Lesson from New York schools

From 11-13 March 2020, I was lucky enough to be invited to go to New York to look at innovative schools as part of a funded study trip with Big Education and the Big Leadership Programme.  The programme looks at how as leaders, we might rethink education so that it take a more expansive view of learning, continuing to ensure academic achievement, whilst also developing the whole person, and teaching creativity and problem solving.  This series of blogs is about the practices I saw and how they might inspire education in UK schools.

Lesson 3: Solving problems, enabling growth

The Island School is a primary and middle school sitting in the middle of a bleak housing estate on the Lower East Side, a series of uniform housing blocks that go as far as the eye can see in all directions. Opposite the school is a shelter for homeless families, with a permanent transitory population, housing families living in one room. The community is struggling and it’s difficult for many of them to see their way out.

The Island School acts as an oasis for these families. Open 49 weeks a year, including weekends, the school is a lifeline for local families. Arriving at the school, each family is met personally and consulted on the support they might want or need. A comprehensive package of programmes for pupils and families includes a health service, a dental service, mental health provision, health and exercise classes, parenting support, after-school clubs and Saturday classes, and legal advice. The school lets families use their washing machine, and hands out spare clothes for free. Christmas presents for pupils are provided every year thanks to a kind donor, as are free family events, like an annual Thanksgiving dinner. This is funded through a complex system of grants and donations, with partner organisations meeting monthly to review impact alongside the headteacher.

The school’s focus on social and emotional learning through the RULER programme for primary pupils and the Sanctuary model for middle school pupils, helps pupils manage their feelings and reactions, often a result of the challenges they face outside the school gates. Pupils are not excluded, but understood and helped, no matter the challenging behaviours they present. 

One mother told us how the school helped her through her husband’s sickness, a car accident and the resultant loss of her children to social services, and in going back to school to finish her education. She described how tolerant they had been of the challenging behaviours her son had exhibited in school, and how they had helped her manage this at home.

One learning space in particular looks to engage and inspire pupils to change their own lives and those of their communities. The Maker Space is filled with creative possibilities: woodwork equipment, materials and machinery; craft and textiles; technology for video making. In this space, middle school pupils work to design creative solutions to problems they and their communities face.  Whilst we observed, they designed puppets and wrote scripts for a puppet show for younger pupils on the coronavirus, tackling the problem of racial profiling for the illness. We saw pin badges designed to raise awareness of domestic violence, videos about global warming and T-shirts with slogans promoting gender equality. This blending of design skills, creativity and social justice was inspiring. 

The Island provides a refuge for the community: for families in need, and for pupils who can be empowered to change their own lives in the future.

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