Terry [Urban Academy teacher] makes us understand with our own minds rather than just telling us the answer. It feels like he’s not teaching. We’re like “Break it down for me!” And he says, “Break it down yourself.” But after we’ve got our minds and our juices flowing, he’ll tell you, and then he’ll put another couple of problems on the board. — Alexis

Avram [Urban Academy teacher] always tries to challenge your ideas. Sometimes he’ll say something completely opposite to what he believes, just to get you to argue. He loves to argue—to exchange ideas, turn your viewpoints on their heads. It’s nice to have conversations about politics, religion, anything with an adult who doesn’t think you’re a dumb teenager. — Vance

New York City’s peculiar blend of hard-edged intensity and neighborhood intimacy shows up daily in the idiosyncratic classrooms of Urban Academy, which occupies a second-floor corner of a transformed giant city high school between First and Second Avenues at 67th Street.

Here, in courses the faculty designs to match its expertise and interests, 120 students in grades 9 through 12 get both the tough intellectual push and the close individual scrutiny on which Urban Academy has made its name since 1985.

All the work of this school—that of teachers as well as students—centers around inquiry, and the power of asking hard questions is evident in every class and activity. In the long office crammed with overflowing teachers’ desks, in the ample halls where students gather on old couches, and above all in classrooms themselves, conversations are taking place in which minds are changing.
Urban Academy at a Glance

In its second-floor corner of a huge old building, Urban is one of six small autonomous schools that replaced the city’s failing Julia Richman High School in a New York City educational experiment of the 1990s. About 120 students, grades 9-12, choose to enroll, often after unsuccessful starts at other high schools and a history of school failure. They reflect the city’s diversity; to apply they first visit classes, then complete an application exercise and interview with staff.

Students from all four grades mingle in semester-long courses designed by Urban teachers to reflect their own expertise and interests. Time allotments vary according to need; courses may meet three times weekly or twice for an extended period.

Skills developed in courses result in projects, papers, exhibits, presentations, and experiments through which students accumulate proficiency in six academic areas: Literature, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science, Creative Arts, and Art Criticism. They earn the diploma by demonstrating proficiency in these areas and by showing continual progress in the areas of community service, contribution to the Urban Academy community, class participation, and active and independent reading. Competency in library research and computer use is also required.

A teacher mentor consults, supports, focuses, and helps students through the process of working on each proficiency area. Two hour-long blocks weekly are designated for these “organizational tutorials.”

Ninety-four percent of Urban’s graduates attend four-year colleges, many earning full scholarships. In 2000 Urban Academy was one of 27 schools chosen by the US Department of Education as a New American School Showcase Site.

Of teachers, Urban demands the ability to turn their own knowledge and passions into courses and questions that get at important concepts and give practice in key skills. From the daily newspaper to the daily workout, everything can shape the habit of active student inquiry, and an ever-varying course catalog and schedule accommodates that central thrust. On the floor below, a Center for Inquiry in Teaching and Learning serving many New York small schools also helps advance this school’s continual, collaborative development of teacher inquiry.

Of students, Urban expects a level of intellectual and personal respect rare in a high school setting. “No personal attacks!” students loudly protest if a class discussion turns rancorous, echoing the school’s guiding “agreements” that protect its ethos of “fairness, not uniformity.” From their teachers (who go by first names at Urban) they get the same respect, along with warm support for their individual needs. Most have transferred from schools where they have not thrived; at Urban, they battle to stay on and do well.

Despite the spontaneous individualism of its course catalog and classroom culture, Urban’s focus on rigorous thinking holds steady. “Students’ interests are important, but it’s more complex than that,” says Ann Cook, the school’s co-director and founder of the Center for Inquiry in Teaching and Learning. “It must be the teacher’s job to introduce students to the world of knowledge through good questions that they will respond to as they learn to read, take notes, come to informed opinions using evidence, and write a paper that uses what they have learned.”

From the moment they apply to the school, Urban Academy students are learning to take positions of their own and analyze those of others. Whether the subject is Shakespeare or Serbia, throwing a ball or hydroponics, students continually read, write, argue, and investigate at a challenge level that infuses the school with a palpable energy. “If he sees a spark of something, he’ll grab on to that,” observes one student of Herb Mack, Urban’s teaching principal.

A variety of teacher-developed protocols hone students’ ability to take notes, gather evidence, conduct discussions, and present and defend their work. In one trigonometry class, for instance, students always complete a Practical Procedures protocol that would explain to any outside reader “exactly what you did and why you did it.” When assessed, its final question counts the most: “Does your answer make sense? Why or why not? Explain, using logic and examples of how you could estimate the answer.”

A course called “Looking for an Argument” centers on informed discourse about controversial topics in the social sciences. Each week, its students read and take notes on several provocative newspaper articles; watch a brief and spirited debate between their two co-teachers; respond to that argument both verbally and in writing; and critique their own and others’ work at every point of the process. Initially struck dumb by the pressure to speak her mind, Mika says her teacher privately urged her, “I’m not going to leave you alone. You have to write down what you have to say, so that by the time we get to you, you have something to say.” Mika adds, “It was one of the most important things I ever learned in my high school career.”
Additional resources:

Urban Academy website

Urban Academy videos and publications. Looking for an Argument: An Inquiry Based Course (video and booklet); Teaching American History: An Inquiry Approach (video); Proficiencies: A Performance Assessment (video); Proficiencies: A Case Study of Art Criticism (video). To purchase contact the Center for Inquiry in Teaching and Learning, 316 East 67th St., New York, NY 10021

Urban’s small size means all students get such intensive individual coaching. “When I got to high school, I didn’t know how to compare three books,” says Alexis, 17. “So my teachers told me new ways to do it. They would say, ‘Here, you can have a tape recorder,’ or, ‘Just write what you think about these three books and then we can think about how to organize it; we’ll sit down with you and work on it.’ Now I’m not afraid any more.”

To graduate, Urban students must demonstrate their proficiency in key skills and content areas, presenting portfolios of work that meets the school’s rigorous prerequisites for the diploma.

“If you’re raised by teachers just telling you things and forcing them on you, it’s hard or frustrating when they expect you to take responsibility for your own education,” says Vance, who is currently struggling to complete his graduation portfolios. “But if teachers give you every step leading up to the answer, you’re not really learning anything; you’re just reciting it. A teacher’s job is to say ‘I don’t know, why don’t you prove it to me?’ They tell us a little, they ask us a question, they know what they want, but they try to get us to get it on our own.”

To further explore that mainstay of Urban’s philosophy, we took a closer look at several of its classrooms, which comprise a heterogeneous mix of students in grades 9 through 12. Along with student and teacher interviews, this portfolio presents classroom discussions, student papers and investigations, and the teacher prompts that sparked such work. As with the other small schools profiled in this online portfolio of student work, we have sought out student work that is representative.To see more, go to:

Pushing inquiry
in literature

Argument and research
in social studies

Applying logic in
math and science

Student reflections

Student learning in small schools: an online portfolio © 2003
Funding for this project generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation