Change At the Roots Level: Anatomy of An Urban School Renewal


Larry Myatt, Co-Founder


In my school redesign and renewal coaching, I often talk about the needs of kids in terms of ZIP code. It’s a stark way to put things, but it’s also a simple, foundational orientation to working with students from poor families. By accident, kids born with the right ZIP code get a lot of good stuff. Not that they are without their own problems – a different set of problems- but they mostly get the role-modeling and cultural imprinting they need to more smoothly enter the worlds of college, employment and social standing. I explain to the adults that one of the best ways to invest our time in improving our schools is to mimic, even improve upon, those collateral but critically important activities that happen in certain ZIP codes, that help one to understand and make his/her way in the world. 

Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School in Providence, RI has many institutional challenges. You could probably guess what they are. Like many inner-city schools with inadequate resources, they do their best to serve a predominantly Latino, low-income community, and increasing numbers of non-English speaking immigrants and refugees. The school is in the third year of an attempt to re-build its capacity, restore programming and raise achievement levels, yet again in the face of shrinking budgets.

As usual, there are big struggles and blissful moments. This edition offers two examples that reveal the nature of roots work, the crucible of creating an intellectual, socially responsible culture under tough circumstances. 


Thoreau in the City

Team Carpe Diem is Alvarez’ frontal assault on the self- repeating drop-out phenomena, when over-age and off-track students linger in the school but fail to advance. It’s a state that I’ve termed “fragile stability” – young adults OK enough to come to school 3-4 days a week, but too often unable to engage, usually with big reading gaps, and frequently volatile or withdrawn. At Alvarez, students who are over-age and far under-credited can now opt for TCD, as its known – a small but hopeful program that does its best to build team, support social-emotional needs and offer the kinds of engaging, scaffolded academics that will draw students back into an academic life.


The day before their trip to one of Rhode Island’s most scenic and tranquil nature reserves, students in a Team Carpe Diem Town Meeting read about Thoreau’s life, then viewed a provocative YouTube video about man and nature, paving the way for intense small group discussions about big questions:  have humans moved too far from nature? Is Mother Nature really in control anymore? What price do we pay for being out of touch with the planet? Transcendental questions on Adelaide Ave. in Providence.  E.D. Hirsch would be proud.

The next morning they boarded a bus and on disembarking deep in the woods they each received a photocopied paragraph from Walden. With each student seeking out their own solitary spot in the forest, they sat with eyes closed for five minutes, looked at the sky for five more, then in a final pause, looked closely at the ground around them. For a half hour they sat silently, journaled and made their own sense of what Thoreau posed about the relationship between each of us and Mother Nature. Back at school, these would become essays and discussion topics. The insights were many and powerful, the kind of insights any of us would find memorable, self-revelatory.  Solitude, in a natural setting. ZIP code work.


A Big Second Wind

In early November, the Alvarez ninth grade team had their chance to jump into activities that, again, may or may not materialize depending on one’s ZIP code. Teacher, trainer, martial artist, philosopher Jeffrey Cohen brought his “Second Wind” master class for the whole student team and their staff. Cohen moved easily between leading body stretches and breathing exercises, personal planning and executive function tips, and the science of oxygenation and aerobics. Using only their chairs or simply standing tall, students got a full workout, the kind that can happen easily in any classroom.

Jeffrey Cohen brings  Second Wind  to Alvarez HS Freshmen

Jeffrey Cohen brings Second Wind to Alvarez HS Freshmen

Cohen brought a special eye to adolescent needs, sharing with them strategies for ID’ing and coping with stress, focusing on and visualizing success at the beginning of a class or test, stretching out big muscles in your chair to renew brain energy. Student volunteers who saw their chance to know and do more jumped into the fray to model different stations of more robust exercise-- lifting, deep squatting, running in place. Of note, said staff members, the enthusiastic volunteers were students who are often restless and fidgety in the 70-minute Alvarez classes.

There are dozens of studies that conclude clearly that increased amounts of physical activity increase learning, help curb behavioral issues, and foster healthy habits. Schools that embrace and add a regular menu of movement see less truancy and even more parental involvement. And it’s a simple fix. Veteran Alvarez science educator Jack Fair was one of many to observe the focus, attentiveness, and relaxation that overcame the group as the 90 minutes proceeded. Fair was hoping routines from Second Wind would soon work their way into daily routines at the school.

I was happy to play a hand in the team meetings and planning sessions that made these events possible.  This is the way I’ve learned that change happens. Against many odds and local history, the school administration and teacher leaders are buying into a hearts-and-minds approach to turn the school around. We’re doing it the old fashioned way, re-booting Judith Warren-Little: creating lessons together, sharing our teaching and learning, investing in each other and our kids. And we’re thinking for ourselves, looking for thrilling learning and exploring the marrow questions: How do you help kids really use their minds? What kind of intellectual work would we want for our own kids? Is the work good enough?

Policy-makers, district leaders, think-tank pundits and funders, this is what the work looks like. One school at a time, as frustrating as that is for some. You can tell a lot from this story about what’s needed and where to invest. This is how you rebuild a school and the hopes of its adults, how you rebuild students’ hunger to learn that’s mostly been drained from them, and how you rebuild a community.