A diagram of the brain hangs at the front of every UP Academy Dorchester third grade classroom, covered with stickers. The stickers represent neurons. When a student struggles with a problem and then gets it, or if she makes a mistake and then corrects herself, her brain grows, and she gets to go up to the board and add a neuron.
The brain diagram is just one example of how UP Academy Dorchester’s culture of joyful learning works its way into everyday practice. UP has garnered national attention for fostering high expectations in an environment that celebrates students’ growth.
Principal Lana Ewing helped to institute this culture and in short time when, in fall 2013, UP Education Network partnered with Boston Public Schools to restart a low-performing neighborhood school. In its first year, UP Academy Dorchester logged the greatest gains in math performance—from 13 to 60 percent proficient—of any school in the state of Massachusetts.
The goal, explains Principal Lana Ewing, is not simply to place challenging problems in front of students, but to have students seek them out.
Grappling with new challenges is celebrated at UP Academy Dorchester. A student who makes a mistake is recognized for helping his fellow students learn from that mistake. If he perseveres through that mistake he may be applauded for being a “courageous learner.”
Persevering through challenges—or “grit,” as it’s come to be known at UP Academy Dorchester and elsewhere—is one of the school’s core values. Teachers and students at UP know and constantly reference those values: Teamwork, Integrity, Grit, Engagement and Respect (TIGER). They’re also built into the school’s motto, “Work hard, be respectful, take care of each other.”
These are the backbone of UP Academy Dorchester’s culture, a sort of “north star” for everyone at the school. Weekly “TIGER reports” update students on their progress in acting upon these values. Those with high TIGER scores are recognized at weekly assemblies.
Before UP Academy Dorchester opened its doors, fifth-grade math teacher Farida Mama visited its sister school, UP Academy Boston. “It was clear to me that students were reflecting on their core values every second of every day,” said Mama.
Today, Mama’s classroom displays the sort of intellectual vigor and curiosity described by Ewing. She fires questions at lightning speed, but students’ hands shoot up just as quickly.
Before moving to the next topic, she leads the class in a cheer that every student knows by heart and shouts out with equal enthusiasm:
Who are we?
We are scholars.
On a what?
On a mission.
To do what?
Shape our futures. I’ve got brains. I’ve got grit.
Are you ready?
We got this!
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.