The Uncommon Way: Improving the Norm for Inner-City Students

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Outstanding High school By David Gibbons Uncommon is one organization that would probably be happy, someday soon, to convert its name to a misnomer. Uncommon Charter High School, which opened in 2009 and will graduate its first senior class next June, is located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in a new building where students and staff go about their daily business with an air of discipline and purpose in a distinctly collegiate atmosphere. It is part of the Uncommon charter management organization that runs 32 schools in New York City, Newark, Boston and upstate New York and has the clearly stated mission of preparing low-income students for successful college careers. Uncommon runs two other secondary schools and plans to open another in Brooklyn within three years. It's a long road and a slow, steady journey that, at UCHS, has commenced in earnest. The UCHS student body is about 66 percent black and 34 percent Hispanic; its current enrollment is 246, with a staff of 33 teachers. The school is fed by three middle schools in the Uncommon orb. Like all charter schools, UCHS must continually justify its existence by maintaining good report cards. Its Class of 2013 tied the white student national average on the SAT critical reading test and beat it by seven and 30 points, respectively, on math and writing. It also well outperformed all city and six of eight state averages on the Regents. UCHS requires a strong commitment from families and operates under very traditional rules. There are uniforms and a tight dress code; there is an after-school study center and Saturday morning test prep classes. The school day runs from 7:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. "Students know they're here to learn, that every minute matters," says UCHS Principal Maya Roth Bisignano. "The structure and the rules are in place so they can do what they need to do and we can all work together toward that goal of academic achievement and success in college." For Roth Bisignano, it all starts with a staff of great teachers who are each other's best coaches: "We have a strong emphasis on the craft of teaching, on observation and feedback. It's all viewed through the lens of a coaching model, and it's not just a few times a year but every single week. Our teachers are really excited about it because they can see themselves grow." Every year before school opens, they gather for three weeks of professional development. Another key to UCHS's success is a plethora of college-oriented routines and practices, including two-week internships and group visits to upstate schools for juniors. Teachers offer college-style office hours and implement college-style lesson plans, lecture formats and seminars. "It's all based on data gleaned from our North Star Academy and feedback from its alumni," says Roth Bisignano. "We know this is what our students need to be successful in college." "We talk about this all the time," says the principal, "and in fact it's one of our mottos at Uncommon: Student achievement and transforming lives requires constant attention to hundreds of different elements-not one magical 100 percent solution, but rather one hundred individual 1 percent solutions. This is seen each and every day at UCHS from our incredible staff, our hard-working students and our partnerships with our families." Asked what most stands out about UCHS, Marie Jadotte, mother of senior Nicollette and freshman Daniella, says, "It's how the teachers are there for their students. It really is like family."

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