A school that really works: Urban Academy

A school that really works: Urban Academy

Raywid, Mary Anne

Trying to make schools work–and work for all–is far too often a daunting task. The stories of failure, of good intentions gone awry, of high hopes dashed are all too frequent. Succeeding pages tell a different story, that of the Urban Academy, a school that has thrived and well served New York City youngsters for eight years. The Academy has an attractive program, a deeply committed staff, and an ambiance that manages to turn “problem” students into members of an intellectual community largely free of the need for disciplinary measures. The school sees its mission as building intellectual capacity and confidence in its students, enabling them to become thoughtful, informed, open yet critical-minded young adults. There are many indications that it succeeds.

The attempt in these pages is to provide more than a glowing “show-and-tell” account. It is to describe a limited number of the school’s attributes in sufficient detail so that interested readers might be able to build on and adapt Urban Academy practice. Additionally, with the hope of occasioning helpful insights, this article attempts to identify the features and qualities that seem to make this school work so well.

Urban Academy is a New York City-style school-within-a-school, or mini-school. It is an independent program housed within a building that also houses another, entirely separate program. The High School for the Humanities (HSH) is a large building located on 18th Street between 8th and 9th avenues. It is a semi-selective high school with 1,500 students. Altogether, nine of HSH’s rooms have been given to the Urban Academy, a proram enrolling one hundred 10th through 12th graders.

Urban Academy students must visit the school prior to an admissions interview and must fill out an application that requires brief thoughtful essays and solutions to general mathematics problems. It is not, however, a selective school, and admission is not based upon achievement or behavior. Indeed, many students entering from other high schools are quite explicit about seeing the Academy as “Last Chance High.” Student abilities, achievement, and performance span a wide range, although most Urban Academy students are minority and few are middle-class. What most share is a past that has included difficulties in accepting and dealing with school authority. When they enter, very few see themselves as college-bound. Yet according to Nadine, the staff member primarily responsible for college advisement, 95% of Urban Academy’s students enter college after graduation. Essentially the only graduates who do not are those who enter the military.

Because the Academy deliberately seeks students of diverse ability, not all become outstanding scholars. SAT scores range from below 400 to above 1400. Yet, all Urban students graduate, pass all six of the state’s required competency tests, and none drop out. Moreover, when students leave Urban Academy, they do so following an experience that has subjected them to constant channeling, prodding, inspiration, and assistance in the intelligent use of their minds–a multi-year immersion in the exercise of higher intellectual processes.

The Urban Academy grew out of an instructional program, an inquiry learning project developed several years ago by its two directors and operated by them in what eventually grew to be 12 New York City high schools. Begun initially as a staff development project for teachers, the program then evolved into a half-day instructional program for students. Eventually, the directors concluded that both youngsters’ needs and staff interests might be better accommodated in a full-time school. Thus, Urban Academy opened in 1985 featuring an inquiry approach to learning.

The schools initial staff consisted of interested people the two directors had met in the course of conducting the staff development project or had known earlier. Although some of these people had met one another at summer workshops associated with the demonstration project, they never worked to get and did not really know each other well at the onset.

Staff construe the Academy as “the working laboratory for the Inquiry Demonstration Project” (Cook, 991, p. 149). Partly because of its past, vary due to continuing activities,mand partly due to its experimental and nontraditional orientation, the Urban Academy characterizes itself as a laboratory school. A steady stream of visitors come to observe, and several faculty still offer in-service courses on the Academy’s approach to teachers in other schools.

The Urban Academy staff roster shows 16 members, but this total is misleading because it includes the two co-directors, full-time teachers, part-time teachers, and interns. There are nine full-timers. By virtually eliminating nonteaching personnel, alternative schools such as Urban are able to reduce class size considerably, without major increases in the student-to-adult ratio.

So far as formal status differentiations are concerned, there are only two: teachers and co-directors. Until last year there was also an assistant principal who took care of much of the administrative work, but when he left, staff decided together to assume his duties and use his salary for other purposes. Thus, there is presently considerable differentiation as to function among staff, with teachers in effect dividing among themselves most administrative tasks, including admissions, keeping track of attendance, handling student transportation, and academic recordkeeping. These assignments appear to have been determined by mutual agreement and in consideration of individual teachers’ interests and special abilities, and they are viewed as permanent until a reason for changing them surfaces (i.e., a request for re-assignment, or an interest in a function on the part of a newcomer). In addition to the teaching staff, the Academy employs one individual who coordinates its community service program and who has major responsibility for facilitating college applications. One secretary serves the entire faculty.

The co-director arrangement at Urban Academy is a novel one on several counts. One of the two co-directors, Herb Mack, functions in the more familiar role of principal and assumes responsibility for coordinating the school’s daily operation. Staff look to him for instructions, help, and advice; and he is perceived by students as a strong, supportive, and benevolent, though firm, “father” figure. The co-director, Ann Cook, functions primarily in the role of ambassador to and liaison with the external educational and political community. She is active in and well known to New York City education circles, and she assumes

major role in bringing news as well as new pedagogical ideas into the school. Although Ann regularly teaches at least one course (as does Herb), and is almost always present or staff meetings, she spends a lot of time out of the building and considerable time on the phone when she is there. The co-directorship arrangement at Urban is also novel in that Ann and Herb are long-time professional collaborators. Together they designed and piloted the inquiry approach that is the theme of the Urban Academy. They are also husband and wife, and the parents of three adolescent daughters.


