Students at this alternative NYC high school get jobs, not grades
In the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, three teenage girls sit on the floor of a theatre production studio, hammering away at a four-legged tabletop. Behind them, a black wooden stage takes shape under the glare of ceiling-mounted lighting fixtures, which the young women also built.
This is not your typical home-economics class.
At City-As-School, an alternative public high school in New York City's Greenwich Village, students spend just two or three days a week in the classroom. The other half of the week, they go out into the field and work internships for academic credit. There are 48 alternative high schools in the city, though none offer such a robust apprenticeship program.
In addition to its emphasis on real-world learning, City-As-School challenges the status quo in a number of ways. Students complete a portfolio of papers and projects instead of taking tests. There are no grades, no statewide Regents exams (minus the English assessment), and no class years. You graduate when you've completed your portfolio.
I recently spent the day at City-As-School to see what it's like to be one of "New York's most interesting kids," as the school's motto calls its students.
Founded in 1972 with 15 students and a staff of four, City-As-School has grown from a church basement to a five-story brick schoolhouse.
Founding principal Frederick J. Koury opened the school because he believed education shouldn't just take place inside the four walls of a classroom. As a teacher at his previous school, he took students on field trips all the time. His aspiration with City-As-School was to turn New York City's five boroughs into a playground for experiential learning. He established contacts throughout the city, armed students with bus and subway tokens, and sent them on their way.
In an interview with Canarsie Digest in 1972, Koury described his school as something completely novel. "City-As-School is designed so that students will be forced to think and function independently," the article said. "There will be strange situations, people, and places, and there won't be someone constantly there to give direct instructions or tests."
Today, City-As-School students spend half of their time at one of 300 affiliated internship sites, where they earn academic credit in traditional subject areas like math, science, English, and history.
The rest of the week, they swarm these vibrant halls, which the administration repaints white annually, so incoming students have a fresh canvas.
The school's unconventional and varied approach to learning accommodates an equally heterogeneous group of kids. Most students arrive between the ages of 17 and 18, after completing ninth and tenth grades at other schools.
The come for a variety of reasons: Bullies taunted them for their piercings, tattoos, or sexual orientation. A tough home life or an unexpected pregnancy forced them to grow up too soon. They were bored. They were overwhelmed.
City-As-School students missed, on average, more than 40 days of school in their previous academic year. Half rely on food stamps to survive, and another 10% of students live in temporary housing, foster homes, or on the street.
When Anthony, 22, was a ninth grader, a known gang member robbed him across the street from his Bronx high school. The Department of Education granted Anthony a "safety transfer," giving him the choice to relocate to a New York City public school of his choosing.
At his next school, his grades started to slip. He fell in with the wrong crowd and got kicked off the basketball team. His mother coaxed him into trying night school for his second round of junior year, but the bearded, tattooed older men in the class scared him.
"I had a wall up," Anthony says. "No expression on my face. I didn't talk. I was exhausted and disappointed I was still in school at age 20."
Anthony eventually landed at City-As-School, which his aunt once attended. Everything changed. He made friends with shared interests. Teachers asked him to call them by their first names, and treated him like an adult. His internship at a children's culinary institute taught him to prep food like a seasoned line cook and to speak to groups with confidence.
Anthony, who once disliked school and the person he was becoming, is on track to graduate this spring. He dreams of studying forensic science and playing basketball at Ithaca College.
City-As-School, commonly referred to as a "transfer school," has implemented several measures to help struggling students like Anthony succeed. That's why more than 60% of its students — many of whom were once on the brink of dropping out — leave with a degree.
Some teachers bring New York City bagels and fresh fruit to first period. "It's the only way we can get them here so early," one instructor tells me.
Students are graded on a credit/no-credit basis, rather than receiving letter grades. Teachers say this model rewards students who engage and do the work, rather than punish students who maybe studied the wrong thing before a test or were out sick with a cold during an important lesson.
Once a week, students go to "advisory," an informal gathering with one teacher and about 10 of their peers. It's an opportunity for students to discuss their internship experiences and whatever else is on their minds. For many, advisory becomes a little family.
The career development office not only shepherds students through the college application process, but it follows up with recent alumni after graduation. Only 20% of all full-time students in the US who matriculate into community college get a degree within three years, so Ummi Modeste, a veteran City-As-School staffer, checks in with City-As-School grads to see that they're on track.
City-As-School provides easy access to quality mental healthcare, as well. The school is unusual in that it employs two guidance counselors, two social workers, and one school psychologist, who all hold sessions in the building.
Social worker Veronica Savage says low self-esteem affects many students who step into her office.
"There are students who come here, having received messages [their whole lives] that they don't know how to learn," she says. Students may think there's one right answer, or one right path to graduation. But there are many ways to finish, Savage says.
No one appreciates City-As-School's flexibility more than Savage, who graduated from City-As-School years ago. After she failed one class at her previous high school, teachers told her she wouldn't graduate on time. Savage enrolled here because she believed one slip-up shouldn't jeopardize her future.
Of course, the most unusual way City-As-School ensures students' success is by awarding them academic credit for completing internships. It's the only school under the New York City Department of Education's jurisdiction with permission to do so.
Teachers double as "internship coordinators" by identifying opportunities throughout the city, pairing students with companies, and supervising students' progress via email and phone calls.
Each internship in City-As-School's catalogue satisfies one or more academic requirement. Need a science credit? Volunteer as a school-group guide at the American Museum of Natural History. A culinary credit? Learn to bake doughnuts at growing city bakery Dough. A tech credit? Disect the intersection of internet and culture at Red Bull Studios, where hip young artist and alum Ryder Ripps pays forward the opportunities City-As-School once gave him. It's these special and forward-thinking opportunities that make City-As-School so unique.
Teachers and administrators tell me that this model enables learners of all types to grasp new skills, gain confidence, and practice professional behaviors.
As Nia, 18, hammers at the legs of a tabletop at Videograf, the indie theatre production studio where she and three peers intern, she laughs and teases the other girls about their craftsmanship. She tends to fall into a leadership role, being the kind of person who calls her friends in the morning to make sure they get out of bed.
On her first day at Videograf, Nia helped senior producer Michael Frenchman build a desk for the control room. "I was using my hands. I felt like I was in the Village People," Nia jokes. Since then, she's outfitted the stage with all sorts of technical equipment and created tutorials so future interns can learn how to operate the camera, sound, and lighting fixtures.
An aspiring multimedia professional, Nia says her internship doubled as "corporate espionage." She learned the inner workings of a company in the same industry she hopes to pursue a career in after college graduation. (This winter, she applied to no fewer than 21 colleges, including Oberlin, Brown, and Skidmore.)
During a tea and biscuits break at Videograf, Nia sat down to tell me about how she arrived here. She says she wasn't a "bad student" at her previous high school, nor was she desperate for credits. That stereotype follows many of her peers.
She chose City-As-School because of what it offered: a refuge for individuals. "We're not the rejects," she says.
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