In the self portrait, her wild, curly blonde hair is tousled to one side of her face, the two sharp arrows from her lip ring poke out the left corner of her mouth and her eyebrows arch upward in a look of skepticism.
Samantha Morales said drawing this picture was the hardest thing she’s ever done.
“I was backing out of it so many times because in the picture I had curly hair, and it was really hard to draw,” she said. “But it made me learn not to give up on anything.”
Morales is a student at ROADS Charter School 2 in the Bronx, a charter transfer school that enrolls 15- to 17-year-olds who are overage and under-credited and have either been homeless, in jail, in foster care or child protective services, or who have dropped out of high school.
ROADS, which stands for Reinventing Options for Adolescents who Deserve Success, opened last fall in the South Bronx and in East New York at a time when many charter schools face criticism for not serving the high-need students that ROADS accepts. The New York City Charter School Center, which is in the midst of a campaign to improve public perception of charter schools, will show off the students’ artwork at its headquarters today at 6 p.m.
The art project — which also asked students to complete the statements “I was … I am … I will be …” in writing — is just one of the many strategies that ROADS is using to help its students overcome past struggles to aspire toward goals such as graduating, going to college, and building a career.
“We’re trying to do something other schools can’t do with these kids,” said ROADS algebra teacher Abbas Manjee, who used to teach at a district transfer school on the Upper West Side.
The school has adopted instructional approaches that accommodate students’ persistent attendance issues; built a robust staff of non-teachers whose job is to support students; and rethought the traditional school schedule to maximize the social and emotional support that students receive.
Principal Seth Litt, who was born and raised in the Bronx and used to be the principal of a nearby middle school, said striking the balance between support and high expectations is sometimes challenging. Unusual among transfer schools, ROADS accepts students who have zero high school credits, and the average student comes in reading at a fifth-grade level and doing math at a fourth-grade level.
“Our students for the most part are struggling learners, and they’re overage,” he said. “The clock is ticking really loudly for them.”
The wide range of students’ skills is one reason ROADS uses outcomes-based grading. Instead of considering students successful if they have simply proceeded through a textbook from beginning to end, each class has 10 outcomes, a stepladder of learning objectives that students must master to pass the class. Litt said the arrangement allows for more individualized learning and for teachers to intervene early on when they see students aren’t understanding a certain concept. It also helps with students who miss class a lot.
“Just because they’re at ROADS doesn’t mean that, especially in their first year, that all the things in their lives have changed,” Litt said.
Examples of that sensitivity were apparent in Manjee’s algebra class one recent day. He had two different assignments for students on his SMART Board, labeled “If you were present Friday” and “If you were absent Friday.”
“We have to adapt to their lives if we expect them to adapt to the system that we’ve created for them,” Manjee said. “And right now the system we’ve created for them doesn’t work for them. If they want to agree with these things that we set up as a society, we need to meet them halfway.”
In another algebra class, students wearing headphones sat at computers watching a 28-minute video of a math lesson recorded by their teacher Emily Buxbaum. She said she originally created the videos so that students who were absent could catch up on lessons they missed, but it turned out it was helpful for all students to learn at their own pace and pause and replay something when they didn’t understand it.
In an English class a couple doors down on the one-hallway school, which shares space with two other transfer schools, teacher Melissa Giroux showed students a video clip of CNN’s Anderson Cooper hosting a debate about whether women should fight in combat. Posing questions such as “What makes an argument successful?” Giroux asked students to identify each debater’s claim, evidence, and reasoning.
The lesson echoes one of the real-life lessons that Manjee said the school tries to teach students.
“Instead of getting louder than your opponent … you want to beat your opponent with knowledge and not a Jerry Springer-style battle where the loudest person wins,” he said.
There are 13 teachers at ROADS and seven additional people called “team advisors” who act as case workers and help students communicate with child welfare services and their probation officers.
“They’re like our second parents. They really motivate us,” said Elisha Owens, 16, said about the advisors.
“They’re like older brothers and sisters,” said Anthony Reddick, 17. Morales piped in, “Like therapists!”
“They always find a way to give you the time of day,” Owens said.
“Teachers shouldn’t even be stressing about that stuff anyway,” Morales said. “They should just be…”
“Teachers,” Reddick said, finishing Morales’ sentence.
