El Centro de Estudiantes
These kids don’t need to be saved; they need resources.
Facts & Figures
Special Education/Section 504
Free or reduced lunch
At-risk and economically disadvantaged learner population
If learners can’t articulate how they learn best, everything else will be a waste of time. If you can’t build trust between educators and learners, everything else will be a waste of time. If you can’t get learners to imagine their futures beyond the stereotype of a poor kid from Philadelphia, everything else will be a waste of time. These are the unwritten principles guiding the education philosophy at El Centro de Estudiantes in Philadelphia, PA—now a part of the Big Picture Learning network.
Even when El Centro was under the threat of closure, its leaders refused to sacrifice their two-part vision: relationships first, academics second. As an accelerated program for learners between the ages of 16-21, El Centro serves a population of learners who have been repeatedly disenfranchised by the traditional education system—consistently told academics were not going to be their ticket out of poverty’s negative feedback loop.
Once learners walk through the doors at El Centro, this narrative turns on its head. The socially embedded culture allows many of these learners to be truly heard for the very first time. It’s undeniable how simple and powerful being heard can be for a learner who has felt silenced his entire academic journey.
Take Raheem—a 21-year-old, formerly incarcerated learner—as a prime example. Raheem was known throughout the community as “trouble.” When he came to El Centro, he wasn’t labeled as a criminal. Rather, he was identified as a leader. Although his leadership on the streets was used within groups that negatively impacted his life, El Centro saw an opportunity to reorient his leadership as a force for good. This positive reconstruction of his identity allowed him to access a sense of learner agency he’d never thought was possible. He took ownership of his own life and the possibility of a new future.
By taking advantage of El Centro’s competency-based system—filling the potholes on his academic path—and gaining access to a personalized, relevant, and contextualized style of learning, Raheem found himself on stage dancing and cracking jokes in front of a live audience. “From the streets to the stage,” some would quip.
Most importantly, Raheem was able to use everything he was learning and take ownership in recreating his community image through the open-walled opportunities, which serve as bedrock of every Big Picture Learning model. Raheem took his learning beyond the walls of El Centro and began surprising people through his newfound yearning to learn and connect.
For learners at El Centro, the school-to-prison pipeline narrative is no longer the norm; rather, they see themselves as the authors of a completely different story. This reorientation allows learners to understand how they learn best, how to build trusting relationships with their peers and community, and most importantly, how to break the cycle of poverty they’ve been told is their only future.
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