According to Wisconsin’s federally sponsored Center for School Organization and Restructuring, one of the hallmarks of a “restructured” school is that the experience of being a student or a teacher in such a school is quite different from what it is to be a student or teacher in an unrestructured school (Newmann, 1991). One’s task and responsibilities are different, one’s days are spent differently, and the school has a different ambiance, all of which leads both students and teachers to feel differently about their association with and roles within it. The “lived experience” of school is transformed for these students and teachers. This is clearly true of school life at Urban Academy. As students readily report without prompting, it is quite different from what they have previously experienced school to be.

Perhaps the most arresting qualities of restructured student experience at Urban Academy accrue from (1) the literally ceaseless efforts to make school a thought-provoking place, (2) the determined arranging and rearranging of the daily schedule to serve programmatic purposes rather than vice-versa; and (3) the unremitting efforts to provide needed support for students.


The insistene on provoking thought lies at the heart of the inquiry method that is the school’s theme and unifying thread. Indeed, the front cover of the Academy’s brochure is dominated by a single word: “Why.” The opening sentences of the brochure’s text elaborate:

That’s what the students at the Urban Academy ask each day, in every class, at every opportunity. When they enter the Urban Academy they become members of an academic community seeking understanding in the same way as inquiring minds have done over the centuries. They ask questions and examine the variety of ways they can be answered.

One of the most noticeable ways in which the Urban Academy differs from many schools as an institution is that these words are not simply words. Urban means what it says it means, and students get what they have been told they will find. The school mission is not simply a “philosophy” statement prepared by some authority to satisfy some regulation or other; rather, it represents a commitment that suffuses everything the school does.

For instance, the goal of arousing questioning and thoughtfulness is reflected in the curriculum and course offerings. Although the Academy offers some standard, discipline-based classes such as American history, algebra, economics, and chemistry, most classes are topically articulated instead, and by topics of concern to urban students. “Telling Stories,” “Popular Culture,” “Puzzles,” “Evolution,” “Religion and Society,” “American Autobiography,” “Utopia/Dystopia,” “Animal Rights,” and “Women Across Cultures” are a few o the classes from recent semesters. Moreover, students can expect in virtually every course to encounter at least three types of learning: (1) material they recognize as useable now (e.g., knowledge of the city’s subway system, museums, or landmarks); (2) content they can use later, that is, the more typical school fare; and (3) treatments that increase reflectivity and thinking ability as well as enhance work habits.

The thoughtfulness theme pervades virtually every class at Urban Academy. This is not easy to accomplish with a student population that would probably not comply with the reading and other daily assignments associated with traditional secondary education. Getting students to tackle activities that must be sustained over an extended period also presents a considerable challenge. One response on the part of the faculty to address these challenges is to probe different facets of a broad topic on different days, introducing more material and complexity as the discussion proceeds.

Most classes manage to present an issue students find genuinely challenging. It is always one that can be tackled at a more penetrating level than simply “getting the facts” or “mastering the basics.” For example, Herb’s popular “Issues” course one day tackled the question, “What are the most important values?” and on another, “What rights does a parent have and what rights does a kid have?” Avram’s “Pop Culture” course required students to draw inferences about musicians’ popularity and power from data detailing cassette and CD sales. Barry’s “Seminar on Animal Rights” has explored whether or not zoos are inherently inhumane, while the “Women’s Studies” class taught by Ann examined the question, “Which is more dangerous: pornography or censorship?”

The Library Research Project required of all Urban Academy students each year illustrates another way in which teachers at this school go about making assignments as provocative as possible for students. The project is a demanding and somewhat dreaded requirement, but staff go to considerable lengths to make it palatable and rewarding. This year’s assignment asked students to pursue the subject of one article from the front page of the New York Times appearing on the day they were born. They had to use both the Reader’s Guide and a computerized index to identify magazine articles on the topic, find and comment on books from the best-seller lists of the day, and read a review of a film playing at the time. Part two of the project required visiting a different library, comparing its facilities and services with the first, and pursuing scientific abstracts on a question assigned according to the month of birth. Questions included, “How does cocaine affect newborns?” “Which condom is the most effective?” and “What is the latest research on cockroach behavior?” By the time the project was completed in all its parts, students had amassed considerable information about libraries and on the identification and accessing of sources. They had also been required to display skill in acting upon such knowledge, had acquired information bearing on matters of contemporary concern, and had gained an introduction to the pop culture of 15 to 20 years ago.

As this example suggests, efforts to make students think do not end with the in-class efforts of individual teachers; the entire school is organized to provoke adolescents to think. For instance, in the hall outside the Academy’s office, there is always posted a bulletin board question based on a prominent current news issue. Recent boards have asked, “Should football be outlawed?” (following an accident in which a professional player broke his neck) and “Should gays be allowed to serve in the military?” (while the issue was being discussed in the press). The question is mounted on a large sheet of poster paper, on which students anonymously pen their responses to the question and to each other. Another sheet of similar size on a nearby board invites graffiti and serves to keep the question sheet, as well as other Urban Academy areas, largely graffiti-free.

