A new high school in NYC embraces a mix of in-person and virtual learning – Chalkbeat New York | Team Cansler

River Wedding began freshmen at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn in September this year and has felt overwhelmed by its massive campus of more than 3,500 other students.

The 15-year-old quickly sought advice from her middle school careers advisor. Within days, she transferred to a city program called A School Without Walls and joined the inaugural class of 55 ninth graders.

“There were about nine people in the class,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Woof, I can breathe.'”

The new school uses a hybrid learning model, with students alternating between completing coursework at home and in traditional classrooms. But unlike the hybrid program that schools hastily rolled out during the peak of the pandemic — when students had more limited interactions with teachers during distance learning and fewer opportunities to collaborate in the classroom with their peers — leaders at School Without Walls hope to embrace that approach to revise .

Students said the new school offers more structure and individual guidance for distance learning than it did during the pandemic. The most significant change, however, is the school’s focus on projects and fieldwork conducted outside of students’ homes and classrooms — opportunities that school leaders said would be more difficult to achieve within a traditional schedule.

“We use hybrid learning so students have greater access to New York City resources and can engage in real-world learning,” said Veronica Coleman, the program’s director. “For some students, it just didn’t feel like going into a building for a whole day anymore.”

Currently, students spend half of the day at home completing assignments and working online with their teachers. The remainder of the day takes place in person at a Department of Education building in downtown Brooklyn. As the program expands to 10th, 11th and 12th graders over the next three years, students are expected to spend less time on traditional coursework.

Veronica Coleman, Principal of School Without Walls, guides students to the subway after a trip to Prospect Park.

Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat

Upperclassmen will complete at least one “passion project” of their own design. Some students are already thinking about topics ranging from graffiti to street art to fashion design that defies traditional gender norms. Those projects will also include internships, college courses, or other work-based learning opportunities to foster a “better understanding of what they want to do after high school,” Coleman said.

The school was under construction before Chancellor David Banks took office, but it aligns with some of his early priorities, such as: B. Giving students the opportunity to explore their professional interests long before graduation. Banks has also said he wants to build alternative programs that high school students will find more appealing.

A last minute addition to high school admissions

It remains to be seen how popular the hybrid program will become. Although the school offered 100 places that fall, just over half of those places were filled.

The school had limited time to get students to apply, Coleman said, when the city announced applications for the program were opening just before the high school admissions deadline. The program also initially recruited students alongside a separate, all-virtual program also dubbed the “School Without Walls,” which caused some confusion among about 15 students, who later withdrew. (The city plans to change the name of the all-virtual program.)

Several students who have enrolled said they have enjoyed the program so far and appreciated the program’s unusual structure. For example, one student said being able to work from home part-time allows him to help care for his grandmother.

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Derrick Newell said the school’s hybrid schedule allows him to look after his grandmother.

Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat

Another student, Lena Gestel, said she was initially skeptical about the school without walls but soon discovered that the hybrid model allowed her to take dance classes that would have clashed with traditional school life.

“It fits much better into my schedule,” said the 14-year-old Gestel. Also, she could get personal help from her teachers when she was having trouble completing assignments.

However, one of the school’s biggest draws is the opportunity to leave the traditional classroom and explore the city, especially after many students have spent long periods in their homes during the pandemic.

Students have already taken several field trips off campus, including visits to parks near the school’s downtown Brooklyn headquarters. They conducted ’empathy interviews’ to learn how people use public space and how it could be improved. A partnership with the park’s department gives students the opportunity to pitch their ideas directly to the agency, Coleman said.

On a recent Wednesday, a trip focused on environmental science sent students to Prospect Park to learn about the local ecosystem. During an hour-and-a-half hike, they learned about the local vegetation and also exercised — their downtown Brooklyn building doesn’t have a gym for traditional physical education classes.

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School Without Walls students unearth crabs during an environmental studies lesson in Prospect Park.

Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat

With guidance from the parks department and school staff, the students donned blue rubber gloves and dipped nets into a stream, exposing leaves, mud and crayfish. They later performed water quality tests for pH, temperature, nitrate, and dissolved oxygen. They tested hypotheses about whether the water was healthy enough to support aquatic life.

“We’re just used to liking buildings and stuff,” says 14-year-old Faris Moataz, adding that he enjoys spending time in nature. “Just to know this is here — it’s cool too.”

Work at your own pace

The school was developed in partnership with NYC Outward Bound, a nonprofit organization that supports a network of public schools that typically include intensive projects, outdoor classes, and a counseling program called “Crew” that students join over a number of years connect to a faculty advisor. School Without Walls was funded by the XQ Institute, a wealthy organization that funds groups trying to rethink the way high schools function. A group of student interns also made contributions to shaping the school.

Moataz and other students said they appreciated the School Without Walls’ unconventional approach to academics. The program uses a “skills-based” teaching method, in which educators ensure students have mastered certain skills before proceeding. Students receive narrative grades rather than traditional letter grades.

“This school really helps you to really understand what you’re doing,” Moataz said. “They are not mandatory for the deadline. So how if you do [an assignment] A few days later, they’re still taking it.” He also likes being able to complete tasks from home, where he often finds it easier to concentrate.

Other students were more nervous about the school’s remote learning component, particularly after their experience of online classes during the pandemic.

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River Wedding transferred to School Without Walls after feeling overwhelmed by a much larger Brookyln High School.

Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat

River, the student who transferred from Murrow, said managing her time was a big challenge when she was studying remotely in middle school during the pandemic.

“I was like, no teachers, all on me, my grades went down,” she said, adding that she missed long periods of school. “I did not know, what I should do.”

But when she arrived at School Without Walls, she said teachers offered a lot of help with distance learning and weren’t “really controlling” or “very strict,” which motivates her to stick to her assignments.

“You don’t feel like you have to do it right away,” she said. “And you don’t get stressed and then push it away.”

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York covering New York public schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

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