The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers: A Conversation with Madeleine Ciliotta-Young
Q&A 07 August 2018
By Madeleine Ciliotta-Young, The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers
That status of “unscreened” labels us as a dumping ground for kids who can’t get in anywhere else. I’m happy to take those kids because they have so much to offer.
Q: What path did you take to become the Principal at Urban Assembly for Green Careers?
A: I was a New York City Teaching Fellow 10 years ago. Right out of undergrad, I knew I wanted to teach. One of the first jobs I interviewed for was to be a special education teacher at The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers. I took the job because it was a brand new school. I saw a lot of opportunity for trying out new things.
I knew from my own and my family’s experience that public education wasn’t for everyone. Although I got A’s and B’s in high school, I never felt particularly successful. I wasn’t happy, and I didn’t feel like I was learning anything. I came into this work interested in exploring different models of education, so a new school was where I thought that could happen.
We struggled a lot in our inception. One of the biggest barriers we faced was that we’re an unscreened school. In New York City, every eighth grader must apply to high school. Some schools screen kids for performance and/or attendance, while others, like Urban Assembly, allow all kids the opportunity to attend. We don’t look at student attendance from their past schools, and there’s no application process.
As an educator, that was the first time I saw a model that could work for every type of learning because it allowed the learner to address their own needs and didn’t try to anticipate them from the adult educator perspective.
From the perspective of the community, unscreened schools aren’t seen in a positive light. They are afraid of the educational environment inside an unscreened school. I think people are afraid of what they don’t know and they wonder, “What will happen if my child is in a classroom with students who have disabilities or students who don’t speak English? Will that bring my child down? Will the name of the high school make it more difficult to get into a good college?” Parents in the New York City area are really wrestling with concerns like these right now.
Meanwhile, I think we’re a gem of a school that serves a diverse population that has a lot to offer. However, that status of “unscreened” labels us as a dumping ground for kids who can’t get in anywhere else. I’m happy to take those kids because they have so much to offer. But, that’s the system, and we have to struggle with enrollment.
We do our best to make sure our doors are always open and the word is getting out there about who we are and what we do. And, we’ve been validated. We’ve had two very successful quality reviews from a special department in New York City. They come with a long rubric of five to ten indicators, and we have scored “well-developed” over and over again. It is really affirming for us that this student-centered learning is being recognized as good learning. They are seeing that this is what good teaching and learning looks like.
Q: What were your first years like at UAGC? What brought the model to the path it is on today?
A: During our first four years, we struggled with our identity—who we were as a school and what we were trying to do with this population of students. I had a really hard time as a teacher in this environment. Every year, I looked for a new job and never quite made the leap to another school. There was always something that kept me here.
In 2013, Kerry Decker came in and brought Learning Cultures—“a way to organize classrooms so that students have more freedom to talk, think, collaborate, and take responsibility for making decisions about what and how they learn”—with her as a model for learning. This was something I had kind of explored and dipped my toes in previously. I loved the idea of Unison Reading. I wanted to use that to reach some of our students. Kerry came in, and we decided to do Learning Cultures whole hog.
As an educator, that was the first time I saw a model that could work for every type of learning—high and low performing—because it allowed the learner to address their own needs and didn’t try to anticipate them from the adult educator perspective. It was a great one-size-fits-all because the student determines what size they’re getting.
We are always refining what we do and asking how we can best serve our kids. It feels good. It just took a really long time to get to this point.
We went from a graduation rate of 39% in 2013—where most of the special education students I taught those first four years ended up institutionalized in some capacity—to 84% in 2017. We’re looking to hit around the same rate with our 2018 class. We saw a really massive turnaround when we implemented Learning Cultures and turned the power over to the students. When Kerry Decker left in 2016, I was happy to accept the principalship.
As an educator, I grew up here and felt a lot of support from the Urban Assembly community as we worked on implementing Learning Cultures. I felt like the school was ripe for transformation. Here I am in my third year as principal, and we are still going strong with Learning Cultures. We are always refining what we do and asking how we can best serve our kids. It feels good. It just took a really long time to get to this point.
Q: What drove you to be an educator even though your personal academic experience made you feel as though the system was not meant to serve all kids?
A: I ask myself that all the time. I love it and can’t imagine myself doing anything outside of education. I always explored it as an option, even though I don’t come from a family of educators. In truth, I don’t know how I came to it. I see it as a really good challenge, and I like things that are really difficult. I like to be able to figure things out.
At the end of the day, I’d like to feel fulfilled and know my work has had some type of impact. I want to provide an environment where the kids are able to learn and have access to the best type of learning for them. That’s really not easy. There’s a million ways to do it; it’s this incredibly complicated puzzle.