Another means of provoking thought is the three-week project that launches each semester at Urban Academy. This is a carefully orchestrated, cross-disciplinary venture that involves the whole school, working in groups of 8 to 12, to tackle the various dimensions of a broad question. Recent project themes have been: “What makes for a good subway system?” “What is community?” and “How does architecture affect lifestyles?” Each project is planned in detail with intensive, day long group activities. Some exercises and activities are shared by all students and others are differentiated depending on student interests and the talents and focus of individual teachers. For instance, the subway project began with group scavenger hunts to identify sites such as clothing stores, toy stores, city hall, and the main library, and then to verify the fastest route for getting there. After viewing videos on tunnel digging, hearing a panel discuss whether or not the subway system should be abolished, visiting the Transpo Museum, and doing particular readings, groups selected differentiated topics to research and pursue, including one led by the science teacher on subway health issues, and others on subway storie’s, subway advertising, subway station design, public behavior on the subway, and a very intricate one on re-routing the New York City subway system. Fulfilling project requirements is a demanding and intensive venture occupying the full day of students and teachers working together in school and outside it.

After the three-week project period ends, the semester’s regular classes begin, yet this initial project serves as a marvelous way to induct new staff, as well as new students, into the life of the Urban Academy. A similar project period in February serves as a welcome, mid-year change of pace. These projects yield extended opportunity for teachers to work together in planning a set of experiences equally novel to beginners and old-timers. Moreover, they provide opportunity for the staff to pursue and model the same sort of inquiry processes they want students to internalize; and they enable students, teachers, and the two groups together to work less formally and more closely with one another than class work typically entails.

Recently, a new way has been added to stimulate student thinking via special-topic seminars on issues of sure concern to students. These seminars are small classes by design, and they make heavy demands on those enrolled. They involve extensive reading assignments (up to 30 or 40 pages weekly), and a paper is due each week. Since the Urban Academy has no library of its own, making it unlikely that daily reading assignments requiring library access could be completed, readings are typically photocopied for students. Seminar students receive weekly packets of carefully chosen articles which form the bases on which their papers are developed.

Events beginning in a recent Animal Rights Seminar class yield further evidence of staff commitment to generating student thinking. Barry, the teacher, was disappointed by students’ apparent inability to fulfill his writing assignment, which called for analysis of the materials in the reading packet. He therefore made multiple copies of one articulate, otherwise well-written paper that erred by summarizing one article after another rather than analyzing them. He brought copies of the paper for all to an afternoon staff meeting and distributed them at the start since Herb had placed him first on the agenda. For 45 minutes, the staff discussed the challenge of how to teach students to undertake genuine analysis and what would constitute an adequate response to the assignment. “Analysis” is a frequently used term at Urban, and teachers were embarrassed as well as chagrined that this concept, and how to operationalize it, appeared so elusive. Two teachers agreed to bring selected packets of student papers to a subsequent meeting so that the staff could together explore which papers provide the best analyses and why. The discussion ended with an agreement to return to the matter for general staff consideration after Barry and another teacher had a chance to consider some additional ideas. As this suggests, one of the ways in which Urban Academy staff encourage thought and reflection on the part of students is that they model it, not only in interactions with students but also in their interactions with one another. Little at this school passes as routine and unquestioned.

At another staff meeting, considerable time was devoted to examining an issue of the school newspaper, Strange Brew. Staff had earlier been dissatisfied with the production of the paper, which was managed by a skilled journalist part-timer who taught the class enrolling students who wanted to work on the paper. The problem was not the product but the process: although the final production and its content typically was deemed laudable, the instructor was taking rough manuscripts, editing them himself, getting the student authors’ approvals, and then putting the revised manuscripts on his computer. The teaching arrangements for the newspaper were changed. The full-time English and computer teacher is now responsible for coordinating production of the paper. Students edit their own articles, typically preparing six or more drafts, and they computerize the material themselves.

The just-distributed “new” paper was discussed at a later staff meeting. Staff offered a number of compliments, but they engaged in serious and detailed examination of the paper, including logical criticism of one piece. They critiqued the paper with regard to both writing substance and style. The discussion also occasioned the suggestion by one teacher for a new publication, an academic journal assembling outstanding student papers.

A statement that hangs on the wall beside Herb’s desk, having struck a responsive chord, seems to project the sort of ambiance Urban Academy students have come to expect:

I fully realize that I have not succeeded in answering all of your questions….Indeed, I feel I have not answered any of them completely. The answers I have found only serve to raise a whole new set of questions, which only lead to more problems, some of which we weren’t even aware were problems….To sum it all up . . . in some ways I feel we are as confused as ever, but I believe we are confused on a higher level, and about more important things.


A second way in which the school lives of Urban Academy students and teachers differ quite extensively from the lives lived in most other schools is associated with the way in which the school schedule is viewed. Instead of functioning to control instruction, the schedule at Urban serves as its tool. It is not the all-powerful structure to which everything must conform. Instead, it is designed, and constantly redesigned, to serve the programmatic purposes selected by the staff. When it fails to do so, it is the schedule and not the instructional program that must give way. Although this is more easily accomplished at the end of a semester, when the schedule is regularly redesigned anyway, adjustments can be made in mid-semester.

