Urban Academy Parent Handbook
Greetings, and welcome to the world of Urban Academy!
We know we are a different kind of school from what you’ve experienced before, and we put this handbook together in consultation with several parents who brought to our attention some common areas of confusion.
(We would also suggest that parents check out our website at urbanacademy.org, since many of the same topics are addressed in greater detail there.)
We decided to use the Frequently Asked Questions format for most of it, since it’s clear and to the point. We can keep adding questions as they arise.
Here we go!
What is Urban’s guiding philosophy?
A big question, with a really long answer which we will try to keep short. Urban teachers practice “inquiry” style education, which mostly means we emphasize depth over coverage, we run discussion-based classes, and, more than anything else, we believe students need to be exposed to multiple points of view so that they can develop their own ideas and arguments and support them using evidence.
We also believe that it’s important students are able to control their own education -- high school is the age at which teenagers are becoming independent -- which is why we build choice into so much of our curriculum. Students must first choose to come to Urban (it’s not a school the Department of Education can “send” students to, rather, there is an application process students must go through); students choose their classes (and we work as hard as we can to honor those choices); and within classes, students are given opportunities to choose what topics to study, through their choice of what questions are the most important to study.
Urban is truly a staff run school. Each week, the staff meets as a group and decides almost every issue of substance about how the school should operate, from larger organizational questions (like the schedule, for example) to smaller, more individual question (such as the appropriate response to student misbehavior).
What are the classrooms like?
Most classes are between 12-25 students with one or two teachers. Classes are comprised of students of mixed ages and skill levels -- so there will be 9th graders in the same room with 12th graders, some students with really strong skills in the discipline, others with weaker skills. (There are several reasons for mixing the grades, but we’ve found that age does not necessarily correlate with skills across subject areas, and the richer the mix of students, the more interesting the classrooms. Also, given the size of our school, if classes were segregated by age, there would be very few to choose from.)
Our students come from neighborhoods across New York City, and Urban is a truly integrated school -- racially and socio-economically. All of our classes value student voice, and so our rooms are set up to facilitate discussions -- either an oval for the full class, or in small groups. You will not find straight rows of chairs facing the board in any Urban classroom (unless students are taking a test). In the exit interviews we conduct with our graduating seniors, many remark that the classes at Urban were the first place they talked to people who were different from them, and that the discussions were far richer as a result of the diversity in the room.
Our weekly schedule may seem unfamiliar to students when they first join us, as some classes meet for three or four hour-long sessions, while others might meet for two two-hour blocks. In general, teachers decide what time length and frequency bests suits the type of material they expect to cover, and we build the classes around their preferences.
If the kids are mixed ages and grades, how do teachers assess them?
Students are graded based upon their individual progress in the class. Attendance and the quality of work students submit to the teacher are always components of the grade, as is the quality of the students’ participation in class. Teachers communicate expectations to students at the beginning of each class, and they make clear their expectations as the class continues through regular feedback, both in written and verbal form.
Participation is a part of the grade? What if a child is really shy?
There is much more to participation than raising your hand and making a comment when called on, a fact we remind students of all the time. Being an attentive listener can be just as valuable at times. So can participating in smaller group activities or discussions, or bringing ideas to the teacher outside of class, and so on. We do think that participating in discussions is valuable for both the individual student (who learns to organize his/her thoughts through the process) as well as to the class (which benefits from the multiple perspectives brought to bear on a topic), and so we encourage all students to raise their hands and offer comments. But students who are not comfortable doing so are able to contribute in other ways, as well.
Do you have AP classes? College Classes?
We do not have AP classes because teachers at Urban design their own classes; we refuse to accept canned curriculum handed down to us by anyone, including (especially) the College Board. We do have several classes that have been certified as “College Preparatory Classes” by the New York City Department of Education (and which the City considers the equivalent of AP classes). We also have students taking “College Now” classes at CUNY colleges (mostly Hunter), and each semester we have four spots in classes at Sarah Lawrence College.
We are committed to challenging all of our students in all of our classes, and we believe they are all college preparatory.
How are students selected to take College Now and Sarah Lawrence classes?
