Learning by Heart: Creating Accountability through Community
at East Side Community School

by Kathleen Cushman ____

NEW YORK, NY School had only been in session for eleven days on the bright September morning in 2012 when Mark Federman, the principal of East Side Community School, got the call from a New York City Department of Education official: Get everyone out of your building, and get them out fast.

An alert custodian had noticed that the brick facade of the 90-year-old five-story school building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood was pulling away from its steel structure and threatening collapse. Without a moment to prepare, Mr. Federman and his staff had to evacuate their 650 students in grades 6 through 12, sending them to makeshift shared quarters in widely separated neighborhoods.

One year later, that difficult five-month exile had become the stuff of legend in this close-knit school community, which reflects the diverse population of its historically immigrant neighborhood.

The high school served its displacement time in “a school of permanent metal detectors,” recalled Joanna Dolgin, who teaches eleventh-grade English. Walking into its windowless spaces, “the students had to take off their belts, their shoes, their hair pins, just to come to school. They had to pay a dollar to store their cell phones in a truck. The security guards often were angry with them for not being fast enough.”

Students sharply felt the contrast with East Side, where “every casual hallway interaction reminds our kids that they’re part of a community, surrounded by adults who support and care about them,” Ms. Dolgin said. Even the relocated teachers felt isolated and unmoored, she added: “It really reminded me that even the work I do in my classroom is possible because of this larger community that we’ve created.”

When the scattered groups finally returned to their building, everyone seemed to second that emotion. “You can take us out of East Side,” reads the message stenciled by the graduating class of 2013 on the wall outside the school’s main office, “but you can’t take East Side out of us.”

The unwavering foundation of committed community that East Side laid at its 1992 founding (by veteran educator Jill Herman) has grown steadily since. Held together by the mortar of mutual respect, the community culture in “this crumbling building”—as one veteran teacher laughingly concluded—“exudes love and care and academic excellence and creativity. It’s really hard to be in this space and not get caught up in the fervor of positivity."

Taking notice

At least once a week, every East Side grade-level teaching team sits down with the principal or an assistant principal for a full period of “kid talk.” That regular meeting serves not just “to make sure no kids fall through the cracks,” said Ms. Dolgin, “but even more to make sure that all kids are getting exactly what they need.”

In the fall, for example, her grade 12 team spent a lot of time thinking about “kids who were doing fine but could be doing better,” Ms. Dolgin said. “Who is maybe slacking? What could we do to get them excited? What push do they need?” By spring, the team was keeping a close eye on seniors who still needed to revise their all-important performance based assessment tasks to meet school standards. Whatever the plan to engage an adolescent in a challenge, it emphasizes the positive: a private student-teacher conversation to plan next steps, a call to parents from the principal reporting how much better things are going.

Principal Mark Federman’s “less is more” decision to prioritize small class size instead of a wider curriculum has allowed teachers to know students better. In what she called their “make-or-break year” academically, history teacher Yolanda Betances found that her tenth graders were often distracted by social matters. Individual attention was “key to making them feel a sense of belonging and also feel connected to the class and the content,” she said. “Here we’re gonna notice you for sure.”

Forming the ties that bind

“For me, it’s those small things, either us opening up to the teachers or the teachers opening up to us, that really make a huge difference,” remarked a student named Bryan. “Like calling a teacher by their first name. I think we form more of a stronger bond that way. And they’re willing to talk about their lives and open up to students.”

Whether the subject is relationships or planning for college, the advisory group takes the lead in building that kind of trust during a student’s years at East Side. Meeting briefly each morning and twice weekly for a longer period, each group of twelve to fifteen students stays with an adult adviser for a year, then reconfigures.

Advisers have considerable leeway, but all follow a common framework emphasizing development in five areas: work habits, mutual respect, health and healthy relationships, the college path, and connections between advisers and their advisees. In addition, the adviser acts as point person for communicating with family, monitoring attendance and academic progress. The adviser’s role explicitly includes connecting students with extracurricular opportunities and helping them make a productive plan for the summer.

