Matthew Lawrence is a CoaHCORPS Lead Tutor, currently in his 2nd year at City on a Hill. He attended Brandeis University and graduated in 2010 with a degree in History. While he loves exploring his new home in Boston, he is originally from Vermont and visits as often as possible.
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
It is the beginning of spring and the end of long and brutal winter. The mind of everyone in a high school, teacher's and student's alike, drifts toward pleasanter times, and, inevitably, toward graduation. City on a Hill's graduation is held in the majestic Faneuil Hall, but despite the nice weather and the suitable pageantry, most look toward to Graduation for representing the too often unattained culmination of American achievement and democratic ideals. There is little controversy in the goal of a high school graduation.
Similarly, my high school graduation speech was not very controversial. It told that clichéd story of the old man, walking at dawn along an expansive section of low-tide shoreline, tossing doomed and desiccated starfish into the surf. An observer calls out that the man’s work is futile; he cannot possibly save all the starfish.
“You’re wasting your time,” he says. “There’s miles of shore, and the tide will roll in before lunch time. Why are you doing this if it won’t make a difference for all of them?”
“Well,” the old man said, hucking another starfish into the sea. “I made a difference for that one.”
My job as a tutor, when I explain it to friends, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, fellow-travelers of the MBTA, and anyone else foolish enough to ask me “...and what do you do?” is also not controversial: I teach minority, low-income inner-city students skills in math and English in order to get them ready for college. There are very few people on any point of the political spectrum opposed to this description of my day-to-day work. Yet charter schools remain a flashpoint of debate for various reasons. In the complex political world of urban education and education reform, I am transformed from an educator into an activist by the very nature of my employment.
In my desire to teach math and English skills to low-income minority students, I did not court controversy. I simply felt it my duty to help those most excluded from the so-called American meritocracy achieve the skills they need in order to join the ranks of decision-makers. My day-to-day work is apolitical – few ideologies are opposed to Shakespeare and fewer still to the quadratic equation. Yet our school’s overall mission is based on premises both appealing and appalling to various political orientations. At City on a Hill, we emphasize the importance of hard work and we stress decorum and civility. However, we also acknowledge structural biases and vestigial racism. Most importantly, we maintain high standards: our students dress conservatively, interject appropriately, question probingly, debate academically, compete ferociously and achieve competitively.
Anyone reading this blog is likely familiar with the myriad of arguments against charter schools and the controversy they can create. The most persuasive argument against charter schools I have yet found is the fear that we are neither replicable nor sustainable. City on a Hill boasts an impressive 4:1 student to faculty ratio and consistently manages to recruit an all-star roster of absurdly dedicated young educators. It does not seem imminently likely that America’s education system can be reformed in such a way that every low-income urban high school student can have access to a system like ours. To me, this is not an argument against charter schools. This is an argument against the status quo, and what it means that our most talented young educators are not welcome in our traditional public school system. If more schools were like City on a Hill, I have no doubt that more and more graduates from our most prestigious universities would invest time in closing the achievement gap.
The tide is rolling in. For years, we were forced to deny more and more middle-schoolers a spot at City on a Hill. The number of potential students who wanted what we offer increased, but the number of seats we could legally offer remained constant. For years, our lotteries were painful ceremonies where families had a roughly 1 in 10 chance of receiving our unique education. In February, helped by the recommendation of Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts has tripled the amount of students City on a Hill might access, by accepting our application to replicate our charter once in New Bedford and once again in Boston.
According to the internationally recognized magazine The Economist, Massachusetts “has had excellent results [because] it is strict about the schools it allows to operate.” The only problem they find with our Commonwealth’s system is that the mandated “caps on the number of charters in a state drag down performance...and discourage investment.” Our potential donors, on whom we depend due to state funding policies, are hesitant to invest heavily in an organization that has legally constricted barriers to growth. Now that the Commonwealth has recognized the stifling nature of the limit on charter school seats, I hope sincerely that more interested parties will support the efforts of non-traditional educational organizations with demonstrated success.