As a general rule, we reserve those classes for 11th and 12th graders at Urban. As with almost everything we do, students who are interested must take the initiative to attend an information meeting and express their interest. The staff then reviews what courses are available and which students have expressed interest. The staff recommends students based upon their track record of attendance and work habits at Urban Academy. (In addition, College Now courses require a minimum score on the PSATs or the ELA Regents.)
You said students choose their classes. What does that look like?
Before each semester begins, staff members submit their course descriptions (“blurbs”) for publication in a course catalog. Students receive the catalog as well as a one page “menu” of the courses in each period, which they then must rank according to preference before they return for registration. When they return, they meet with their “tutorial teacher” (aka their advisor), who discusses their selections and ensures that they have selected a varied program that covers the NYS distributional requirements and moves them forward to graduation.
Teachers design their own classes and create their own curriculum, often choosing to change the focus when student interest takes a different direction. We don’t have survey classes (such as 10th grade US History, covering Columbus to Reagan), but rather classes that emphasize depth -- an American History class might cover the Civil War and Reconstruction, for example, or explore the first contact by comparing the Disney Pocahontas with the historical figure. Teachers create new classes regularly, but they also re-teach them in later semesters. Each department ensures that there is a an appropriate spread of classes for students to choose from.
What is “tutorial,” and who is the “tutorial teacher”?
Tutorial is our version of homeroom -- what some other schools call advisory. Each teacher in the school has 10-12 students for whom s/he is responsible in terms of academic monitoring. Students generally choose their tutorial teachers.
Tutorials meet three times a week -- two fifty minute periods and one fifteen minute period. During the tutorials, students are usually doing homework (or seeking help from one of their classroom teachers) while their tutorial teacher checks in with them individually. The tutorial teacher is a good source of information on how your child is doing in her/his classes and where s/he is along the road to graduation.
Tutorial is crucial to our program -- in ensuring that we are tracking student progress and in providing an opportunity for one-on-one meetings between teachers and students.
You mentioned NYS requirements -- does Urban’s program align with the state learning standards?
Yes. Students at Urban are granted full Regents level diplomas, approved by New York State’s Board of Regents. We make sure that students have all the credits they need, distributed according to NYS rules and regulations.
How can they get Regents diplomas if they don’t have to take the Regents exams?
It’s a long story, but in brief, roughly 20 years ago, Urban Academy and about 25 other alternative schools in NYC demonstrated to the Board of Regents that our students were being admitted to college and succeeding in college at a rate higher than that of traditional students in NYC. We were granted a waiver from the Regents curriculum as long as we: 1) agreed to have students take and pass the English Language Arts exam and 2) used our performance based system of assessment (we call them proficiencies) to ensure that our students were ready to graduate from high school.
So, what are the proficiencies?
You can read the full description of the proficiencies in our “Graduation Requirements” document, but, briefly, they are projects designed by each department (Math, Science, Literature, Social Studies, Creative Arts and Art Criticism) to demonstrate that students are able to do college-level work. Almost all of the projects come out of the work done in and for classes. Students take a great deal of pride in the final product, which makes sense -- it has been their project and they’ve worked it up to a college level over several months.
Are there pre-requisites before kids can start a proficiency?
Yes -- two kinds. First, students must pass two classes (with a C- or better) in each of the disciplines. This is what most 9th and 10th graders are working on at Urban. Second, students must complete a smaller project within each discipline (like a science laboratory report in science, or an analytical paper in social studies). The project must meet a higher standard, as defined through revisions with the teacher of the class.
How do kids know that they are making progress towards graduation?
Their tutorial teacher meets with them several times during the semester to go over their progress. Using our in-house records, teachers and students can figure out what they’ve done and what remains.
How can parents find out about their child’s progress?
Starting in 11th grade, all teachers fill out a “proficiency progress sheet” which is included with each set of comments that goes home (at mid-terms and at the end of each semester). Parents are also encouraged to communicate directly with their child and their child’s tutorial teacher.
What is the meaning of “senior status”?
Because students are entering Urban at different points in their high school years, and because our classes are mixed grades, the only grade we define firmly is senior year, when students must begin the college application process. For obvious reasons, we don’t want students who are not prepared to graduate at the end of the year to begin applying to college.
We have a formula for what students must accomplish in order to be designated a senior and begin the application process. It’s too long to go over in this answer, but it is available on our website.