Teachers on a grade-level team often plan together. “We look at the calendar for the year, and decide on core things that we as a team are going to do,” said Ms. Betances, whose tenth graders were about to use advisory time to collect samples from city waterways for use in their chemistry portfolio project. Eighth-grade advisers collaborate to develop positive work habits in a series of targeted workshops such as “What’s Happening with Your Book Bag?” (on staying organized).

Starting as early as sixth grade, East Side advisories visit college campuses to increase awareness of what opportunities lie ahead. Research shows that students talk and listen more to their teachers about post-secondary planning than they do to counseling staff, and advisers keep up that conversation from middle through high school, supplementing the school’s college counselor’s role.

However, the most important role of adviser, said teacher Jen McLaughlin, involves “a way of being”: support and advocacy from an adult who keeps a close eye on the “temperature” of advisees as well as their interests, needs, and growing ability to plan and regulate their own lives. “It’s a way of really walking through the entire educational and socio-emotional experience with every child,” she reflected.

The adviser takes a lead role in drawing families into their children’s lives at school. Five times yearly parents and guardians join in a three-way conference with student and adviser to review progress and revisit goals. Advisers use email and text messaging to keep families in the loop about out-of-school opportunities as well. “There’s always someone who’s willing to speak with my parents in Spanish and take their time to explain things,” said Bryan, in twelfth grade. That sends a huge message to my parents.” Josh, who divides his home life between parents, said simply, “This is somewhere that my family feels comfortable . . . a really nice environment that you always wanna come back to.”

Diffusing tensions through “100 percent respect”

The mutual understanding developed in advisory provides the bedrock for the overarching East Side behavior norm known as “100 percent respect.” In some schools that might merely be a slogan, but here it guides an active commitment to trust, openness, and mutual support among youth and adults in the common enterprise of learning.

The positive emphasis of “100 percent respect” sets a tone that students particularly appreciate. Bryan pointed to the open-campus lunch policy as an example. “There’re so many distractions out there!” he exclaimed. “I can go bowling, go to the pier, do anything pretty much during lunch.” Yet “since the school has built such a stable environment,” he said, “we trust ourselves to come back to school. We’re willing to do whatever it is that we have to do.”

The same could be said of the school’s chief Dean of Students, Luis Rosado, a big man who projects a calm assurance that young people matter here. He is part of a robust team: as well as a school psychologist, at both the middle and high school level East Side has an assistant dean, a guidance counselor, and a social worker, along with graduate interns in social work from a nearby university who volunteer several days a week.

For all that, “the teachers are definitely our first line,” Mr. Rosado said. “They don’t just say, ‘This is a problem kid. I want him out.’ They’ll usually identify things before it blows up.” In formal and informal ways, he added, “we try to give the students the opportunity to speak.”

A lot of these kids, they have emotional concerns that would stop them from coming to school if they didn’t have that opportunity to vent. It’s important that they know they can rely on everyone they see. So any educator in the building has multiple hats that we fit—nurse, counselor, teacher, mentor, coach. Whatever the kid needs, we try to provide it to them.

For Diamond, who had experienced her fair share of conflict with peers, that attitude has a calming effect. “Since I came here, I get in less trouble,” she said. “Most teachers treat us like their own children. They’re coming from their heart saying how they feel and what they want you to do to be a better person.”

The vision of a very diverse community practicing “100 percent respect” resonates deeply with the principles of Facing History and Ourselves, a longstanding curriculum partner at East Side. “It was designed to help teachers and students communicate, respect each other, and get along,” said Mr. Hill after more than a decade of seeing its effects on school culture. Restorative practices, such as mediation and the public apology, play a key part in building that mutual respect. No matter who made the mistake, such routines create space to acknowledge harm done to others and make appropriate amends, without humiliation.

