Thursday, January 27, 2011

Choosing Middle Schools: A Visit to Nathan Bishop - February's East Side Monthly Column

East Side Monthly's February 2011 issue is out in print and online; for this issue, I wrote about visiting Nathan Bishop Middle School, our neighborhood middle school, in preparation for my son Elias' move to sixth grade. I wanted to know more about the ways the school supported students as they grew as learners and as well-rounded people, and had a great conversation with Amy Battisti, one of Bishop's guidance counselors. I hope I did her work justice. I also touch on the decision we're making between Bishop and Nathanel Greene Middle School's advanced academic program, about which there's more to say for sure.

Here's the column as I wrote it--the version in East Side Monthly is slightly edited. You can find it online at on page 39.

Choosing Middle Schools: A Visit to Nathan Bishop

My oldest son will be entering middle school next year. While still puzzling over our alarmingly swift arrival at this stage (Weren’t you just in kindergarten, kid?) we organized ourselves to look at middle schools. Since kindergarten, he has been generally content and successful at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School on Camp Street. Given his track record, our values, and other factors (three kids, this economy, any expectation of affording college) we’re staying on the public school path.

Along with most or all other East Side addresses, we fall well within Nathan Bishop Middle School’s zone. Next year’s class of 208 sixth graders will complete Nathan Bishop’s student body, which has grown one grade per year since the school reopened in 2008. Most readers will remember that Bishop was deeply troubled. Poorly attended by East Siders of all economic strata, neighborhoods, and races, it was not serving most its students effectively. After the Providence Public Schools shuttered Bishop in 2006, the East Side Public Education Coalition led a public demand for its reopening. As a result of advocacy, historical preservation requirements, pre-recession economics, high-quality educational architects, and constructive collaboration with Providence Public Schools leadership, a thoroughly and thoughtfully renovated Nathan Bishop Middle School emerged with new leadership, staff members, and intentions.

As my son and I observed when we spent an evening in the building at an exceptionally well-attended open house, Bishop’s renovation is state of the art, utilizing technology and design to create fruitful conditions for learning. Bishop’s brand-new spiffiness also created conditions for crankiness, at least for me, because it contrasts so jarringly with the timeworn settings of most other public schools in Providence—thereby demonstrating the predominant lack of access to suitable facilities for teaching and learning. But a column devoted to educational infrastructure investment is a task for another day. Back to Bishop.

After the open house and additional conversations with Bishop’s staff members and students, my son is fired up. Many of his MLK Elementary classmates chose Bishop, and he is looking forward to joining neighborhood buddies who have attended other elementary schools. His verve seems to be adding fuel to his occasionally flickering fire to excel academically.

Still, I have questions. How will he and his peers reinforce habits of cooperation, work on his social skills, and continue to respect and reach out beyond race, class, and other differences? How will the educators at Bishop encourage him to step on the gas academically, build lifelong learning skills and habits, and take risks? What support will he receive? What challenges will he be likely to experience so that he won’t coast or settle for “good enough?”

In order to dig more deeply, I met with Amy Battisti, one of Bishop’s two guidance counselors; when Bishop gains its third class in the fall, the school will have three counselors. An East Side resident hired in 2008, Battisti works with the current seventh graders and will move with them to eighth grade. By design, she knows each of her 210 students well. Four days a week, she eats lunch with students. She meets with every student in this low-stakes way three or four times annually. “Those lunches really pay off,” she says. “When something happens, they have that person they’ve already chatted with.” Battisti and her fellow guidance counselors also serve as a bridge between home and school in order to facilitate interaction among each student’s family members and six teachers.  Through 15-20 phone calls per day, numerous emails, and before-school meetings, Bishop’s guidance staff members spend a third of their time communicating with families.

Bishop’s student population is approximately one-third Hispanic, one-third African American, and one-third white and Asian; students come from the East Side and citywide. The school serves a large group of English Language Learners; many families speak Spanish at home. A range of students receives special education services. Over 60 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Elements of the school’s culture, such as the highly visible code of conduct featured on signs in hallways and classrooms, indicate understanding of the opportunities and challenges of such multifaceted diversity, as well as the developmental needs of young adolescents to learn without fear, a fundamental precondition for success for all of us.

Battisti’s collaborates with teachers to assess student progress and provide intervention as needed, and she walked me through the academic support strategies that Providence’s middle school curriculum provides for struggling learners. Clearly, it’s too soon to use long-term indicators such as high school graduation rates to determine whether the district’s newly implemented curriculum—which is the same at all of Providence public middle schools except for Nathanael Greene Middle School’s Advanced Academics program—will produce the results needed to close existing achievement gaps and propel all students to success in high school and beyond.

We also discussed the ways Bishop’s educators provide challenges for students who exceed expectations and crave additional challenge. Some of Bishop’s teachers have opted to innovate within science, math, and English courses for those students who demonstrate aptitude and effort. This approach differs from Greene’s program in two ways: it’s implemented within the school as a result of educator initiative rather than as a policy-driven district program, and its “a la carte” approach provides opportunities for student-specific differentiation.

I took careful note of these differences, as we will be deciding between Bishop and Greene’s Advanced Academic program, should my son be accepted. We visited Greene as well; my son was able to visualize success there, though he feels strongly that he would prefer to stay in the neighborhood—or, as he puts it, sleep until 7:00am rather than get on the bus then. I’ll let you know where he ends up. Either way, I am grateful that through the efforts of Battisti and her colleagues, Bishop has become a place for teaching and learning for young people within and beyond the East Side.

Update: Please see this post for a correction from Bishop teacher Theresa Fox that points out that my assertion that Greene has a different curriculum from the other Providence middle schools is not accurate.

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