Students Are Problem Solvers at New Visions Charter High Schools

One recent Tuesday morning at New Visions Charter High schools, the hallways became a sea of blue uniforms and overstuffed backpacks as students made their way to their second period class. Among the 23 students ambling into Eric Benzel's algebra class, a 9th grader named Dixon greeted his teacher with a connection he made.

"I think I understand how flamenco is connected to math now," he says. "Flamenco is smooth, yet precise. Math is just like that because you have to be accurate. If you mess up one part of the equation you'll get the wrong answer, just like if you mess up one part of the dance it throws off the sequence."

Connections like this one, between academics and the real world, are encouraged at New Visions Charter High Schools of Advanced Math & Science (AMS) and Humanities (HUM).

"Every day in every lesson, there is a challenge that the students are trying to uncover or discover," says Seth Lewis Levin, HUM principal.

Both AMS and HUM are college preparatory high schools that opened in fall 2011 with 9th grade classes of about 130 students. The curriculum is designed as a series of challenges, or projects, to make the students' academics relevant to their lives.

In addition, the schools place a strong emphasis on improving student writing. Students practice writing in every core subject. "All of our teachers are writing teachers," says Julia Chun, AMS principal. "Students have a rotating writing assignment in each core subject—math, social studies, science, and English—so that they are constantly writing and getting feedback on their progress."

In every classroom, visitors are greeted with stenciled signs on colored papers: "Notice. Question. Connect," a theme developed by the schools' partner, Lincoln Center Education. Threaded throughout every class, it helps teachers as they guide students in bridging the gap between what they are learning and their everyday lives. LCE also brings arts programming—such as the unit on flamenco that captured Dixon's imagination—on an ongoing basis.

In a nearby AMS classroom, as small groups discuss the impact of humans on animals and ecosystems, Science Teacher Danielle Miller asks the tundra group, "How would humans living in the tundra negatively affect the wildlife and how can we fix the problems they create?" Then student dialogue begins.

"My goal is to get them to a place where they are able to clearly articulate their opinions, both in dialogue and on paper, so that they are ready for college from every subject angle," says Miller.

The college banner hanging above Miller's desk serves as a constant, but subtle, reminder of her goal for her students.

The emphasis on college is not lost on the students. "The teachers try to encourage us and remind us every day that we are college bound students," says 9th grader Tandy. "It just reminds us that we are made for greater things, they're putting us in a higher place."

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