New York brings a traditionally high school senior experience—applications—to the eighth grade. Every learner on the cusp of entering the last four years of their traditional K-12 academic journey must apply (and hope for acceptance) to attend the high school of their choice. The learning environments that accept applications are considered “screened” schools.
Then, there are environments like The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers (UAGC). At UAGC, all learners are welcome, regardless of past academic performance or attendance. They fall under the label of “unscreened.” As such, they are also often left with another label—”dumping ground.”
Fighting a losing battle within the traditional paradigm, UAGC leaders saw an opportunity to transform learning for their kids. Rather than play the cards they’d been dealt, they decided to play a different game altogether.
In 2013, Kerry Decker took over the principalship and brought in Learning Cultures—a learning model that both promotes socially embedded learning through collaborative problem solving and cultivates learner agency through independent, self-organization. From that moment on, UAGC has been re-energizing young learners who had been given up on time and again. They are stepping up as creative and curious human beings who are connecting with their learning in ways that are personalized, relevant, and contextualized.
When a learner has a distaste for a topic like environmental science, they are provided the necessary support to first dive into the subject and then search for the connections to their interests. For example, one learner was interested in taking on the lengthy challenge of becoming a lawyer. Given this interest, he was able to land an internship with an environmental law firm that not only gave him access to the ins-and-outs of a law practice but also fulfilled the traditional standards handed down by the state.
Another example comes from the world of literacy. Oftentimes, when school-centered environments lay claim to “student choice,” it really means three or four choices, rather than just one, are on the table. At UAGC, they have created a funding mechanism to ensure every learner can have access to the exact reading material they desire. If the library doesn’t have it, they will buy it.
Some teens are coming to UAGC at “second grade” reading levels, but when provided this new opportunity—this new freedom to choose—they begin building a brand new, healthy, lifelong relationship to reading and learning.
At UAGC, the confines of the traditional system are as real as they were since the day they opened. However, with sustainable learner-centered leadership at every level of the system, they are creating an abundance of learner-centered experiences—connecting with the unique needs and interests of every child who walks through their doors.