As a tutor, I only work with 12 students. My fellow tutors only teach 12 students each, and my colleagues who teach full classrooms reach no more than twice that many per class. Yet there are enough of us that we can work with 280 students. 280 students is less than .05% of the humans in Boston, less than .5% of the students in Boston Public Schools, and yet 100% of our graduates get accepted to a college that is right for them. When I look at these numbers, the only outrage I feel, and the only controversy I see, is that the number of young adults we help get to college is so small. We know what we’re doing and we know how to help our population, yet the Commonwealth, which used to only let us help 280 students, now will let us help merely 840. The facts are clear and I wish the desire to help ever more students – even minority students from historically low-performing school districts – was not controversial. Even with the generous recognition of the DESE, the problem is real and the effects are enormous, but the rising tide is reversible.
Matthew Lawrence is a CoaHCORPS Lead Tutor, currently in his 2nd year at City on a Hill. He attended Brandeis University and graduated in 2010 with a degree in History. While he loves exploring his new home in Boston, he is originally from Vermont and visits as often as possible.
Friday, June 22, 2012
Toyin Egharevba moved to the US when she was 12 years old. Since then, she has become an academic powerhouse who excels in all subjects, particularly math and science. In her senior year at City on a Hill, she volunteered over 100 hours of her time to the YMCA Family in Transition Program. This fall, Toyin will attend Wellesley College where she plans to major in Biology. Below is her 2012 Valedictorian speech:
I can clearly remember the first day of our Freshman Academy. Some of us felt awkward, shy, scared, and confused. Even after asking for directions, we still went to the wrong classrooms.
Wow...it seem like we only started yesterday.
And as I stand here before you, I am overwhelmed with many memories that I know that you all hold as well. I remember the long lunch line outside the trailer, the morning hand shakes, and that time when Ivan was locked out on the balcony during the D.C trip. Who will ever forget the countless days we spent at Saturday schools and SAT preps, those late nights finishing projects, and of course, Field Day.
One thing I’ll never forget about the class of 2012 is our perseverance. I’ll share a little story with you all. Freshman year, the class of 2012 was taken on a field trip to New Hampshire. It was a rainy day, but luckily for us, the rain did not disturb the activities. We were sheltered by the huge trees that surrounded us. Each advisory was led off to complete different activities. My advisory did tightrope walking. Basically, It was several tightropes tied between trees. These ropes were so tight that even an elephant could stand on it and it wouldn’t tremble.
So, students gathered around in pairs as we waited to be harnessed in and hoisted 20 feet into the air to walk the rope. Our main objective was to walk from one end to the other. I remember while walking, I slipped off the rope. As I was dangling from the harness, the supervisor gave me two options: the first was to securely let me down, and the second was for me to climb back up the rope. Mind you, we were surrounded by massive trees and if I swung too far I would end up like George of the jungle and it surely will be too late to be watching out for the trees. So, I weighed both options but I chose the latter which was to re-climb the tightrope. On my first attempt, I swung a little too far. On my other attempts, my advisory at the time, the Shirley Chisholm advisory, began to cheer me on saying, “Yes! You can do it. Come on, you almost had it”. Even with their encouragement, I felt like telling the supervisor to let me down. I didn’t because I realized that giving up wasn’t the best option and I also didn’t want to let my advisory down. So, I was determined to climb back on. After several attempts, I was finally able to get back on the tightrope. I walked gently, aiming for the finish line. Yes, I made it to the finish line. I was extremely happy and proud of what I’d accomplished.
I’m telling you this story because it reminds me of us, the class of 2012.
A hundred plus of us started this adventure freshman year, but only a few of us have remained. There were times in our high school careers when we fell off that rope; others gave up, but we didn’t. Just like when I fell off that rope, I was engulfed with fear. All that was going through my mind was “give up, give up, give up, just give up.” But I didn’t. And neither did you.
Even when your mind told you that dropping out or transferring out was the easiest way, when people told you that you wouldn’t make it, when the circumstance seemed impossible and when you tried to convince yourself that it will all go away when you quit, you didn’t listen. You persevered and kept on going. Through hard work, determination, and the support of others, we made it to the finish line of our high school careers.
As we head to our various universities and colleges, remember that we are not alone.
Class of 2012, look around you. We’re here today because these people believed in us, encouraged us, and kept on cheering for us. Sometimes it may seem that you’re alone, but always remember that there are many who believe in you and that is why they are here to congratulate you on this day.
