Fannie Lou stands on the shoulders of giants.
Principal, Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School
Q. Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School has been around for quite some time. What were its origins?
A. Jeff: About 20 years ago, Fannie Lou got its start during the first wave of the “small schools movement.” They were breaking up big high schools—which were not serving learners—to create smaller campuses. Some of these large high schools had dropout rates in the teens and attendance rates below 30%. So, the idea was that these smaller environments would be better able to keep kids going and support them to succeed.
With this, a small group of educators, who came from Central Park East School in Harlem, NY, launched Fannie Lou. For those who don’t know, Central Park East was founded and directed by Deborah Meier—a visionary leader in the field—and supported by Ted Sizer—the founder of the Coalition for Essential Schools. Both leaders and their visions for education are at the core of Fannie Lou’s work, even today. So, in essence, Fannie Lou stands on the shoulders of giants.
Q. You weren’t part of this founding moment at Fannie Lou. How did you join in the fray?
A. Jeff: Well, my story is a bit different from the previous leaders at Fannie Lou. My predecessor, Nancy Mann, was a founding teacher here. She saw the entire evolution—living and breathing the vision of an environment that develops learners’ Habits of Mind through portfolio-based work.
I, on the other hand, came from outside of Fannie Lou’s history—but not from outside of the NYC education landscape. I was a founding staff member and eventually co-director of Bronx Guild. Not your traditional environment, Bronx Guild was NYC’s first Outward Bound School. The school was originally devoted to expeditionary learning. After a few years, we transitioned to align with Big Picture Learning’s model and pedagogy, which meant a focus on portfolio-based work and providing an avenue for learners to bring their own passions to the table. My work with Big Picture’s methodology was a major influencer in my decision to transition to Fannie Lou.
We focus on the whole child—their health and well-being matters just as much to us as their academic growth and development.
Q. What impressive history from all sides! We know that all of these factors have come together to form and mold Fannie Lou as it stands today. Can you expand on what the model looks like in action?
A. Jeff: Our entire model centers on five habits of mind that we develop in our kids:
1. VIEWPOINT: Identifying and understanding various perspectives on an issue.
2. EVIDENCE: Being able to support a particular point of view and critically examine different forms of evidence.
3. CONNECTIONS: Seeing larger patterns and connections between ideas, the individual, and the larger society.
4. CONJECTURE: Being able to envision alternatives and ask, “What if?”
5. RELEVANCE: Understanding the importance of an issue and asking, “What difference does it make?”
These form the bedrock to Fannie Lou’s culture and drive our curriculum. In practice, our kids do a tremendous amount of writing—crossing traditional subject lines and developing the communication skills that they need to succeed in the professional world. We are also big tech users, as we see it as a means of both delivering content and of creating the cross-connections for learning between our kids and the outside world. In fact, we were recently designated an Apple Distinguished School—one of only six in the New York City area.
We also utilize a performance-based assessment model throughout our kids’ time with us. To graduate, for example, all of our learners must present their own learning at a series of panels (composed of reviewers from the community), demonstrating their achievement of mastery in a variety of competencies. We are a member school of the New York Performance Standards Consortium—a coalition of schools that employ a series of commencement-level performance-based assessments, rather than relying on high-stakes tests. Our learners graduate by a system of portfolio.
Q. We know that all of this is not without its challenges. Fannie Lou is located in the poorest Congressional district in the country. How has this affected what goes on at Fannie Lou?
A. Jeff: Our learners come to us with very large gaps in their education. All of our learners enter our school behind grade level and most have very challenging home lives. We have to do a lot of work to get them ready to dive in and lead their own learning. It isn’t easy; we have lots of challenges. But, we work really hard to instill in them a belief in themselves and their own potential. We often say, “Student resistance is met with teacher persistence.” We don’t give up.
It helps that we are a community school. This means that we focus on the whole child. For us, their health and well-being (whether they had breakfast that morning or their guardian came home the night before) matters just as much to us as their academic growth and development do. In this vein, we work very closely with the New York Children’s Aid Society to ensure our kids have access to the resources and supports that they need to succeed.
Furthermore, we work hard to ensure that our learners are able to reach the goals they want to achieve. We have four college counselors on staff. They not only provide advice and guidance to our kids but also take an active role in ensuring they are successful. We run college visits, help kids in writing their admissions essays and preparing for interviews, and assist with financial aid applications. We run the full gamut in making the college dream a reality for kids at Fannie Lou.
Last year, we achieved a Gold Recognition as a “School of Opportunity” from the National Education Policy Center. Given to schools that are making a real difference in closing the achievement gap for kids of color, this award has meant a great deal to us and was a nice reminder of our good work.
Q. That is an incredible achievement and speaks to the great work that you are all doing. As you look forward, are there areas for growth that you are focused on?
A. Jeff: One of our biggest challenges is to figure out how to continue to let learners move at their own pace. Even though we are a mastery-based school, we still cohort largely by age. So, when kids show mastery earlier, how do we continue to move and push those kids?
We’re also working hard to discover how to let kids’ passions lead the way. We are in the greatest city in the world with all of these opportunities, trades, and work to learn from. So, how do we build in opportunities for kids to relate their learning to the real world? We already have some great examples of this happening. A few months ago, three of our learners presented a documentary on immigration and police brutality through HBO’s Educational Video Center. We’re looking to make experiences like this available for more of our kids.
We are in the greatest city in the world with all of these opportunities, trades, and work to learn from. So, how do we build in opportunities for kids to relate their learning to the real world?
Q. It sounds like Fannie Lou has really succeeded in fostering a safe environment for kids to discover untapped potential and figure out who they can be. What have you heard about their lives post-graduation?
A. Jeff: We have kids come back all the time—to see how we’re doing and update us on their lives. It is funny to hear those that go on to college talk about their college writing assignments. They say, “Professors ask me to write a three-page paper and all I can thinks is, ‘That’s it?’” Our kids are really not afraid to write. They do share that math is challenging. I think that it is indicative of a national struggle in higher education around the success of learners in mathematics.
With all of this, one of the things that makes me the proudest is that our kids leave Fannie Lou ready and able to navigate the system, deal with the challenges that come their way, and advocate for themselves. They’re ready to own their own learning and lives.