Creating a School Where All Students Belong and Can Succeed
This post is by Abbie Sewell, Instructional Guide at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS) in Queens, N.Y.
It's 9:30 a.m. the first week of September; the doors of our school opened for the eighth year just an hour ago. Walking the hallways, you hear the murmur of students talking and laughing in small groups. Climbing to the third floor, I find Mr. Fitzgibbon with his 12th grade Crew in the hallway doing an activity called "minefield," which requires collaboration, risk taking, and leadership. His Crew is recommitting to our motto "Crew, not passengers."
Two stories down in the auditorium, sixth graders gather for their first community meeting. They listen to the origin story of "hailstorm," the rhythmic exercise we use to open every community meeting. Then they jump into a whole-grade hula hoop pass. Students are learning the traditions of MELS students and from the first day they see that everyone plays an important role in the community circle.
Throughout the building, students are in Crews, groups of 13-15 students designed to build community, foster relationships, and develop character. At MELS, a credentialed EL Education mentor school, students spend the first 30 minutes of their day with their Crew learning about themselves, their place in our community and their place in the world. Teachers recognize the impact Crew experiences have on students and the opportunity Crew provides to level the playing field, so all students feel part of the school community and are supported to succeed at MELS.
Why We Do Crew
Each year, we open our doors to roughly 120 new students from across District 28 in Queens, NY. We are a public district school whose students come from 32 elementary schools with 20 different languages spoken in the home. Sixty-seven percent of MELS students quality for free or reduced-price lunch. The point is, our students come to school with a variety of experiences. Some have always felt like they belong in school. Others have recently immigrated to the United States and American school is scary, exciting, or just strange. Some have been successful in the classroom, and some dread joining a new school where they are sure they will continue to fail. The structure of Crew supports all students to find their place and succeed within the academic community, as demonstrated by the fact that 99 percent of MELS students graduate in four years and 97 percent are accepted to college.
Through Crew, we have built a culture that looks and sounds like the best parts of family, one where students can be honest, trust one another, and consult each other in hard times. It's the first thing visitors comment on when they enter the building. Students call Crew their "second family," and many say Crew is where they feel most at home in school. This informal evidence supports our belief that the structure of Crew is a powerful force for equity in our school. However, since opening in 2008, we have never collected systematic data about the impact of our culture on student achievement and evaluated our assumption that Crew works for all students.
Last year, MELS joined the Building Equitable Learning Environments Network (BELE Network) facilitated by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and underwritten by the Raikes Foundation. The BELE study is based on Camille Farrington's conclusion that when schools affirm student identities and are surrounded with supportive relationships, they are more likely to learn and achieve. We joined because we wanted to learn more about how we can improve Crew so that it fosters the non-cognitive skills students need to be successful in life and in school. We particularly wanted to look at whether it worked equally well for students from different backgrounds or with different needs (e.g., racial backgrounds, English Language Learner status, disability status).
Launching a Data-Based Inquiry
In 2016-17, we surveyed 93 students in eight Crews, about a quarter of our middle school. The survey asked students about their experience in Crew; it asked students to rate how much they felt like they belonged in their Crew, felt respected and cared for, and whether Crew helped them to achieve academically. The survey results for our school surprised us. They revealed some very positive trends, and also some areas of concern that can focus our pursuit of improvement.
On the positive end, the majority of students of all backgrounds, 75 percent to 90 percent of responses to each question, felt that they belong in Crew, are accepted for who they are, and felt cared for in Crew. English Language Learners even reported feeling more positive about and proud of their Crews than general education students.
However, analyzing responses from students for whom Crew is not working as successfully, we found some confounding results. First, we noticed that when we drilled down to the question asking students to rate the degree to which they feel they belong in Crew, African-American students showed a much higher level of dissatisfaction than Latino and white students. Twenty percent of African American students reported that they felt they belonged in Crew "not at all" or "just a little," in contrast to 13 percent of white students and just 11 percent of Hispanic/Latino students. This data point raises questions for us about the experience African-American students are having in Crew and how that experience impacts their broader social and academic engagement at MELS. Are our Crew lessons engaging all of our students equally? Are they equitably lifting up all students' voices and choices? Are they preparing African-American students to be successful students and leaders in their classes, as well as in Crew?
Focusing Further Inquiry to Close the Opportunity Gap
We begin this school year centered in questions. Based on the initial results from a small sample size of students, we realize we need to know more about our entire community. This year we will expand our sample size to include our entire middle school and gather data representative of all students. A small group of Crew leaders will begin inquiry cycles to examine factors contributing to student belonging, as well as the Crew practices that can build a sense of belonging for all students.
The data from our participation in an independently designed research study will guide us to be more intentional, data-informed, and successful in fulfilling our vision of equity at MELS. At the center of that vision is a goal of educating MELS students to be self-reflective critical thinkers not just about academic content, but also about personal character. We want students to make wise choices about how they respond to situations and contribute to their communities in positive ways.
When we began our work around critical thinking and character, we interviewed students to ask "when do you feel like you belong at MELS." Several students remarked that their sense of belonging is greatest when they feel like their voices matter within the curriculum and within their community. That sentiment underlines the promise of using data about Crew to increase access for all students at MELS. When students feel they belong and are fully engaged in our learning community, then the doors are open for all students to succeed and to contribute to a better world.
Photo credit: Abbie Sewell