In life, many will start a race with you, not all of them will finish with you. During that race, there will be tons of trials and tribulations. There will even be times when you feel like giving up. But don’t give up. Persevere!!
Look back on this day. Look at the joy you’ve brought to the people around you. And remember, with perseverance we can finish the race ahead of us.
As co-captain of her cheer squad, Antoniqua Roberson takes her leadership roles very seriously. She's modeled academic excellence and worked to develop cheer study halls to ensure the academic eligibility of her team. She will be attending Occidental College in the fall. Below is her speech as the 2012 Salutatorian:
Growing up, I always knew that I was going to go to college. I didn’t always know where I wanted to go, or what I wanted to be for that matter, but I was certain that I was going to go and that I would be the first in my family to do so.
As a small child, my great-grandmother would often sing a gospel hymn called “This Little Light of Mine,” where the words went ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.’
I could remember being so small, and sitting on her lap while gazing into her big, brown eyes as she sang the song to me. It was something about the words the captured my attention and made me feel as if I had a “little light” within me. The lyrics were very inspirational, and I soon found myself singing the sweet song while alone at home.
Through all the obstacles and struggles I have faced in life, it was my belief in my light that kept me going. Many of us have had difficulties in our lives, where we wanted to give up. When family tried to push you to keep going, you sometimes resisted and had to learn from your own mistakes. These mistakes helped you learn the importance of advice from those older and wiser than you, though you often did not want to admit it.
As a young student, I could remember my family telling me that education was important, and that if I wanted to go far in life I had to take my studies seriously and apply myself to all of my classes. The passion, the drive, the importance I felt when I stepped into a classroom were instilled in me through the values and beliefs my great-grandmother and family had taught me at such a young age. I focused my light on my education knowing it would only shine if I applied the skills I learned in class to dilemmas I faced in the forum of my community.
As many of us, I do not think that I would have come this far if it were not for my family. Like a tree, I am planted into success, where the roots of this tree are my family. Each branch that extends from the base of my tree represents an opportunity or privilege that is offered to me. Just as this tree could not have grown without its roots first, I too could not have reached my highest success without my family.
When I look back on my memories shared with my great-grandmother, I know why she sang that beautiful hymn to me. It was her way of bringing forth the drive I have in me now. She knew that my light would some day shine, and that even when dark times entered my life, I was guided and protected by my own light.
This theme has persisted throughout my life, and as I reflect on my high school education, I think about how City on a Hill has helped us all find our lights and let them shine. It’s the way our teachers believed in us and how our classmates pushed us when schoolwork became difficult; we are a family.
When referencing City on a Hill, most people think of the famous line, “We shall be as a City upon a Hill…the eyes of all people are upon us.” However, the verse that I think of is a lesser-known passage from the bible, which truly connects with the idea of a shining light within each of us:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Now that my great-grandmother has passed on, the song that she sang to me is even more powerful and inspirational to me. My great-grandmother saw a light within me when I was too young to see it in myself, and she saw it as I grew when I was too blind to let it shine; I know she would be proud of my accomplishments, and I also know as I continue to persevere and work around my obstacles, rather than being defeated by them, I will achieve my own success as I reach my highest potential.
College is where our light is shining next and beckoning us forward, and with love and support we receive from our families and classmates, we too will let this “little light” shine.
Danny Hernandez was selected as the Citizen Scholar of 2012 for the way he exemplifies the "citizenship" pillar of City on a Hill's mission. Danny studies Muay Thai, an intense combat sport similar to kick-boxing. While not focusing on the rigorous training, Danny also volunteers with Tenacity, an after school program that teaches low income students how to play tennis. He will be attending UMass Boston in the fall. Below is his 2012 graduation speech:
When Ms. Alves came into my chemistry class and told me to come to the front office, my heart dropped like a roller coaster, my palms began to get clammy and every step I took shot a tingling feeling up my spine. I was terrified, and when I saw the stern look on Ms. Brown’s face, I knew I was in for it. I felt like I had been sent to the icy fortress of the ninth layer of hell; I was racking my brain thinking of every possible thing I could have done to get sent down there. To my surprise, I was told that I had been selected by the senior committee as the student who best represents citizenship and scholarship in the class of 2012.