The schedule at Urban is simply not construed as unvarying. By design, it contains enough day-to-day variation that all must daily be reminded anyway of its components and sequence. Thus, changes are far more easily introduced than when mind-sets call for invariant time segments and sequences.

The design and use of the school schedule at Urban are sufficiently unusual to appear a major reflection of the restructuring the Academy represents. The schedule is made out each semester by Herb, after meetings at which teachers report their needs. A proposed schedule then goes through multiple versions before it is finalized. In the course of resolving conflicts and accommodating needs, the entire plan is scrapped several times and the task launched again from the beginning. The fall version this year represented the sixth such try.

Unlike schedules at most schools, Urban Academy’s does not divide the day into equal segments for classes. The first class in a Friday schedule lasts 55 minutes; the second and third, 50 minutes each. Lunch lasts an hour, and the two afternoon classes each last 75 minutes. (Most classes fall within the 50-to 75-minute time frame. Tuesdays, however, have one 90-minute time block.) There are also two 10-minute breaks, one after the second class and one just before the last class of the day. The times to which classes are assigned differ according to teachers’ requests. Some classes are always longer, some are always shorter; some teachers may want one or two 50-minute sessions, plus one 75-minute class. Schedules are also developed to accommodate teacher preferences with regard to morning versus afternoon classes, although the more frequent pattern is to shift class time so that a class which meets at 8:30 A.M. on Monday may meet at 10:35 A.M. on Wednesday. Consequently, students rarely memorize schedules, and Herb posts the schedule for the day outside each of the Academy’s rooms early every morning.

A final illustrative manifestation of the use of the schedule to serve the needs of the program instead of forcing instruction to fit into preset time blocks can be found in the building in of nonclass time. The staff meets regularly on Wednesdays from 12:15 P.M. to 3:15 P.M., as well as on alternate Tuesdays after school. This collaboration time is made possible by having students perform service activities in the community during this time. (All students are required to provide such service weekly, and on a volunteer, unpaid basis. Assignments include such activities as helping in a legislative office, a school, a teenage treatment center, or an animal rescue group.) The “research days” occurring at the end of semesters also introduce nonclass time into the schedule. Over a several-day period, extensive conferences are held with each student, typically assembling all his or her teachers for the discussion. Since all staff are involved in these sessions, the question arises as to what to do with the rest of the students to permit such labor-intensive teacher activity. The answer is a long list of activities from among which students can select. Last year, this list consisted of 17 such activities, including: reading a supplied packet of materials on UFOs (unidentified flying objects), evaluating the reports and the claims made, and formulating an argument about the UFO phenomenon; reading a packet about “ball” lightning and offering an argument as to whether it is real; reading a controversial children’s book and making a case as to whether it is appropriate for children; and preparing a thorough resources guide for an area of individual interest.


A third characteristic of restructured student experience at Urban accrues from the staff’s determination to provide whatever is necessary by way of student support. This determination surfaces in many ways, in the school’s culture as well as in its structural features and operation.

For example, Urban offers the increasingly familiar advisory groups in which groups of up to 20 students meet weekly to explore school problems together. (The topic of one session of Becky’s advisory last year was “What’s screwed up around here?”) A new set of groups called “organizational tutorials,” which involve all students and meet weekly, have also recently been added. These tutorials were started to preserve the integrity of advisory groups while providing a more explicitly academic advisory setting. Prior to the weekly meeting of the small groups of 7 to 9, each organizational tutorial teacher checks with each of his/her group members’ teachers to see just how the students are doing in each class. Particular emphasis is placed on whether wk is being completed, and whether any other class-specific difficulties are occurring for any student. This arrangement was launched in the interests of proactive troubleshooting and to facilitate the identification of emerging cognitive difficulties. The organizational tutorial is a brief (35-minute), highly task-oriented session. The teacher goes around the circle asking for student response on how their work is going and providing feedback from teachers. There are often suggestions about needed priorities, time management, and work organization.

Three kinds of labs are operated to assure that students get needed support: homework labs, course-connected labs, and college labs. The homework labs function as study halls and are operated for those who want them. Because some Academy students are totally without supportive conditions for doing homework outside of school, this elective serves an important function for them. Students enrolled in homework lab get help as needed and must arrive at each session with an assignment to work on, or one is provided for them. Students who do not elect to enroll in a homework lab take an Independent Study class instead, in which they can pursue individual or group projects. Most select the latter, and at the time this article was written, one group was reading Dostoyevsky, another was working on conversational Spanish, and

third was doing a videotape of the school.

