UP AGAINST A SIX LANE FREEWAY IN THE SOUTH BRONX is a small school that operates like a big family. Every kid is known by every adult—from the principal to the security guard—and not just by name. At Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, the ties forged between learners, educators, and the support staff (almost equal in number to the faculty) are made to last and to make a big difference.
Located in the poorest congressional district in the nation, learners arrive at Fannie Lou with large gaps in their education. The challenges are profound. But, the possibilities are also powerful.
Fannie Lou has found a way to propel their learners on to college, career, and active civic lives. Through one-on-one advisories, small groups, and community partnerships, they build on learners’ strengths and help them develop habits of mind. What makes that work?
To build on a learner’s strengths, you first have to know them. That take times and space. In advisory, educators, learners, and their families really get to know one another. Together, they review the learner’s work, set goals for the future, and delve into areas for growth and development. This socially embedded practice not only helps learners with decision-making, academic planning, and college exploration but also creates a bond of familial strength between the educator and learner.
In small groups, the focus is on real-world learning. Educators act as coaches and guides, and kids are encouraged to examine and contribute directly to their own communities. And, in their eleventh- and twelfth-grade years, learners design and lead inquiries that are captured in mastery portfolios. When combined with meaningful, relevant assessment of their work, these portfolios create kids’ pathway to graduation—and help in developing learners’ own sense of agency, in growing their communication skills, and in instilling them with a real understanding of how they learn best.
Community partnerships extend learning beyond the walls of school to embrace both the opportunities and realities of the world. Fannie Lou has developed a bevy of partnership opportunities with organizations like the Children’s Aid Society, Big Picture Learning, Rocking The Boat, GE Skills Lab, Code Interactive, Beam Center, and SoulCycle. All of these keep the kids’ passions and interests front and center—allowing them to build on their own strengths and uncover new interests and passions.
By attending to the health of their learners’ minds, connecting with their families, and trusting learners to follow their own paths, Fannie Lou has created a place where small is very big indeed.