Now don’t be mistaken – being chosen does not automatically make me the best-behaved student, and I’m clearly not the valedictorian. To be honest I did not really know why I was selected, but when I started thinking about my values, and the values of City on a Hill, it made sense. Leadership, respect and the importance of education are three qualities that I believe I bring to the role of citizen scholar, but I can’t take all the credit.
Leadership lies in all of us. I learned how to be a leader with out even realizing it. One of my oldest friends and biggest role models, Juan Malave, set me on my path. One day as we went on one of our long drives, he asked about my life at school, at home, and my plans for the future. After I would ramble on for several minutes he stopped me and said these words that I will follow for the rest of my life, “ Do you, bro. Don’t feel the need to follow an established path; make your own way and follow your morals and dreams. You’re a good kid, and I‘m proud of you”. Those words stuck in my head, and have been my motivation to make my own path and follow it. It was those words that got me to this moment today, and I know they will bring me far in life.
This brings me to respect, and our families are the leading factors in how we learn about respect. During summer vacations, as I was growing up, I would go to my grandmother’s house while my mom went to work. My Uncle Victor and Grandmother would watch over me and my younger sister, and man I remember doing a lot of things as a young kid that got me scolded. My uncle would constantly get on my case about me being disrespectful, and my grandmother would explain to me why my behavior was wrong, and my uncle would watch me like a hawk until he was sure my behavior changed. It drove me nuts at the time, but now I know I owe a lot to them, and the rest of my family for teaching me how to act, and to respect others no matter who they are.
When it comes to the importance of education, I have to credit my teachers for instilling that value in me. They push us to always do well, and to try our hardest. So many teachers I have had drove me to see the importance of education. I never used to think of myself as an intellectual, but when my tutor last year commented on my expansive knowledge on a wide variety of subjects, I started to see myself differently in class, and tapped into my potential. I want to thank every last one my teachers for playing a role in helping me discover my ability and pushing me to get this far. All of you have taught me many valuable lessons and shared with me important experiences that I will take far in my life.
Class of 2012, I am not the only student here who demonstrates leadership, shows respect, and cares about his education. We all have these attributes as a class together, because we all have role models and mentors who have shown us what leadership is, family that teaches us important lessons in life, and teachers that have shown us how important it is for us to take education seriously. As we are all here today, it is clear that we as a class took all of these seriously and used these attributes to help us make it through these very challenging four years. We all embody citizenship, and we have made the City on a Hill mission of graduating responsible citizens possible for our class.
Thursday, June 7, 2012
A desire I inherited from my grandmother Jessie is a love of plants—gardening, growing flowers, and saving dying houseplants. Every spring, I set myself to filling flower boxes and clay pots on my front and back porches. When choosing flowers to grow for the season, I do consider color combinations and trying new plants I’ve never grown before, but when shopping in the greenhouse I head right for the plants that require full sunlight—six hours or more per day. I don’t just make this choice based on the conditions of my porches; in fact, I actually place my plants in certain configurations so that I can successfully grow those flowers that thrive in full sunlight. The plants that love full sunlight are the most beautiful and long lasting.
So it is with teaching--those who flourish in full sunlight are heartier. One of the pillars of City on a Hill is public accountability. We invite and welcome visitors to see what we do. As teachers, it is expected that observers may visit us at any time. In a job that can often be isolating, it makes a difference to a teacher to have an open door. Like a stuffy house on a hot summer day, opening the classroom door can let in some fresh air. Openness allows a teacher to think about what the class looks like to an observer, and the very presence of an observer helps a teacher reflect on his or her own classroom management, routines, and instruction.
At City on a Hill, we also push each other to become better educators by observing our fellow teachers. Each year, our teachers observe and are observed by their colleagues three times. Last year, COAH teachers spent 160 hours observing each other. That’s 160 hours of teaching in the light. After the observation, the two teachers meet with one another in pairs to discuss the class and the observed teacher asks for feedback within the context of his or her individual professional development goals. Since I’m counting, that’s 160 conversations about improving instruction every year. Such openness is not common in traditional district schools, I can assure you. In far too many district schools there is a culture of privacy, closed doors, and maintaining the status quo. City on a Hill has strived to break that down--to let in the light.
