This Has Been a Different Type of School Year

Engage. Enrich. Educate. That is what we, the educators at Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea, Massachusetts, set out to do while embarking on a different type of school year in September 2018—one with student voice, community and continuous learning at its core—and it’s been working. As we near the end of 2018 and the midpoint of the school year, we’ve been reflecting on the early successes of this new approach. First, enrich. We kicked off the new school year with an “Adventure Week” full of activities like trips to the zoo, the aquarium and rock climbing. This helped us build essential, foundational relationships with students and show them that we are a caring community that pays attention to their wants and needs. Such needs are unique at Phoenix, where many students face challenges born from the ripple effects of poverty and racism. They have formerly dropped out, are pregnant or parenting, were chronically truant or have been involved with the juvenile justice system. Many students have recently immigrated to the United States, knowing only some or often no English. Then, enrich. In an effort to be a more trauma-sensitive school for students carrying such heavy burdens, we began implementing a series of restorative justice practices focused on the use of restorative circles, in which students are given the space to pause, ground their day and attempt to center themselves. In support circles, they are able to build connections, share feelings and develop empathy. In harm circles, students can respond to conflict, restore and repair relationships. These circles occur in new advisory courses called CREWs—Community, Responsibility and Engagement Workshops—which are built into the school day, and serve as hubs of community building and expression, equipping students with the mindset to bring positive change and energy to our community. CREWs have weekly themes and activities that are culturally, locally and academically relevant and connect to students’ success. Finally, educate. After a huge scope of design work, our team integrated a newly defined set of core competencies into our curriculum: reading critically, learning from the past, leading inquiry, expressing oneself boldly, developing self-knowledge and sustaining wellness, reasoning quantitatively, using tools skillfully and navigating conflict. Students began completing performance tasks and Mastery Portfolio Projects to demonstrate mastery of both academic and socio-emotional skills in connection to these competencies, to ensure they are prepared to succeed in the 21st century workforce. As we implement over the next three years, the switch to competency based learning should provide more flexible pathways to graduation and ensure that we are preparing our graduates for the demands of college and jobs of the 21st century.
Liz Murray has over 20 years of experience in urban education as a teacher, principal and system level leader. She is passionate about building school environments with highly engaging learning opportunities and positive culture for all students, teaching and learning and leadership development. Prior to joining the Phoenix Charter Academy team, Liz taught fifth and sixth grade humanities in ...

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