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The sign outside proclaims a school that does it all: Renaissance Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Social Justice.

However, when staff talk about what truly distinguishes their school, they don’t talk about its theme or programs.

The word “family” comes up again and again, whether you’re talking with teachers, support staff or students.

“The most important thing is relationships,” said Vince Iwasaki, assistant vice principal. “That allows rigor, and relevance follows.” Relationships are the bedrock of the school’s vibrant staff and student culture, and of its outstanding academic performance.

Esteban Reyes struggled in his first two years at Renaissance. But sixth and seventh grade teachers kept him after school for homework help. They got to know him, and they kept challenging him.

In eighth grade, a light went off, said Paula Reyes, Esteban’s mother. “[Esteban] became a lot more responsible, and it was because his teachers were talking to him constantly. That’s what made the difference.”

Many Renaissance stories have the same contours as Esteban’s. Renaissance sees character and academic development as inextricably linked.

“Be good,” Iwasaki tells his students. When a student isn’t motivated to succeed, teachers work tirelessly to find out why, and then support that student in taking accountability for his or her own learning. The same attitude informs the school’s instruction.

“The most important thing is relationships. That allows rigor, and relevance follows.” – Assistant Principal Vince Iwasaki.
Sixth grade math teacher Brittnee Clary surveys a half-dozen raised hands, then calls on a student who does not have his hand in the air. He doesn’t have the answer at first, but she waits, feeding him prompting questions until he does.

Observing from the back of the classroom, Iwasaki explains that this is one of the golden rules of instruction at Renaissance. It’s expected that teachers never “give” students an answer, instead helping the student to work toward the full solution.

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Data for 2014-15. From California Department of Education (CDE) downloadable research files for 2014-15 at http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/dd/.

Renaissance is a teacher-led school. Any important matter of school policy is decided by a vote of all staff. This may be in part responsible for the staff’s incredible level of commitment to their work. Renaissance teachers work long hours. They design their own curricula, meaning that they do all their academic planning from scratch, which is a huge challenge at any school, and particularly one as small as Renaissance where there are relatively few teachers to divvy up the work.

The staff’s devotion is palpable walking around the school. This commitment to the school community creates an infectious and positive culture. And it explains why students walk into classrooms with a familiarity and enthusiasm that defies expectations of what a middle school classroom can feel like.

“Renaissance is family, and is a community,” said Office Manager Eduarda Brasil, who has been with the school since it’s founding. “I’m proud of our kids. I feel like we’re part of something big.”

*Names of students and some parents have been changed in some cases.

This article is part of our report, “How World-class Schools Deliver for All Students,” which includes our framework outlining six key practices that drive the success of the highest-performing schools. Explore the report to read more school profiles showing what these practices look like in action.