As the director of City on a Hill’s teacher certification program, I begin with the new teaching fellows in the dog days of August by going over the basic tenets of our school’s teaching philosophy. The tenet that sticks with me is the most is “No one can become a master teacher in isolation.” A school that does not design itself with this in mind cannot be successful, and a teacher who hides behind the darkness and privacy of a closed door will not flourish. After years, there may be growth, but the teacher will never fully bloom.
As educators strive with the increasingly difficult task of raising our nation’s children to the highest levels of achievement, we must let in the light. The most successful schools will be the ones that cultivate a faculty of master teachers that teach in bright light, open for all to see and discuss. Like my porch where I have to rearrange the furniture and placement of pots to allow sun-dependent flowers to thrive, so too must schools structure their professional development, schedule, and school culture to allow for teachers to observe and be observed. City on a Hill works hard to let in the light and develop a faculty that thrives in such an environment.
If you would like to see how it can work, visit us and tell us what you think. Be the light that we need to thrive. Come take a look at what we’re growing this year.
Ben Conrick is an English teacher and the Director of Teacher Development at City on a Hill. Having taught at City on a Hill since 2004, he also supervises City on a Hill's Urban Teaching Fellowship and Peer Observation Program. With 15 years in education, he holds a BA from Fredonia State University and an MA from the University at Albany.
Thursday, May 10, 2012
It was spring semester of my senior year at Tufts University. I was getting bored of Somerville and Cambridge and itching to graduate, so I decided to look for an internship to keep me preoccupied. When I began the internship hunt, I had no idea what I was looking for. I did know two things: 1) I’m passionate about education. 2) I wanted to be at a school.
And after a morning of searching, I found it – a development internship at City on a Hill Charter Public High School in Roxbury. Having been so secluded to one side of the Charles River, I had never heard of either the school or Roxbury, but I took a look around their website, did my research, and fell in love. I had finally found a school that had the aspects that I believed a good school should have: High Expectations, Citizenship, Leadership, and Accountability.
I applied immediately, and soon after, I was the new Development Intern. My main role was to assist in the planning and execution of the 2011 Gala, the annual fundraiser. However, being at the school only three times a week as well as in our fun-sized Development office never really gave the opportunity to get to know the students, teachers, or tutors, but it didn’t matter. I always looked forward to going to CoaH - not because I’m emphatic about development and event planning - but because there is this aura of support and dedication that lingers through the school’s halls that made it a pleasure to be there.
This sense of community was everywhere. I could hear it on the other side of the walls of our little office, where Mr. Dawson engaged his students on discussions about slavery and Mr. Johnson led experiments. I saw it as I passed the forum, where students work diligently with their tutors; I saw it at Town Meeting, where the entire school engages in a debate or celebrates each other’s successes. In all aspects and in all departments, it became very clear to me that every staff member is dedicated to the students, and all of the students are intent on achieving goals and exceeding expectations.
I don’t know if there’s a recipe for such a powerful and positive experience within a school or how one even goes about creating that. Perhaps it’s because the school is so small (only 280 students) and everyone knows each other’s name, or perhaps it’s because the school building is also small that everyone is forced to be close together! Either way, there’s no doubt that the CoaH culture embodies diligence and devotion combined with endless support and care.
After being immersed in the CoaH culture, I was motivated and determined to raise as much money as possible during our preparation for Gala. In my mind, every auction item secured and every trip to City Hall to obtain a charity wine license (that’s another blog entry in itself!) was a step closer to raising the resources and money the school needs to continue providing a great education to the students.
Finally the night of Gala arrived, and it was extraordinary. Energy and excitement overflowed the event hall, and everything was running swimmingly!
…Were you expecting something to go horribly wrong and a funny anecdote to come out of it? To be perfectly honest, I was concerned about that happening the night of Gala also, but at worst, the event ran a little over. Now, you may be wondering how we pulled off an awesome event without a hitch.
At City on a Hill, the staff constantly goes out of their way for each other, for the students, and for the school as a whole, and that was very apparent the night of Gala. Yes, the development team planned the event and executed it, but the entire staff helped pull it together. Teachers worked the check-in table; tutors decorated; and the students looked sharp, represented the school well, and blew our guests away with their talents and successes. People left inspired.