During the second semester of their junior year, students and their parents will be informed several times what they must accomplish by the end of the semester in order to receive “senior status.” A letter is sent home in June explaining whether the student has fullfilled the requirements to become a senior.
My child just began at Urban and says she is in “the Project”? What is that?
Each semester, Urban spends the first three weeks on an intensive course -- students are in one class with the same group of students and teacher(s) for the whole day every day, studying one topic. In the fall, the entire school studies a single subject, with each project group studying sub-topics. (For example, this fall the school is looking at transportation, with one group studying the history and impact of the A train, one group studying the sociology of mass transit, one group looking at art in the subways, and so on.) In the spring, teachers design their own project group course topics, which are not connected to a school-wide theme.
Students are awarded a full academic credit for the project, in the discipline which the group studied.
Why do you have the Project?
So many reasons. It allows us to make full use of the City and its resources, since the full day schedule makes taking trips easy. It mixes the students into different groupings and allows them to make new friends and get to know students they otherwise might not talk to. It introduces new students to the academic expectations and philosophy at Urban through a single course (rather than the six of the regular semester). It allows teachers to try experiment with new topics (we are a laboratory school, and many teachers have turned their project experiences into full semester courses). It allows us to work collaboratively as a staff, particularly in the fall when we define the topic and build assignments and activities together.
How does Community Service work at Urban Academy?
Every Wednesday from 12:15-3:15, students are expected to perform work for the larger community. Some students work in the building (in the library, for example, or helping teachers of younger kids in the Ella Baker school), but most leave and work in organizations around the City. We have over 100 different placements at any given time -- in public schools, libraries, animal shelters, neighborhood groups. Some students bring placements to us -- a favorite elementary school teacher wants an assistant in her classroom, say, or their church runs a soup kitchen that needs workers. But many students are assigned a placement based upon their interests, which are discerned through a survey at the beginning of the semester. (If you know of a placement that you think would work for your child or others, Cathy and Caitlin, the community service coordinators, would love to hear from you!)
We believe this work is valuable for helping students attain work-related skills; some skills vary depending on the placements, of course, but dealing with co-workers, arriving on time, behaving in a manner appropriate to the work-place are skills all students develop in their placements. Students also build a resume through their placements, and many obtain recommendations for future endeavors from supervisors (who fill out evaluations at the end of each semester which are included with final comments).
Each semester, students reflect on their experiences in small group discussions, and some present the work they have done to their tutorial (and occasionally the whole school).
Mostly, however, we believe there is value in serving the community, and we believe most students come to appreciate that over their time at Urban.
What is the role of parents at Urban?
A very good question, and one with as many answers as there are students and parents. Just as we work with students as individuals, we work with their parents on an individual basis, as well.
We value parent/guardian input and questions, and are happy to speak with you about your concerns or suggestions. As a small staff with limited office support, we want our teachers to spend their time on teaching and curriculum, and in direct work with our students. We encourage students to speak with us directly to address their issues/needs, but also want to collaborate with parents/guardians to meet the educational needs of your children.
We do sometimes call on parents to support Urban Academy when there is an external situation that requires action.
How do you communicate with parents?
We are happy to take phone calls and to provide status updates. We do not use an on-line platform like Jupiter or JumpRope, mostly because it requires a great deal of data-entry time from teachers that is much better spent preparing for class or providing feedback on written work. But tutorial teachers are available to provide updates about how students are doing in classes, and Becky and Adam can be reached quickly and easily. Many parents call and/or email us and we are happy to take the calls and/or reply, and to connect parents with teachers.
We do try to keep the calendar on our website up to date, and we send out email reminders of important upcoming events and dates. (Please be sure we have the email address you check regularly.)
We have a Parent-Teacher night scheduled each semester -- in November and April and we encourage parents to attend. You’ll have a chance to meet your child’s teachers and have what we think is a more in depth (if time-limited) chance to talk about the class and your child’s performance in it than the more typical frantic three minute rotations in most schools.
Is there a Parent Association?
Yes, but because the school is so small and our population is more transient (so many students are at the school for 2 or 3 years, instead of the usual 4), typical PA functions (like fundraising) are harder. We have tried the usual PA fundraisers in the past -- auctions, bake sales, etc., but we have found that we don’t raise as much money as we would like given the hours spent.