Another sort of lab is attached to specific courses that make heavy demands in terms of reading or writing. These labs are scheduled for a course assigning an extensive research paper or one assigning a series of short analytical papers requiring a number of re-writes. Their intent is not remediation but the provision of proactive support to enable students to meet demanding standards. This year, for one semester, classes in American History and Television Analysis had labs attached to them, while they were held for the History and Issues courses during the other. Just one of their unusual features is that the lab segment of each course, which meets for one separate and longer period each week, is, by design, taught by a teacher other than the person who teaches the course. Typically, the lab teacher (or teachers) will sit in on the course’s regular classes occasionally, to remain aware of course expectations. This enables them to help in ways usual study hall teachers cannot. There are several reasons for assigning staff this way. It affords students additional help, making two sources and two sets of resources available for them to tap. It also leaves the student in charge of carrying out class assignments and satisfying class requirements because the lab teacher’s role is to help the student, not to co-teach the course. Lastly, it places Urban Academy staff in yet another kind of collaborative setting, giving them a view of others’ teaching and perhaps posing questions about their own.

A third kind of lab has emerged in connection with Urban students’ enrollment in college classes, an option open to them. Based on difficulties some have encountered as well as on students’ insecurities and hesitations, a teacher now accompanies students and sometimes sits in on the classes in which they are enrolled. The group goes over together to the campus of a local four-year private college or to a two-year city college. Back at the Academy, in a specially scheduled college lab class, whatever support the students need is provided (e.g., help with understanding he material or the instructor’s expectations).

A number of other features have also been built into the structure of the Urban Academy in an effort to respond to whatever support needs appear to be emerging. Recently, a new arrangement was added: an optional class on Thursday morning. Attendance is not required first period on Thursdays (from 8:30 A.M. to 9:45 A.M.), and students come in only if there is something they need or want to do. This is a time when some students make dates to talk about specific questions with teachers, while others meet with classmates to work on specific projects or just to talk. Still others use this time to sit and read the newspaper, chatting with whomever comes into the student study/lounge. Several students have offered classes of their own during this optional period, teaching guitar and dance, for example. For most, however, the Thursday session functions as unscheduled time set aside for whatever individualization needs have arisen during the week.

Many other sorts of support are extended to Urban students, although not all of them in typical ways. There are no counselors at Urban because every teacher is expected to fill the counseling role, in the sense not only of academic advisement but also for standing as an interested and concerned adult to any student seeking help. There is a part-time psychologist who deals with problems requiring more attention. He is supposedly available to Academy students for two half-days each week, though he reportedly often gives many more than the hours that are expected of him. Otherwise, he maintains a private practice.

The Academy population is small enough, and there is sufficient psychic closeness in the school, that when a student is in trouble it becomes evident rather quickly. A teacher who happens to spot difficulty or to wonder about whether some exists might first speak with Herb about it, or go first to the leader of the student’s advisory group. Or she/he might simply discuss it with another teacher. Spontaneously or by design, the youngster would be engaged by a staff member attempting to discern the difficulty.

Herb has frequent access to the students, who must pass his desk to go from the office/staff room to the student study/lounge next door. He also stocks two small aspirin bottles on his desk with M&Ms. Students stop by constantly throughout the day and help themselves (requiring him to refill the bottles several times a day and to purchase 15 pounds of candy per week). A student stopping for a handful of candy may well become engaged in an exchange with Herb or with another student who is on the same mission. Herb is a father figure to the entire school, and students feel they can ask him for an unusual range of assistance and advice. The notes mounted on the walls around his desk attest eloquently to this:

Hola, Herb: There’s a leaky pipe in the women’s bathroom. Check it out TODAY. I hate you, Herb. Love, Bill Herb, I feel crabby and/or cranky. I’m sick. Please come and get me in Dance A.S.A.P.–Jean Herb, Nancy is driving me crazy. Please help me, Shanti Dear Herb, I have been diagnosed with “School Burnout”!!! So I’m going home to sleep it off. P.S.: See you tomorrow. Your hardest working student, Jane Dear Herb: i appreciate the fat that you have saved all the letters that i have given you over the years. But you should take them down soon, because i have grown tremendously and find them quite embarrassing. . . . Very happily, May

Lest these messages suggest a highly indulgent environment in which students do as they please, a further look is needed. An observer who concludes that Urban Academy is a permissive school in which student whim and choice govern misses the essence of the school. An important contrast separates Urban Academy from schools where students decide most matters. Students are constantly consulted at Urban; they are invited to participate in decision-making sessions, asked what courses they want to take and with which teachers, and encouraged to express their reactions to events and conditions. What they have to say is listened to not only courteously but intently. What they like and dislike gets serious consideration, as does what they find meaningful as opposed to what they find obscure or inscrutable. They are obviously taken seriously and influence events, but they are not the decision makers at Urban. The teachers are.

An Urban student’s choice of courses may be overridden in the interests of achieving an appropriate balance for the class, devising a schedule that makes more sense for the individual in terms of meeting graduation requirements, or separating students staff feel should not be enrolled in the same class. Similarly, regarding curriculum and content, student interests and preferences are taken very seriously, but it is the staff who make the decisions. Though students are the major determinants of what happens at Urban, their influence is not manifested through their votes or statements of preference. It is mediated by staff decisions on what seems indicated in light of student preferences as well as other considerations.

