El Centro de Estudiantes: A Conversation with Frankie Bonilla

Q&A   31 May 2018
By Frankie Bonilla, El Centro de Estudiantes

 

I was taught to always ask the kids “Why?” If you pose a question, you ask “why” over and over…We wanted them to see the complete connection. If they connect to the project, they’re the ones who increase the rigor.

Frankie Bonilla
Assistant Principal

Q: What path led you to becoming the Assistant Principal at El Centro de Estudiantes?

A: I was a high school Spanish teacher for seven years at a charter school. The charter school model was “failure is not an option.” Not in a positive way though. Kids knew they couldn’t fail, if you know what I mean.

While teaching there, I noticed the Spanish teachers in the other grades focused on written work—translations, conjugations, things of that nature. But, none of it was ever verbal. Out of all the languages I’ve learned myself, I’ve never learned the written form first. I learned how to speak, then I learned how to write.

I knew it was important to learn the functionality and simplicity of language for its main purpose, which was to verbalize it in everyday interactions. I focused on the verbal as a teacher, and at that particular school, believe it or not, that idea was considered revolutionary.

I did that for several years. I used call and response; I would bring drums in and teach them about different cultures; I would teach them how to dance. I used rhythm as a form of learning because language is all about rhythm. I actually got in trouble a couple of times for doing these things.

 

I landed at El Centro in their second year of operation. It was hard work, but it was really energizing to have to do some research and be pushed to teach through your own passion.

Frankie Bonilla
Assistant Principal

As time went on, I was thinking about quitting. Although I was teaching very differently, I was still having to deliver the same information year after year.

Fortunately, one of the English teachers who was there came across El Centro de Estudiantes. She reached out to me and said out of all the teachers she had ever worked with, she felt I was the most ready to do project-based learning (PBL). She sent me a couple of websites, told me to check things out, and said, “If you’re interested, hit me up.”

Seeing what PBL was like reoriented what I thought education could be. So, I landed at El Centro in their second year of operation. It was hard work, but it was really energizing to have to do some research and be pushed to teach through your own passion.

Q: What was your first year at El Centro like?

A: When I first arrived at El Centro, two days a week, learners had the option to do an internship or participate in a real-world learning opportunity that would be based on their educator’s passions. Today, we have combined the two approaches. We do group explorations and then learners independently pursue internships in the community after they get their feet wet.

When I started, I explored hip-hop and built a studio within the classroom. While this was being built out, we planned all of these field trips and activities that led to the kids creating their own beats in real music studios in Philadelphia. I worked with Jr. Music Executive, a program that helps kids get involved with the Grammy Awards—they help run a kids version of the Grammy’s.

This connected the kids to people who did all sorts of things like filmography, radio, and music production for some of the biggest names in the music industry.

Q: Your journey at El Centro was interrupted. What happened?

A: We thought the school was going to close. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our first child, and she had just been laid off from her job. So, I was panicking and took a job back at the school I started at. I needed some reassurance. I regretted this decision for a really long time because I went from my old employer to another traditional school after that.

Fortunately, El Centro’s first principal, who is a mentor of mine, opened up The Workshop School, which was the next iteration of an afterschool program he started for students who were low-achievers/low-attendance—all those good inner city metrics. When it was an after-school program, these students built an electric, biodiesel car and entered a competition.

At the competition, here you have kids from west Philadelphia, considered one of the poorest areas of the country, beating out the model created by MIT students. Naturally, that made front cover news. Once that happened, my mentor’s life changed. The superintendent was calling him up saying, “What do you need?”

From there, he ended up with his own school—The Workshop School. I was actually one of the founding teachers. I was there for three years, building more music studios, and developing a curriculum that was highly and intentionally focused on multimedia.

 

For some perspective, after the last day of The Workshop School’s first year, I went home bawling like a baby. It was so tough going from my work in traditional schools to this passion-driven learning environment.

Frankie Bonilla
Assistant Principal

Working with young people, I began to see the drastic changes in technology and culture and the widening of the generation gap and how people learn. My colleague JuDonn DeShields, the current principal at El Centro, spoke to me about the possibility of becoming the assistant principal. Once I came to El Centro, they had moved away from the PBL model a bit, so the first step was to get ourselves back to the Big Picture model.

And, here I am now.

Q: How did working at The Workshop School impact the way you approach education today?

A: When you’re in school to be an educator, you might fall in love with the some of what we’re doing here at El Centro or what’s happening at The Workshop School because the application of what was learned in college is totally different than they normally see.

But, for some perspective, after the last day of The Workshop School’s first year, I went home bawling like a baby. It was so tough going from my work in traditional schools to this passion-driven learning environment.

At The Workshop School, I was taught to always ask the kids “Why?” If you pose a question, you ask “why” over and over until they’re like, “I know what you’re going to say next, “why?”” We wanted them to see the complete connection. If they connect to the project, they’re the ones who increase the rigor.