Consequently, the PA is most useful for helping parents understand the way Urban works -- and we devote most of the meetings to explaining one aspect or another of our program (for example, we will explain the requirements of a particular proficiency).
Do we get written reports?
Mid-term reports (without grades) and final reports (with grades) are sent home each semester. Our reports are written in narrative form, and reflect the style of the teacher writing them. Most will open with a section on what your child is doing well and then move on to what we expect them to work on in the future. We hope these reports give you a sense of the class in question, as well as how your child is progressing, in a way that is more specific than the letter/number grades sent home in larger high schools. Final comments, at the end of the semester, include a narrative description of the second half of the term, and a final (letter) grade for the class.
In addition, interim reports (about mid-way between mid-terms and the end of the semester) provide a snapshot of whether your child has made a dramatic change (for better or worse) since mid-term comments. Parents who want more information (beyond these 6 reports) should call their child’s tutorial teacher or Becky and/or Adam.
How does college counseling happen at Urban?
We would argue that Urban Academy has the best college counselors in the City, and they are remarkably successful at helping each student find the best fit -- academically and financially.
We start the process as soon as students arrive at Urban, with semesterly visits to colleges in the tri-state area (and sometimes beyond -- we have taken students on longer trips to places like Howard University, College of the Atlantic, Temple, Hampshire, Goucher, and more).
In the second half of junior year, students begin formal college counseling with the college advisors (Rachel W, Rachel B and Kevin on the academic counseling; Andrea on the financial aid counseling), looking at different types of schools, calculating their GPAs, figuring out whether to take the SATs, ACTs, etc. In the fall of senior year, students meet with the advisors on a weekly basis. Parents come in for a meeting, as well, to discuss possibilities.
We do not offer SAT/ACT prep classes, for several reasons. First, we don’t believe test-preparation fits with our pedagogy or our mission. Second, when we have paid to bring in a group like the Princeton Review for an afterschool class, very few students attended after the second week. Third, if students are devoting after-school hours to test prep, we become concerned that they may not be spending as much time on homework for our classes, which is counterproductive, since success in our classes is more important in getting into college than test scores. (And for that reason, we advise families thinking of signing their children up for test-prep classes outside of school to do that during the summer.)
Our college advisors write impressive counselor recommendations, and our teachers write effective letters as well. (A benefit of the small school size is that teachers know students quite well, and that comes through in our recommendations.) The counselors work with students to “package” them well for the colleges they have chosen. Seniors write their personal essays either in the essay class designed for that purpose or with the assistance of a teacher who has been assigned to that role.
The list of schools that accepted our students is available here. We are proud of the list.
How does Urban address social and emotional issues?
In many different ways. Many classes have units on gender and health issues, and we have a guidance counselor who is available to talk to students who are interested in counseling. In addition, the Mt. Sinai health clinic downstairs has a social worker who will schedule regular (or as needed) sessions with students, and a health educator who will offer workshops on teen health issues.
Interpersonal ethics and responsibilities pervade our school. From the explicit cardinal rule of Urban (“No Personal Attacks”) to the close relationships teachers and students build, to the conflict counseling that teachers and students do on a daily basis, the principal message of Urban Academy is that we are a community that respects each individual as an individual, that humiliation is unacceptable, and that by listening and talking to people who are different we learn better and become better people.
How does Urban deal with students who are late or absent?
A few points to make here. First, students should miss as little school as possible. If you are scheduling medical or other appointments in advance, please make them during after-school hours, or on days when there is no school (holidays, election days, etc.). (Clearly, if your child is sick, you take whatever appointment you can get.)
Second, If your child is going to be out, either because of an unavoidable appointment or because s/he is ill, please call or email to let us know. Every afternoon, we send an email to parents of students who did not appear in the school (so it’s important that we have an email address that you check regularly).
Lastly, while missing a day or two here or there is not a big problem, students who are late or absent too frequently will be unable to receive credit for their classes (a student who is coming 30 minutes late to a first period class that meets for 60 minutes is missing 50% of the class!). So much of the work of the class takes place in the classroom during the discussions that occur there. It is central to our pedagogy that class discussions are where students develop their ideas and deepen their understanding of the material. Consequently, students who miss class discussion too often are not actually doing the work of the class, and will be unable to demonstrate mastery of the material (even if they do the homework).