortable enough to call my teachers at home or email them for no reason.

Whenever my grades were beginning to slip, my teachers arranged a meeting to fix the problem. What was affecting me outside or inside the school environment? And what could be done to help? At the beginning of senior year, I wrote goals for myself. This exercise helped me succeed in my math class senior year, and I still value it.

My second semester at East Side, my math teacher asked me for a favor. She asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her Teacher’s Fellowship program application. I was excited, because I could repay her for the letters of recommendation she wrote for me. When she got accepted, I felt great knowing I contributed. Because I was able to develop relationships with my teachers, I can still call them and update them on my life now that I’m in college, or call them up while I am in philosophy class trying to remember a precedent for a case.

I know I would not have received the same amount of attention or developed such close relationships with teachers at a larger school. I would not have been able to meet all of my classmates like I did in our graduating class of 64 united students. It would have been hard to make a name for myself.

From seventh grade to my senior year, I was a star. On graduation day I gave a speech at our ceremony. In most larger high schools, the valedictorian is the only student allowed to speak. My graduation had no valedictorian. Rather, it showcased speeches from my classmates, teachers, and community leaders and featured student performances. We all participated in the longest graduation my school ever had. The ceremony represented our experiences at East Side and proved we are like a close family.

Rethinking Schools is looking for students who write or create art, illustrations or photography and would like to contribute to this page. Please send submissions to Catherine Capellaro, managing editor, Rethinking Schools, 1001 East Keefe Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53212 or email .