As the event came to an end, I stood in the empty event space cleaning up centerpieces and felt an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude. I sometimes fail to remember that a school is composed of more than just teachers and students. In fact, that night City on a Hill was everyone: staff members, students, their families, supporters, donors, volunteers. It’s quite a thrill to be part of something you believe in and then share and even celebrate that passion with hundreds of other people in one room, in one night. I will always be so grateful that I had the opportunity to be part of and contribute to such an amazing school.
Angel Veza is now a Development Assistant at City on a Hill. She continues to work on the annual gala, but also works on grant writing, student recruitment, and community engagement while at the same time working with students in Music Club and spending time in the classroom as a teacher's aide.
Monday, March 19, 2012
I traveled to China last summer on a scholarship to exchange best teaching practices with Chinese school teachers. My team visited schools in Beijing, Xian and Shanghai. The very first thing that one learns is that every student wants to speak to you in English. By the end of this year, China is predicted to become the largest English speaking country in the world. All school children take classes in English, but are desperate to practice their speaking skills with a native speaker.
The second discovery I made was that school children are school children wherever you go in this world. I shadowed a few male students for the day, and at one point, nature came calling. In English, I asked the boys to take me to the bathroom. My three high school guides were more than happy to escort me to the men’s room. Schools in urban China are mostly seven or eight stories high, so I was not surprised by the long walk and travel between floors. They brought me to this room that did not look like a men’s room, but who was I to question a cultural difference. They pointed to the door and told me to go in and I would have some privacy. I entered the room, and, to my absolute shock, found myself standing in the principal’s office with the principal sitting behind his desk wondering who had just walked into his private space. Before I could explain myself, I could hear the laughter fade into the stairwells as the boys ran off. The principal was a proficient English speaker and I did my best to explain that I was lost and apologized for entering his office. I am not sure if he believed me, but I kindly asked him where the men’s room was.
I think there may be some folklore circulating in our country that Chinese students go to school for twelve hours per day, 365 days a year. This is simply not true. Their school day is on average 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, but with a two-hour midday lunch break where many go home for lunch and family chores. The summer break is around four to five weeks long where the students have enrichment actives, free time and do some studying for exams (Senior year is different because they take the equivalent of the S.A.T in the summer for entrance into university). The national government does oversee all education and most placements into schools are based on the national exams at the end of every school year. In all, an American would not be shocked spending a day in a Chinese school. A student takes all the same basic classes as an American school child. However, an educator would notice right away is the “drill” technique that is the predominant methodology in the classroom.
We were invited to share our practice of group work and how to engage the student to formulate their own questions. For years, the system of teacher asking an objective question, student answering and so on, has been the way students prepare for national exams. Education has recently been undergoing a reform and the Chinese are ready to learn ways to help their students to become more creative and analytical. In one class, I was teaching a group about pre-Colombian Native American culture. The students wanted to know the answers before I even posed the questions. They were not familiar with a teacher asking open-ended questions. When I asked, “What do you think?” I got blank stares that silently said to me, there is no solution to this question, what does this teacher want me to answer? By the end of the class, I realized that I had to really push the student to evaluate what I was asking and attempt to formulate a thought that may or may not be correct; or to accept that there was no single correct answer. By the end of my visit, I witnessed a school system with little to no discipline issues, students excited to learn and kids plotting the next practical joke the would play on me.
Here at City on a Hill, we have been designing our curriculum with a focus on incorporating analytical and evaluative questions for the student to wrestle with. We want to foster independent learners where asking the questions are as important as knowing the answers. Our students learn from each other and have the freedom to question the teacher. What City on a Hill teachers are doing every day is creating a model of teaching and learning that a nation with a population nearing 2 billion is eager to implement in their system of education.
Patrick Foley is in his sixth year teaching at City on a Hill. He is the Lead History teacher and mentors both teaching fellows and the CoaHCORPS along with teaching World History. He holds a Masters of Teaching from Simmons, a Masters of Theology and a B.A. from St. John's Seminary and was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity. He is in his 17th year teaching in the Boston area.