Posts Tagged University Park Campus School (UPCS)

Questions, Not Answers, Help University Park Kids Think Deeply

Published by — Part 2 — University Park Campus School fosters — and teaches — a desire to learn in its students, 95% of whom go to college.

This is the second in a series on the University Park Campus School, following Part 1: University Park School Models Urban Education.

Small groups of students are standing in front of five big sheets of newsprint, each placed at a distance around this big, old classroom at the University Park Campus School (UPCS).  Last week Jody Bird’s 9th-grade biology students brainstormed questions they might have about chromosomes, prior to studying the subject, and wrote them on these sheets.

Bird says “I use questions to spark their curiosity and to find out where their learning is going.  They usually start with pretty basic ones – the who, what, where, why, how questions.  But even in this early group we got one compare-and-contrast, about the chromosomes of different kingdoms – plants, fungi, bacteria.”

If Bird can get them wondering, a little hungry for answers, they’ll dig into the topic themselves.  She and her colleagues must teach these kids to take on the work of learning themselves.

The school has a 95 percent college-acceptance rate.

“Being curious is part of how we’re human.  And my students know that taking risks and being curious is part of the culture of my classroom.  Biology is hard, really hard.  But if you’re curious about it, it gets a lot less intimidating.”

Some students knew what chromosomes were, and that they divided.  She prodded them, “From what you already know, develop a series of questions.  Talk with each other about the rigor of those questions.”  The newsprint questions ranged from “Why do cells divide?” to “Who last got a haircut?”

Well, that last one is Bird’s own.  She pulls the abstractions of academics into the lives of the kids, who all come from the immediate neighborhood of distilled poverty in Worcester, MA.  On average, UPCS students enter 7th and 8th grades two grade levels behind.  Eight-two percent receive subsidized lunch, a poverty indicator.  What do they care about mitosis?

After brainstorming the questions, the students read some assignments, and Bird gave a “mini-lecture.”  The kids take notes on what they learn in a journal which functions like a personal textbook, in their own words.  They struggle with textbook language, so formal textbooks become resource materials.

The kids read over the sheets and dive into their notebooks to see if any of the questions have been answered.  If so, students note in their journals that question #4 on sheet “C” was answered by something they’d learned from the reading or lecture.  After working on their own group’s questions, they take a “gallery walk,” moving from sheet to sheet, seeing what the other kids’ questions were, and if they’d been answered.

They’ll go back to these same questions a total of three times while they study this subject.  Next they’ll do a lab, and another gallery walk to see if it answers more questions.  More importantly, Bird enthuses, “Maybe you thought you answered that question in the first round.  But that might be the merely proficient answer.  With what you know now, what’s an answer that’s better than proficient?”  Deepen their understanding.  Guide them to dig deeper on their own.  There is no better intellectual tool than a good question powered by some curiosity.

UPCS’s whole strategy is to produce deep thinkers.  Constant questioning is only one of UPCS’s “six strategies to build college readiness.”  Other strategies include “collaborative group work” and “writing to learn,” as with the kids’ science notebooks.  But as their hand-out says, questioning fosters “purposeful conversations and stimulates intellectual inquiry.”

Deep thinkers can handle any test because they have experience and confidence with considering things thoroughly.

Fully 99 percent of the UPCS students routinely pass the MCAS.

But first UPCS often has to overcome the kids’ learned aversion to learning.

Bird muses, “When I was first teaching, I used to grade everything.  But what’s the message about taking risks and being curious?  I no longer focus on right and wrong.  Now I tell them that if they don’t know the information, they need to find it out.  That’s all.  This is tough stuff, but see how much you can get down in writing, and at least for today that’ll be enough.  I don’t get much push-back about the writing.  When you make a relationship with them, they’re willing to do things for you.”

She assures me that even her lectures involve lots of questioning back and forth.  If you full-on talk at these kids, who’ve been lectured to death in their authoritarian culture, they tend to wonder what’s on TV.  If they have to come up with questions – working with peers, not on their own – they have to shine some attention on the subject.  They’re not just absorbing information; they’re constructing their own primitive tools to go get information.

By the end of the 11th grade, UPCS students must be prepared to take at least one college course at their partner school, Clark University.  That’s a requirement.  So they’d better be adept at higher-order thinking skills and really confident about using questions to help them master difficult material.  They need to blend in with the smarty-pants college kids.

Despite the success with pushing kids to think deeply, this strategy hasn’t been replicated in any other Worcester schools.  Remarkable.