“When the teachers do it, it’s simple and it’s easy,” Mr. Rosado explained, and students learn by example:

If it ends up being their turn, they know not to make a big deal out of it. The teacher would say, you know, “I made a mistake ’cause I threatened everybody with detention when it was only a few people who were out of line.” And the kids’ll be like, “Oh.” And then the teacher’ll move on: “My mistake. I apologize. I shouldn’t have spoken that way.” . . . It’s important for them to see that.

Many East Side high school students have come up through its middle school, and over the years they absorb the attitude that “we’re in this together,” Mr. Rosado said. “We’re family—not just the language of it, but the actual meaning of it. You know that people are gonna be fair with you, people will actually treat you with respect.” Students realize that it’s not a one-way street, he added; they are “expected to accept responsibility, but the people in the building model it, and it’s important.”

Making learning public

Not just in behavior norms but also in the academic realm, accountability at East Side marries with a deep sense of community. At the end of every semester, when students in most New York City high schools are taking the state Regents exams, their East Side peers instead present and defend their work at “roundtables” for teachers and outside evaluators. In his welcome memo to guests, principal Mark Federman describes the high stakes involved:

We, meaning the students, staff and school as a whole, will put it all out there for each other, our families, our friends, our colleagues and our community to see: the good, the bad, and everything else. This is not an easy thing to do. Our students’ work and our own work is not always as pretty as we want it to be. And no matter how hard they have worked and we have worked, we are never quite satisfied. However, we offer it to the public because it is to the public that we and our students are ultimately accountable.

The regularity of these twice-yearly roundtable rituals—six in each core subject by the time they reach senior year—means that East Side students get continual practice in oral and written reflection on their own work and in answering questions about the work from the larger community. For presentations by ninth through eleventh graders, each visitor sits with two students in a room where simultaneous roundtables are taking place. The culminating performance-based assessments of senior year, however, follow the model of a dissertation defense: a private session with two or three adults who have prior access to the work and enter into deeper discussion and feedback.

A few weeks before presenting at her roundtable to fulfill the graduation requirement in science, an eleventh grader named Tanazia was in Erica Ring’s classroom, intently charting the growth of plants nourished by three different mixes of plant compost. “I’m trying to see which helps my plants grow faster,” she said. “This one is thermophilic, a really hot-temperature compost we made in large batches of greens and browns, such as carrots and broccoli. For mesophilic, we put . . . .” Aside from its demonstrating her scientific proficiency, Tanazia saw her project as contributing to the community. “Turning food waste into healthy soil for plants creates less waste in cities,” she said. “You could even do this on your windowsill at home.”

In large part, teacher Ben Wides suggested, such academic depth results from the social and emotional supports that surround students from the time they enter East Side. As teachers show that they care about the wellbeing of their charges, they are also “letting kids know that we’re taking them seriously intellectually,” he said: “giving them rich and challenging questions to think about” and taking an interest in their ideas.

When seniors arrive in his class, Ben Wides said, and choose a topic for the major history research paper they must defend for the graduation portfolio, they often pick an issue of personal interest. But he feels even greater satisfaction when he sees students “learning for learning’s sake—looking at a real question, engaging in intellectual inquiry on a topic that does not relate personally to them. That’s the essence. And the fact that they're constructing it for themselves, I think, is really powerful.”

“Having their voice heard, being able to speak their mind,” said tenth-grade history teacher Yolanda Betances, “that becomes part of the culture in all of their classes, I think.” In the process, she added, “they also have a sense of developing and growing as young people—of how to interact with not only fellow students but people visiting the school. They’re part of a community.”



This article is an excerpt from WKCD's full case study of East Side Community School, one of five schools featured in Learning by Heart: Five American High Schools Where Social and Emotional Learning Are Core. It was conducted by WKCD's research arm, the Center for Youth Voice in Policy and Practice.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL CASE STUDY, "Developing Agency Through Community: East Side Community School"