Q: Coming out of traditional teacher training, what had you to seek out a different type of learning environment?
A: I did the traditional graduate school route—I took Child Psychology 101 and Teaching Diverse Learners 102. But, when I did everything I was taught and still had staplers flying past my head, I was standing there thinking, “This is still not right. This isn’t successful.”
I checked off all the boxes. I wrote out the “right” goals for this student with this disability. I gave them the text that was at the “right” level. I let the kid with ADD take a walk when he felt frustrated. I did all the things they said I needed to do to meet the needs of the learner. And, I think because everything was coming from me, it didn’t work. It was perpetuating this oppressive system for these kids.
I was racking my brain to figure out what they needed, while no one was giving them support to figure out what they needed. I remember developing a curriculum where I was trying to make sure I had selected a diverse range of authors and perspectives and never asking them the question: “What do you want to read?” It was me saying, “Let’s get this Indian-American author and this Black author.” I was trying to create this diverse experience for them but it wasn’t responsive to what they needed because I never asked them what they wanted.
The more I stepped back and gave kids the freedom to choose their own questions and texts, the more success I saw. I started craving more of that.
Something always felt off, felt wrong about this approach. When I saw Unison Reading and Learning Cultures in action, it was the first time I saw the kids actually involved in figuring out what was happening. They were choosing the texts to bring to the table, the questions they wanted to discuss, and the people they wanted to discuss it with.
For me, for some reason, that was pretty revolutionary. The more I stepped back and gave kids the freedom to choose their own questions and texts, the more success I saw. I started craving more of that.
Learning Cultures is really steeped in theory about how the brain works, how people learn, and responds to how the world looks beyond the walls of a classroom. It made more sense to structure the classroom that way, rather than: “your desks need to be in rows; you can only answer the questions I ask; you can’t leave the room until I’ve assessed you and know you’ve learned what I wanted you to learn because someone in Albany said that’s what you needed to learn.”
That’s not authentic in any way. It should be no surprise that learners who already have these combative relationships with institutions were really combative in my classroom. I had to let go of all that. I always knew there was something better out there.
I didn’t believe anyone wanted to fail, and I never took anything that happened in my classroom personally. These kids’ needs were not being met. They weren’t given the environment to have any type of power. That’s pretty devastating for a human being.
Q: Since you operate within the confines of the traditional public school system, what’s an example of a learner achieving a state standard in a learner-centered way?
A: Our students are expected to design their own curriculum based on what they do and do not understand from reviewing the standards. As an example from our summer school program, we had a student who was reviewing a standard about American imperialism. The standard is this whole long spiel about territories and taking these territories over.
The student read the standard and said he wanted to focus his attention on Hawai’i and Guam because he was looking at their history and wondered, “Why did they want to give up their power? Why would a territory submit to the United States?”
The standard itself only gave questions like “Why does the United States want this land?” This student wanted to explore the other side of that question. What role do power dynamics play in a kingdom like Hawai’i submitting to another country? What was the decision, if it was one, from the Hawaiian’s perspective?
During his learning, he’ll get the traditional information of when the war was, when the annexation occurred, and so on in order to have what’s needed for the test. But, the perspective he is looking at the situation from is his decision and is not what a teacher would necessarily assume is a perspective students would be interested in. That’s why it’s super important to let them ask their own questions.
Q: How do learners balance the opportunity for self-exploration and the requirements to fulfill these standards?
A: What’s important for them to see is that the test is a low bar. Yes, it’s an end goal that you need to accomplish, but it is in no way a comprehensive assessment of what they know and how intelligent they are. Providing them direct access to the standards promotes this idea of prolepsis—knowing what’s coming in the future. They take plenty of tests and quizzes, but the bulk of the learning, and what we want them to understand, happens through exploring topics of their own choosing and their own questions. Through this, they’re actually using the skills they will need to pass the test. But, they don’t need to do test prep to get there.
Whenever I contextualize this with my colleagues, I always frame it by saying, “I don’t know any white, wealthy suburb that does test prep, but all of their kids take the same tests.” They assume those learners are able to explore different things and they’ll acquire the skills they need to take the test. But, the test doesn’t have to be the instruction itself.
When we frame it for the kids, we want them to understand that when they choose their own text and sit down with five of their peers to read it together, this is the work. That’s the work we want you to spend time on and not just practicing multiple choice questions.
This takes reframing for educators and students alike. And, it also takes a lot of trust. I think our fallback when kids aren’t doing well, or we have a kid coming into high school at a second grade reading level, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I have to do all this prep with them. They need to learn this so they can access that.” And, what we’ve found is the less control we take, the more successful our students are. The more complex the ideas they explore are. The more difficult the texts they choose are. The less restriction and guidance we make them interact with, the smarter they become.
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