Of course, finding teachers who can do such work is no small thing.  Next week we’ll see how Clark works with UPCS to prepare new teachers of deep thinkers, and to support the existing ones.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and GoLocalWorcester. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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University Park Campus Models Urban Education

Published by — Worcester, MA’s University Park Campus School has partnered with Clark University to create a successful model for effective urban education.

An old elementary-school building, in a desperately poor neighborhood in Worcester, houses the best urban high school in Massachusetts.  And Massachusetts has the best public schools in the nation, according to the NAEP, the “nation’s report card.”  Today we meet the best of the best.

The University Park Campus School (UPCS) has been sending roughly 95 percent of its kids to college since it started graduating the 7th and 8th graders who first began in 1997.  Most are in their family’s first generation to go to college.

UPCS’s secret to success?  Teach the kids to think deeply.

Don’t prep them to take the state tests, the MCAS, which they ace anyway.  Don’t cover tons of content.  Teach reflective habits of mind to help students tackle any intellectual challenge.  The MCAS is no biggie for deep thinkers.

UPCS’s principal Ricci Hall says, “To me this is the missing component on the national scene.”  Presumably referring to school reformers, Hall shrugs, “They think the answer is to get the best canned curriculum or the best tests, and that will solve the problem.  But we think that the whole game is to bring students and teachers together with high degrees of respect and collaboration, working with academic language, so they learn to think.  We teach the kid, not the content.  What matters about the quality of our instruction is the ability to help students engage deeply with the material.

Naturally, UPCS has an array of techniques to support, prod, cajole, and entice their TV-steeped students into becoming intellectually disciplined.  Today we begin with the staff’s commitment to model the behavior they want to see.

For example, the book title on each teacher’s door indicates what that adult learner happens to be reading at the moment.  Curious adults read.

The staff are learners first, and teachers second.  Adults model intellectually rigorous conversation.  Learning is not just for kids.

Of course, modeling college-going and college-educated behavior is a whole lot easier when there’s an actual college next door that weaves the school and their rough-around-the-edges students right into their own daily fabric.

In the mid-1990s, leafy, lovely Clark University looked around at the wide moat of urban poverty that surrounded it.  To remain institutionally viable, Clark had somehow to wall itself off, or else partner with their neighbors on mutually-beneficial goals.  Neighborhood focus groups were loud and clear about wanting schools that would give their kids more options in life.

A block away stood Freeland Street Schoolhouse, a beautiful Victorian building on the National Registry of Historic Places — utterly devoid of shiny modern educational amenities.  Clark, however, could make up for its deficits by sharing its gym, library and other facilities with the school’s now-245 students.

UPCS is a Worcester Public School, but available only to students who live in the immediate neighborhood, who are admitted by lottery.  On average, the 7th and 8thgraders enter the school fully two grade levels behind.  Hall says, “It doesn’t matter when you get them, you’ll always want them earlier.  The 8th grade is way low.  By 10th we see a big bump.”

Seventh and eighth-grade teachers help students ramp up skills allowed to languish at other schools.  Perhaps more importantly, teachers and older students induct the youngest students into the culture of the school itself, modeling and teaching them the norms of civilized, non-street behavior.

Clark students also mentor their would-be brethren, grades 7-12.

Clark offers free tuition to any UPCS students accepted through their regular admissions process – no lowering the bar.

UPCS teachers serve as adjunct professors and speakers at the college.  Conversely, teachers take classes at Clark, again, modeling the life-long-learning they’d like to see.

Over time, Clark’s education department became dedicated to urban education.  Together, professors and UPCS staff have developed successful strategies for the neighborhood’s tough, but fairly typical low-income population.

Hall calls the result “a bare bones program, focused on literature and the basics.  We have zero tracking.  All kids take all honors courses.”  Juniors and seniors can take electives at Clark.  But at the high-school itself, all kids get pretty much the same curriculum, but dig into deeper layers of the work according to their abilities.

Hall says, “It’s all about shifting to student learning.  First and foremost we are a community of human beings.  Our staff has a genuine love of the kids and a desire to be here.  That caring is in pockets elsewhere, but here it’s palpable.  Parents don’t send their kids here because of the MCAS or the graduation rate.  It’s the culture.  Everything else flows from that.  The kids see the adults collaborating, solving problems, respecting them and each other.  That makes fertile ground for what happens in the classroom.”

He continues, “We look for people who value what the kids think, value them as learners.  We’re not interested in lesson plans or degrees.  We want teachers who fit into the intellectual culture of the building.”

And that culture is about kids and adults both getting personally invested in the content and the work at hand.  Engagement is the opposite of compliance and test-prep.

Okay, but how else can schools teach urban kids to think deeply?  Next week we’ll observe a classroom’s efforts.

          Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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