When it comes to the conversation over public education in this country, there’s probably no more contentious issue than charter schools. But Nissi Jonathan believes we’re not even having the conversation we should be having.
“I don’t think we as a community, just across this city and across this country perhaps…we’ve not given ourselves the chance to have a real discourse about what we’re in for.”
Ms. Jonathan is the founding principal of New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science III on Avenue X in Sheepshead Bay. Prior to founding the school five years ago with New Visions, she worked for ten years within the DOE as a science teacher, assistant principal, counselor for NYC Teaching Fellows, and in other roles. She has a Masters in Leadership from Columbia and is currently in the doctoral program there.
AMS 3 just graduated its first class since opening with a 92% graduation rate and 100% of those graduates receiving college acceptance offers, many with generous financial aid packages.
And what about the 8% who didn’t graduate? Jonathan is intent on helping those kids succeed as well — partially by providing them with the “socio-emotional support” she feels is vital.
“You can’t have conversations about post-secondary without actually supporting young people and their families…it is VERY draining and frustrating for young people…just life conditions. I have families – young people – who have lost their parents this year. That piece is what keeps this other stuff going. We try different intervention strategies. Kids may not be able to attain after all that in four years, so they should still have access to a high school diploma in five years or six years.”
The focus on her students’ post-secondary plans is really at the center of Mrs. Jonathan’s model for the school.
“We’re a non-selective high school. I believe that such an institution must be able to take any kind of young people…and within four years, bridge that gap in literacy or math or whatever they come with. And not just meet accountability metrics for the state – there’s a larger discourse that I’m interested in, which is how many of our graduates are getting access to post-secondary and how many of our kids are actually going to sustain and show persistence through post-secondary.”
Jonathan is particularly focused on providing Special Education and ELL students with that access. She says they have 7-8 special education counselors.
In terms of enrollment, the school has 410 students, or about 100 per grade. They have a capacity of 150 but don’t want to bring students in unless they have the resources to meet their needs.
And the school’s focus on post-secondary is everywhere you go in the school’s halls (they share the building with two DOE schools and one other charter school):
College admissions prep is peppered into students’ experience from freshman year with visits from various admissions officers and general conversations about opportunities, but their post-secondary plans really start to cohere in their junior year in what is called their Junior Seminar. “That’s the place where all these lower-house conversations start becoming real.” It eventually leads to Senior Seminar, which focuses on working with students and families on making final choices about schools, financial aid packages, etc.
One of the aspects of helping students create a post-secondary plan that Jonathan is particularly proud of is the school’s internship program. “We built community partnerships with about 25 entities. Some are in Manhattan but a number are in Brooklyn. That’s our way of framing the career readiness that the state keeps talking about all the time.”
As with Junior Seminar, there’s a credit-bearing class that goes with it that focuses students’ internship experiences.
Outside of the focus on post-secondary life, Jonathan describes their learning philosophy as a project-based model. Every unit or semester ends in a large project that builds over time.
As an example, the Living Environment class just had a community fair with presentations about diseases and hospitals attending to have conversations about a real community health fair. Other projects have been based on Shark Tank or taken mock trial form (they have a mock trial room!):
While the school is focused on math and science, Tasha Andrews, the parent coordinator, made sure to point out that the kids also get lots of arts and culture. They have a partnership with Lincoln Center in which kids attend performances and we visited a class working on their own Keith Haring-inspired images.
Last year and this year, seniors have also been able to go on an international trip – to Copenhagen last year and Stockholm this year. They visit the country’s parliament, spend a day in a local school, and generally get exposed to a wholly different culture.
As for the charter vs. DOE school debate, Jonathan says she can’t speak for other charters but is clear about why she chose New Visions. When her proposals for new schools were turned down by the DOE, she began looking for other options.
“There are organizations in the charter world that are philosophically very different from what I believe. And one of the things that attracted to me about New Visions was their community engagement. Every single school they’ve gone into, they’ve done it respecting the community. We’ve tried so hard not to be antagonistic – connect with community leaders, just talking to people, answering questions about what is this charter thing.”