On the Ground: Changing the culture of learning

School is out for summer. At Brenda Scott Academy for Theatre Arts, a pre-kindergarten to eighth grade school in Detroit's Osborn neighborhood, however, school is out because of summer. With a heat wave gripping the city of Detroit, Brenda Scott closed its doors last week because its air conditioning went out, but their 11-month-long school year does not end until August.
The school closing, however, did not keep administrators and teachers from working. On Wednesday, the leadership of Brenda Scott Academy met with Quincy Jones, executive director of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, while their students enjoyed a day off. They discussed partnerships in Osborn's new Parent Mentor Program, Brenda Scott's re-enrollment celebration (happening Aug. 3), the Osborn Local College Access Network, and raising funds to take students on a college visit to Alabama State University.
After they wrapped up their meeting with Quincy Jones at the Matrix Center, Brenda Scott's Principal Marques Stewart, Assistant Principal Ethel Judon, and Dean of Students Janocus Sanders were kind enough to invite me to tour the school and learn more about their curriculum, which they believe will dramatically increase student performance.
Last year, Brenda Scott was added to the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan (EAA), a statewide district composed of schools performing in the bottom five percent of schools throughout the state. In that time, Brenda Scott's staff was completely overhauled. Its new administration and faculty are now preparing for their second year on the job.
The first thing that struck me when meeting the Academy's staff was its youth. Seven of Brenda Scott's teachers are participants in the Teach for America Program. Teacher Maeve Gleason, who instructs grade school levels three and four, embodies the enthusiasm of the tightly knit staff and reflects on the success they feel they have achieved in a short period of time. "We had to change the culture first," she says looking forward to more strides during Brenda Scott's second year within the EAA.
Brenda Scott offers many resources to its students. The building itself is a beautiful facility constructed only a few years ago. Every student has access to a laptop with which they can complete online coursework. A social worker from the Michigan Department of Human Services has an office in the building and provides service to neighborhood families. There are also two staff social workers at the school and three special education teachers.
Brenda Scott has an enrollment somewhere between 800 and 900 students, a number that is hard to track because of the flux created by Michigan's open enrollment system, which allows students to attend the schools of their choosing. School districts compete for students and the state funding that comes with them when they enroll. The Osborn neighborhood in which Brenda Scott is located, however, is home to many students who do not have the means of getting to schools outside of the neighborhood. According to the Detroit Public Schools website, 86 percent of students at the Academy participate in the free and reduced lunch program, indicating the economic challenges residents of the neighborhood are dealing with.
Principal Stewart recognizes these challenges and is motivated by them. "I chose to come here to give these kids an opportunity just like the kids in Bloomfield Hills and Sterling heights get at their schools," says Stewart, who left his education job in Kansas City when recruited to come to Detroit by EAA superintendent Dr. J. Wm. Covington.
One way Brenda Scott and the EAA at large are attempting to provide this opportunity is by shifting away from traditional education models to what they call "student-centered learning." This model involves a longer school day (7.5 hours), a longer school year (11 months), and a focus on mastery of different levels of coursework rather than simply graduating kids to a new grade at the end of each school year.
"Our students are not in a traditional setting. We have a student-centered model where every kid has an individualized work plan," says principal Stewart.
According to Stewart, kids have made dramatic strides already, even though the new model is only a year old. "Sixty-three percent of our students have demonstrated at least 1.5 years of growth in math in a single school year. Fifty-two percent have done so in reading." It is for this reason, says Stewart, that people are taking notice of Brenda Scott. In the last year, they have had several high profile visitors, from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Gov. Rick Snyder to the Wall Street Journal.
Of course, Brenda Scott and other EAA schools have a long way to go. Stewart estimates that many of the Academy's students enter school two or more grade levels behind.
Principal Stewart dismisses criticisms of the EAA as unfounded and believes the status quo to be unacceptable. "If we don't do something different, what are we going to do?"
Only time will tell if this new educational model will pay off in the long run for students at Brenda Scott, Osborn residents, and the EAA as a whole. As On the Ground continues, we will check in on the school's progress during the new school year.

Matthew Lewis is spending the summer On the Ground in the Osborn neighborhood.

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Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.