Another way in which the culture at Urban Academy extends support to its students is through the assumptions or “givens” consistently reflected in the school. At most conventional high schools, it is simply assumed that adults are entitled to courtesies denied students. It is also assumed that communication among adults takes precedence over other exchanges. Thus, it is not unusual in most schools for an administrator or another teacher (directly or over a public address system) to interrupt a class or a student-teacher conversation to deliver a message to the teacher or get an answer to a question. This is clearly not standard operating procedure at Urban. Classes and student-teacher conversations have priority and a kind of sanctity. For example, if a student is speaking with a teacher in the hall or at the teacher’s desk in the crowded office/staff room, they are rarely interrupted by another staff member, especially if they are talking quietly. Indeed, the norm is the reverse of what typically occurs in schools: staff and other adult conversations may be interrupted by students or teachers, but not student-staff conversations. Commitment, both to showing respect for students and treasuring the importance of “the teachable moment,” runs deep. As one of the teachers put it, if a teacher and a student arrive simultaneously at Herb’s desk, it is the student and not the teacher to whom he turns first.

A rather different kind of support also prevalent at Urban Academy accrues from the dogged attempt on the part of staff to figure out exactly why their academic expectations of students are not being met, and then to do something about it. Staff consistently reject answers like “They [students] are just lazy,” “They were careless,” or “They didn’t think,” in favor of diagnoses that identify specific process deficiencies. As described earlier, when a full class failed to respond appropriately when asked to analyze, the reasons were pursued sufficiently to ascertain that students simply did not know how. Hence, it was clear that they needed help in performing this process, and staff set to work figuring out how to provide the assistance necessary.

In consequence of such an approach, there is a tendency at Urban to render highly explicit much of what other schools simply take for granted. When Academy students are instructed on how to do research papers, for example, the instructions are not just as to length and what note cards and footnotes should look like; teachers attempt to help students understand the nature of the intellectual steps one must go through in doing research. This marks a considerable contrast with customary educational practice, which typically tells students to “analyze,” “discuss,” or “appraise,” and then tests them on whether or not they can do so. Rarely do teachers offer the in-between, the step-by-step guidance on just how one performs these procedures. By contrast, it is characteristic of Urban Academy staff to try to figure out the process and then instruct youngsters on how to conduct it.


Urban Academy teachers work hard, but in several important respects their work appears different from that of teachers in most schools. First, the array of teachers’ duties and expectations at Urban is far broader than the teaching of classes. Some teachers perform regular administrative functions like the handling of admissions or the categorizing and recording of credits on student transcripts. Others may be assigned to accompany students to a college course, while still others may conduct the lab portion of a colleague’s course. New teachers are expected to audit one or two classes taught by a senior teacher in a related field. New teachers and interns also meet weekly with Herb in small groups to discuss challenges and difficulties raised by either party. All teachers are expected to be available to cover a colleague’s class or to assist with it (e.g., by participating in a demonstration or debate) on absolutely minimal notice (such as three minutes). Asking for and receiving help is common among Urban Academy teaching staff.

Although a look at schedules may show a teacher teaching during only three of a day’s scheduled five periods, no teachers appear to have prep periods in the form of assigned time that belongs solely to them. Teachers are expected to be available at any time for whatever appears to be needed. Although some might find this an infringement on individual entitlements, it seems closely tied to the deeply rooted conviction at Urban that all are jointly responsible for making the school work and that, when something is needed and one is the logical member to do it or simply the most available member, one does it. Obviously, such an attitude could not long prevail where individuals believed themselves exploited or victimized. It appears to be a sense of reciprocity–a conviction that one can count on comparable support from others when the need arises–that prevents a sense of being exploited.

Urban Academy’s teachers work hard in ways that are intellectually demanding and that place a premium on invention and creativity. Working out the curriculum described in these pages is extremely demanding, particularly because change and novelty are seen as assets to sustaining student engagement. By virtue of the quality of effort required, as well as by virtue of other features previously identified, teachers at Urban experience their work as highly professional in nature. They see themselves as performing an intellectually and emotionally demanding task of the highest order of importance. Although–or perhaps because–they find almost constant reason to change and improve their efforts, they are proud of what they do and the success with which they do it. They seem to relish the intellectual challenge that their problems sometimes occasion. In multiple ways, Academy staff project the message that educators generally would gain much by emulating their program and arrangements.

The school projects a strong sense of confidence and efficacy. As its descriptive brochure proclaims, “The Urban Academy is recognized as a rigorous academic school serving a diverse population of students who have often been unchallenged in previous settings.” As school staff describe this population less formally, it is a group that has experienced difficulty with authority in other school settings. What Urban does is to construe a population that has elsewhere posed disciplinary problems as one posing a primarily pedagogical challenge instead. It seems to work. Few disciplinary problems arise, and virtually none of a confrontational, showdown nature have occurred. The school’s sole absolute rule of “no fighting” has never been violated in its eight years, and on the sole occasion when that record was threatened, it was students who stepped in to uphold it.

However, Urban teachers encounter a normal number of adolescent challenges to adult authority and numerous other infractions which, in more traditional schools, might become confrontational occasions. To cite three sorts: lateness is a chronic problem for some Academy students; locker fronts sometimes exhibit displays of questionable taste; and male students often want to wear hats while walking through the hallways of HSH, where hats are forbidden. Academy teachers handle such challenges with careful inquiry into causes and circumstances, receptivity to discussion and negotiation, and often with considerable humor.

