It’s Monday, so when Daniella Omeruo walks into this high-ceilinged Brooklyn classroom, the desks are arranged in groups. Omeruo and three of her peers quickly get down to business.
The topic this week is the cluster of early twentieth century reform movements—known collectively as Progressivism—calling for politics to be less corrupt, more inclusive, and more scientific. Students lead their own small group discussions, as teacher Josh Sullivan floats around the room. Students take turns asking and answering questions, backing up their arguments with details pulled from their thorough notes.
Tomorrow, students will come together for a discussion of how their textbook presents and frames issues, referencing the work of other historians on point of view. On Wednesday, Sullivan will deliver a lecture on Progressivism and the labor movement. On Thursday, desks in a circle, students will hold a seminar on the movement’s lasting impact. On Friday, they’ll take a quiz that mirrors the national Advanced Placement exam. And then next week, on to a new topic.
Omeruo’s experience in Sullivan’s class is a snapshot of the way things work at Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School (UCCHS), the nationally acclaimed high school, now in its fourth year, where Omeruo is a junior. The school’s model evolved after school leaders saw that while many graduates of the Uncommon charter network were getting to college, too many weren’t succeeding once they got there.
Corburn and a team of colleagues at Uncommon schools interviewed their alumni asking “Where had their high school preparation fallen short?’ The result was a program that mirrors the college experience, not only in its level of difficulty, but also in the form and look and feel of its classes, and the extent to which it expects students to be independent and self-directed.
“It’s about preparing students for the type of classes they’re going to see,” says Sullivan. “Traditionally, what the high school lesson type looks like, is that the teacher tells students about something and they get a chance to practice with it. Unfortunately, that’s not what college classes look like.”
Uncommon’s success is driven in part by a sustained effort to help students not only learn the subject matter content, but to develop the skills they’ll need to thrive in college classrooms. Corburn and his team have meticulously developed a process of “gradual release.”
As students progress through UCCHS, their classes look more and more like a college classroom. In freshman year, their teacher writes a lot on the board, helping students identify what they should be jotting down in their notes, but by senior year this responsibility is transferred to the student. By senior year, also, the pace of instruction picks picks up, they’re on their own for note-taking, and there they have more lecture-based classes (four to eight per quarter in 9th; nine to eighteen in 12th).
This approach began as a pilot project lead by some of the network’s highest-performing teachers. Their lessons were carefully documented and video-recorded, then used as a template for all UCCHS staff. Every January, UCCHS staff meet and refine the curriculum, smoothing the transition from semester to semester and grade to grade, deciding whether to introduce a concept earlier or later. Then they discuss the changes with students and talk through what is expected at every grade level.
In her junior year, Omeruo says she’s working harder than she has before, and she’s excited about what’s next. She is taking AP History, Biology, and AP Research. She looks forward to college for the opportunity to explore her wide-ranging interests. “I can take a women’s rights class, and a Greek mythology class,” she says. “I want to be able to speak Spanish fluently. And then take French.”