Whenever I was teaching ninth grade there, I always integrated iMovie, YouTube, and Garage Band with every project. They would get so sick of it. Then, after I left, when these same kids were doing their senior projects, I was sent some of their work—they were doing documentaries, short films, and so on.

 

All my kids will say: “Well, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out. So, what are you saying?” I tell them those guys created stuff that didn’t exist, so here’s how I can help you develop the mindset of creating things that don’t yet exist.

Frankie Bonilla
Assistant Principal

They were now at a point where they could understand how to use these tools on any topic they wanted to express their voice on. They could share it with the world. This became so important for me because I realized this was how young people were communicating. If there is a disconnect with their communication style and education as a whole, they’re never going to view education as necessary for moving forward in life.

All my kids will say: “Well, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out. So, what are you saying?” I tell them those guys created stuff that didn’t exist, so here’s how I can help you develop the mindset of creating things that don’t yet exist or improving the things you already have. These are some of the skills you’re going to need.

Q: What are you pushing towards today at El Centro?

A: The push today is to continue to grow in rigor and get advisors to be in a better place, where they are asking the kids about their best ways of learning. We are also creating trainings to help advisors adjust to using technology in projects, rather than moving away from it.

There are concerns out in the world about digital dementia and how we are losing the ability to remember things like phone numbers and people’s names. To some, they believe the way to combat this is to get rid of technology.

Every civilization that has not been capable of keeping up with technology ended up being completely phased out. Rather than eliminating technology, we need to find better ways to be creative and continue to bring in information and awaken our minds to that process, so we can be problem solvers with what we have. Our brains haven’t changed, only things that we’ve been accustomed to have.

I’m at El Centro because I want to stay on the cutting edge of that transition. Sometimes it’s hard because you’re going against a larger system that doesn’t want to change. Formal and traditional education doesn’t want to change. It’s a big machine. But, everything else is changing around it.

Q: What inspires you to continue pushing El Centro’s work forward?

A: Oftentimes, when people come in from more traditional settings, they don’t view what we do as learning. That’s always a challenge. Even internally, we’ve had advisors who wonder “if this type of model is the right model for these kids.”

At that point, we can’t continue this conversation without talking about race. Some of why I remain here comes from those comments. I ask, “What do you mean by these kinds of children?” Obviously, they were masking the racial conversation by simply saying “these kids.”

When those terms are used for urban, poor black and brown youth, or even poor white youth, you’re really being racist with a socio-economic mindset to compartmentalize these groups of people. Scientifically, most of our brains are the same. There isn’t an intellectual inability. They simply haven’t been taught how to find their best way of learning.

Understanding how you learn is really important. I constantly feel, as an educator, our greatest asset in this building is the kids. They will tell us how they learn best, and if they don’t know, then it is our job to get them to that point of knowing themselves. Until they are able to articulate that, you’re just going to waste your time. If they don’t understand something, it’s not going to be because they aren’t intellectually capable.

 

A lot of our young people are coming in with educational trauma. People have failed them over and over. It’s important to have their stories heard and acknowledged.

Frankie Bonilla
Assistant Principal

All of this reemphasizes the Big Picture model, which is “one student at a time.” We all learn differently. People will say they believe it but then will revert back to what’s comfortable for them.

For me, PBL drove me to research Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. What I love about this theory is that it asks, “If you’re not going to be a chemist, why take chemistry class?” The typical response is: “How are the kids going to be exposed to chemistry?” My question back, “Do they have to get it for an entire year?”

That’s where PBL comes in. It’s really difficult when people don’t see the kids as experts. As an advisor, I pushed to find kids who were really good at different things I was already doing. This meant that the next time a question came up, rather than me providing the answer, I pointed to the kid who I knew already had the answer.

Q: Why does a El Centro make it a point to focus on relationship-building?

A: Relationships build great advisory cultures. The role of the advisor is to advise. Sometimes that means teaching information; sometimes that means providing more tangible resources.

As a young man, I first learned who people were, then I listened to what they had to say. To me, that’s relationship 101. If you’re not honest and you’re just here on a pedestal, it’s condescending and ineffective.

A lot of our young people are coming in with educational trauma. People have failed them over and over. It’s important to have their stories heard and acknowledged. In an area where a lot of our youth are adjudicated and have been in the system, they view drug use and trafficking as the way out and the way to financial freedom.

I say, “No. I look like you, and my story looks like yours. Here are other ways you can get out and overcome certain societal and community-based problems you’re experiencing.” When you are effective in doing that as an advisor or administrator, it allows you to reflect on yourself. You begin to mirror them and become a mirror for them.

When those relationships are built, they are able to hear my experience and see me as a resource to turn to and an example of how to get out of the situations they’re in. When we begin to build those relationships and trust them, we enable them to own their learning.