Depending on the circumstances, lateness may be viewed more sympathetically by teachers at Urban than at other schools, and it is handled on an individual basis after an effort to determine its reason. In some cases, the solution has been to give the student an alarm clock or to make morning wake-up calls. Other measures have included careful scheduling to lure youngsters into arriving on time, and a support group for tardy students is currently under consideration.

Students whose locker fronts display sexually explicit photographs or language that would undoubtedly offend some are more likely to generate First Amendment discussions with their teachers than personal confrontations. These discussions often yield defenses that staff are quite willing to applaud, even if they do not concede to them. When students who feel they have been wrongfully censored respond with locker fronts somehow proclaiming that, staff are willing to appreciate the students’ stance, even though the taboos remain in force.

One of the most important features of Arabian’s nonconfrontational stance is an overlay of negotiability with respect to matters that are not elsewhere negotiable. Regarding the hats-in-the-hall issue, Ann and Herb express a willingness to negotiate it with HSH officials if the students assign it a priority. As these negotiations will probably necessitate students giving up as well as getting something in return, the two directors ask students what they are willing to surrender: their right to leave the building at noon (which HSH students cannot), or their right to use portable cassette players in homework labs (which HSH students cannot)? When so approached, the hat issue usually recedes although some rules have been modified through such negotiation between students and staff.

The general absence of confrontational disciplinary problems doubtless contributes to the staffs sense of efficacy. As a result of their being spared a lot of the struggle and unpleasantness that is hard to avoid in other schools, Urban Academy staff enjoy a strong sense of accomplishment, self-sufficiency, and collective competence to cope successfully with the challenges that arise.

The staff at Urban share an extraordinarily close professional community, even though few personal relationships are pursued outside of school. It is apparent, however, that these are people who like, respect, and admire each other enormously; and it would be hard to find a faculty group with members more respectful of one another’s knowledge and skills. There is considerable fundamental agreement among Urban Academy teachers. Although they express such agreement in varying degrees of detail and eloquence, they are jointly engaged in sustaining and inducting young people into an intellectual or academic community. Their intent is to occasion cognitive learning and development in the interests of making their students into independent thinkers who can function as adults both receptive to and equipped for further education. They are quite aware of, and continuously responsive to, these youngsters’ emotional needs and problems; but they are clear that their own contribution to students’ lives is to create a community in which they can truly become knowledgeable, autonomous adults.

The extent to which staff share a single conception of the school’s mission is further evident in their formations of what they are about. The articulations differ from teacher to teacher. For one, the Urban Academy mission is “to provide an empowering education enabling students to establish their place in the world with self-confidence, openness, and critical-mindedness,” while another sees it as “getting kids to buy into intellectual rigor and to see themselves as intellectuals.” Yet, there is sufficient fundamental agreement that all see themselves to be engaged in the same task, pursuing the same ends through a strategy that is also shared: the inquiry approach.

Although adapted in different ways to accommodate different content and different teacher personalities, the shared inquiry approach reflects these features from classroom to classroom: (1) a commitment to maximal openness and receptivity to student responses, including a willingness to pursue hypotheses even when they seem wrong-headed; (2) a commitment to exposing students to a variety of information and opinion on all matters considered, thereby expanding their awareness of existing knowledge and theory; and (3) a commitment to problematizing all content, casting the student in as intellectually active and demanding a role as possible.

So understood, the approach appears strongly embraced and consistently reflected in all classes. It is broad enough not to pinch. Academy staff do not experience the inquiry orientation as a constraint on their own practice; rather, they report a degree of autonomy that was new to all of them. The inquiry orientation is also sufficiently specific that it would undoubtedly prove alien and restrictive to some teachers. Thus, it can lend consistency to what students experience throughout the school by enabling Urban to stand for something, as distinct from what faculty may stand for as individuals. In turn, this enables both students and staff to select the Academy for what it represents.


Just what is it that makes the Urban Academy successful? A number of factors seem to contribute, including some not described here. For example, the fact that the school is part of New York City’s Alternative High Schools and Programs unit, an office known to buffer its schools and programs from the city’s notorious school bureaucracy, yields the Academy considerable autonomy. Additionally, the school’s ability to draw on a variety of resources yields it various forms of expertise and support. Nevertheless, the features that have been described in this article are linked by a number of qualities that appear to contribute substantially to the Urban Academy’s success.

First, Urban is small–small enough that all associated with the school can greet one another by name. Smallness does not guarantee school success, but there is extensive current agreement to the effect that it is probably necessary to it (Bryk, Lee, & Smith, 1990; Eberts, Kehoe, & Stone, 1984; Fowler & Walberg, 1991; Pittman & Haughwout, 1987). Smallness not only permits an obvious sort of personalizing (e.g., task assignment in accordance with staff members’ talents and preferences, penalties for infractions according to circumstances and individual situations), in a school that is small, the social order can rest far more extensively on norms and interactions than on rules and regulations–no minor advantage when dealing with adolescents. Furthermore, the staff is small enough that teachers can sit around a table together to discuss and decide issues. At Urban, teachers’ desks are all located within a single office/staff room, and they are close enough that it would be difficult to avoid one’s colleagues even for a day. Thus, scale may be one substantial factor in the Urban Academy’s success.