“Yeah, exactly,” Morales said.
But the extra staff doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t involved in their students’ lives. Manjee is helping to pilot a new program where each teacher will be assigned to four sets of students and get a whole day every two weeks to take them out of school on field trips. The trips are about establishing a personal connection with students outside the classroom and so that the roles of teachers and counselors don’t become too separated, Manjee said.
“The kids figured out that if we split up so many of these roles, people aren’t doing a good job of communicating and no one can hold me accountable for anything,” he said.
For many students, school staff said, their school is holding them accountable for their grades and behavior for the first time. Lakota Leijon, the director of students services who has worked as a social worker, recounted one of the first times that her students saw her angry. A group of them had misbehaved and Litt wanted to send them home as punishment, but Leijon said no.
“Send them home to what? To play video games? They’ll probably hang out on the corner. I said, ‘No, they need to stay,'” she said. “I need them to start learning what it feels like when someone who’s been believing in you, who’s been your number one advocate, when you’ve let them down.”
Leijon’s faith in her students makes her give them, what she calls, “real talk.”
“A lot of students thought if they don’t pass [ROADS] that’s ok, I’ll just get my GED,” she said, referring to the exam that can be taken to demonstrate high school equivalency. “I said guys, a GED is four years of high school crammed into a two-day test. If you’re at a fourth-grade reading level, you’re not going to pass.”
It’s this kind of honesty that students at ROADS appreciate after being passed at each grade level, but knowing they weren’t really learning anything, Litt said.
“They’re not going to get angry if someone says you need support that isn’t high school work,” the principal said. “They’re tired of people lying to them and giving them work that just keeps them busy in class.”
Getting through to students can require some reframing for teachers. Lisa Barnshaw, the art teacher who assigned the self-portrait art project, said Morales had gotten so frustrated with her drawing, which was divided into a grid, that she was talking the whole time in class and not working on it. Then one day, Barnshaw sat down with Morales and offered to do one square of the drawing.
“I extended the edge of each line into the next box. And she looked at me and was like, okay, thanks, I think I got it and then took off,” Barnshaw said. “I always had that mentality I’m not going to put my hands on a student’s artwork, but if what they need is just a little bit of a boost, I’m willing to make compromises if it’s going to help make that kid be successful.”
Morales spent nine hours over two days to finish her project.
“They thought they couldn’t do something. They worked hard at it, and they got it done. It’s such a huge microcosm for their lives,” Barnshaw said.
While the students have made a lot of progress this year, Litt said he recognizes that they and the school have major challenges ahead.
“It’s a transition from community and culture to making sure our students compete with students anywhere. I’m very proud of where we are right now. It took a lot of work from a lot of adults and a lot of trust from students,” he said. “We have to maintain what we’ve done this year and just make sure we’re adding on to it … We have to demand and support students to be academically excellent.”
This evening, Morales and a few other ROADS students will be speaking at the art show. She’ll be delivering a spoken word poem that recounts her path to ROADS after being suspended for fighting at her previous school.
“The things you’ll hear from us, you’d never hear from a teenager,” said Morales, who transferred from a performing arts high school in Harlem. “But I just want people to see that we are kids willing to make a change, we are kids that want to be the future for our country. … We don’t want to be the same statistic of a high school dropout.”
Samantha Morales’s poem
Things i seened at my age are unimaginable
the memories that flash back in my head are unforgetable.
Boogie down bronx, 17 years young,
alcoholic parents, getting bullied wasnt fun.
High school days was the highlight of my life.
Did wrong things ended up in fights.
Suspension was crazy, they said i needed a new start,
things will get better if i believed in my art.
Wasn’t feeling the vibe at first ,
first day of school of course thinking the worst.
Thinking – kids like me , No way im out
One more slip up , im a drop out without a doubt.
But I knew I couldnt label myself as that, thats not me.
I needed to be able to successed.
Im a dancer , Im a leader
So yes , definately Roads was the answer.
I came across on not judging so fast, got to focus on the future
not on the past.
And at last , people that believed in me ; teachers i can talk to and tell me i can achieve –
Cuz its a hard knocks life and life will get rough –
I just hope you see what ROADS done for us.