Small New York City public high school finds success in non-traditional classrooms

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As New York City grapples with the challenges of educational inequality, one principal says she may have found a solution in the public high school she founded six years ago.

As New York City grapples with the challenges of educational inequality, one principal says she may have found a solution in the public high school she founded six years ago.

"As part of the chasm of inequality in this city, people feel like a good school is a scarce resource," said Harvest Collegiate Principal Kate Burch. "I really felt like it shouldn't be that way. So I really wanted to make another good school."

Unlike about one in five public high schools in New York City, Harvest Collegiate High School near Union Square does not screen students based on GPA or test scores.

Burch said students who qualify for free or reduced lunches and those living nearby are given a slight preference by the New York City Department of Education, but the only real requirement is that a student expresses a desire to attend during the city's high school admissions process.

Despite the lack of academic screening, neither graduation rates nor college attendance rates have suffered.

In the 2017-2018 school year, 92 percent of seniors at Harvest Collegiate graduated. That's well above the city-wide graduation rate of about 74 percent.

Of those students who did graduate from Harvest Collegiate, 98 percent were also accepted to college.

Students attending the school come from all five boroughs and represent a wide range of academic abilities, socio-economic statuses and ethnic backgrounds.

According to Department of Education data, about 71 percent of the students are black or Hispanic and 29 percent have special needs.

"We aspire to serve the diverse students of this city and we really do," Burch said.

The high school embraces the small school movement, maintaining a student body of fewer than 500 teens and keeping the student-to-teacher ratio as low as possible.

Some classes also utilize teacher teams to further increase individual attention.

"We have a different way of looking at students and all of our teachers share in this mission," Burch said. "It's about getting to know students as a human being, what kind of learner they are and then really having a honed eye on their work. Our students, who might be struggling, the teacher can see that and give them more help."

The school runs much like a democracy. Teachers are encouraged to work alongside the administration in leadership roles and in classrooms, teachers extend similar courtesies to students.

Classes are unconventional and interactive with a particular emphasis on critical thinking and engagement.

Additionally, students are given the space to express themselves and their understanding of a subject in a variety of ways.

In one class, "Artists as Chemists," teachers Milyoung Cho and Ashraya Gupta use art to make chemistry a more approachable subject.

"We spend a full unit where we are working on synthesizing pigments," Gupta said. "Students will come up with an original work of art, and then they make the paint for that work of art that they've designed."

"I would say the interesting thing about this course and a lot of the classes we teach here is that we are looking at things from different angles," Cho said. "And when you are talking about students who learn differently being visual may be a very strong learning trend that they have. So that can really help their application of what we are doing."

Students say they appreciate the non-traditional and supportive environment.

"They give you a chance to interpret the material in multiple different ways," said Ryan Williams, a senior at Harvest Collegiate currently being recruited by colleges to play lacrosse. "So, if you are not someone who likes to sit down and read a textbook, they allow you to demonstrate in different ways your understanding."

"Up until Harvest, I never really was excited to come back to school," said Jessie Knowles, another Harvest Collegiate senior planning to study international relations at a college in Washington, D.C. "A lot of classes are made to entertain the student and keep the student motivated while also learning. I feel like, in a lot of my classes, I have learned a lot and developed a lot as a person because of the ways the classes are taught."

Burch said the school's blind acceptance of students and emphasis on strategies that engage students should be a model city-wide.

"It allows everyone to be lifted in a way that I think really helps society, instead of just sorting people into, like this is the strong, that's the weak and that's it. Have a good life," Burch said. "Education, historically in America, has been a province of the elite. Like who gets to study are not working people, but actually to say, 'No, everyone can think critically and creatively,' that is the backbone of our curriculum and part of our mission."
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Take a behind-the-scenes look at a teacher enrichment activity at Harvest Collegiate. This activity was designed to help teachers prepare for the school year.


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