Second, Urban has a specific focus instead of reflecting the familiar secondary education model and undertaking to appear a scaled-down version of the comprehensive high school. The particular theme or focus at Urban serves as a selection principle for assembling both faculty and students. Those who place a premium on problematizing all schoolwork, and on making all classroom encounters thought-provoking, can choose Urban Academy with full knowledge that this is what they will find and be expected to sustain.

Arabian’s co-directors are convinced that it is not just having a focus, but the particular nature of the focus they have chosen that helps explain the school’s success. The fact that Arabian’s is a pedagogical rather than a curricular theme makes it possible to sustain the school’s focus across the entire school program and throughout the school day. Contrast this with the more typical magnet school theme featuring a cunicular focus (e.g., science and math, performing arts, or computers). Even in those schools that attempt to use one discipline or topic to articulate an entire curriculum (and it is unclear how many do), this is difficult to accomplish. Thus, most substantively themed magnet schools permit more course work in the focal topic or discipline, but the rest of each student’s classes may remain quite similar in nature to those in conventional schools. Perhaps, as this suggests, there is more school “transformation” potential in a pedagogical than in a curricular theme.

This suggests yet a third quality that may help explain Urban Academy’s success: the consistent dominance and permeation of its mission. The intent to provoke adolescents to use their minds, and to learn to use them well, suffuses literally all that happens in this school–from classes and scheduling to bulletin boards and activities–everything, The priorities at Urban are clear to all involved, and the mission stands as the consistently operative criterion in reaching decisions about everything.

A fourth quality that accounts for Urban Academy’s success lies in the fact that the school’s co-directors and staff have not contented themselves with the modification of only one aspect of school experience, that is, its instructional approach. Their efforts to engage students thoughtfully have led to considerable curricular change as wel1 as an innovative organization of content. Additionally, staff roles have been modified, novel structures have been introduced, an innovative evaluation system is in place, and more. The point is that a broad, innovative range has been undertaken–of a scope that seems important both in transforming the experience of students and teachers and, perhaps more modestly, even in permitting any change to work. As a number of reformers have observed, school practice and arrangements are so intertwined and mutually supportive that it is necessary to set out to change a great deal in order to succeed at changing anything at all (David, 1987; Evans, 1983; Sizer, 1984).

A fifth quality that may also loom large in Urban Academy’s success is the constant change and revision under way at the school. Urban is not a school content with resting on its past successes. On the contrary, staff seem to assume that virtually all of the school’s arrangements and structures are almost infinitely improvable. Thus, almost anything at the school–other than the commitment to an inquiry approach–can, in the staff’s view, be modified or replaced. Such a conviction leads directly to the continuing “self-renewal” that Goodlad (1984) found necessary to any school that would not only become good but remain good.

At Urban, instead of functioning as constraints to the instructional program, structures such as schedules, curriculum, the kinds of supports extended to students, staffing patterns, and staff roles are all considered alterable.

A sixth and final pervasive situation that probably has a great deal to do with Arabian’s success is the collaboration that marks most activities in the school. Staff meetings have already been mentioned, and, unlike the meetings familiar to most school staff, at Urban these gatherings typically function as joint problem-tackling sessions. Teachers co-teach classes, or teach the lab course for a colleague’s class, or audit a colleague’s course, or represent a needed position in a panel or debate for a colleague’s course. According to Urban Academy tradition, it is in collaboration with colleagues that problems are identified, tackled, and resolved and their solutions implemented. Such practice undoubtedly has much to do with sustaining the reflection that keeps improvement constant and teacher satisfaction levels high. For it appears more than mere coincidence that Urban Academy is not only an enviably successful program, but one that staff are pleased and proud to be part of.


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Cook, A. (1991). The high school inquiry classroom. In K. Jervis & C. Montag (Eds.) Progressive education for 1992: Transforming practice (pp. 149-151). New York: Teachers College Press.

David, J. (1987, July). The puzzle of structural change. Paper presented at the symposium entitled “Structural Change in Secondary Education,” held at the National Center on Effective Secondary Schools, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Eberts, R. W., Kehoe, E., & Stone, T. A. (1984). The effects of school size on student outcomes. Eugene, OR: Oregon University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 245 382)

Evans, H. D. (1983). We must begin education reform “every place at once.” Phi Delta Kampan, 65 (3), 173-177.

Fowler, W. J., & Walberg, H. J. (1991). School size, characteristics, and outcomes. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 13 (2), 189-202.

Goodlad, J. I. (1984). A place called school: Prospects for the future. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Newmann, F. M. (1991). What is a restructured school? A framework to clarify means and ends. In F. M. Newmann (Ed.), Issues in restructuring schools (Issues Report No. 1) (pp. 3-7). Madison, WI: Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools. . Pittman, R. B., & Haughwout, P. (1987). Influence of high school size on dropout rate. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 9 (4), 337-343.

Sizer, T. R. (1984). Horace’s compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

* This article was drawn from research comissioned by the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Reserach and Improvement (Grant No. 117Q00005-93) and by the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not nessaril reflect the views of the supporting agencies.

Copyright Howard University Winter 1994

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