Being an Education Innovation Fellow has afforded me the opportunity to visit many innovative schools across the country. But I have to admit that after visiting schools in California, I left feeling like there was still something missing: Yes, those schools stated that they were making an impact on student achievement through the effective use of blended learning, but most of the classrooms looked similar to ours in D.C., and I anticipated seeing something more. But when we traveled to Chicago a few months later, I was really impressed by use of space, time, and talent at CICS West Belden and Cesar Chavez Multicultural Academic Center, and I immediately began to make changes in my classroom.
Then the invitation came to visit City Neighbors in Baltimore, Maryland, and that visit inspired me even more. The overall feel of the building, even on the last days of school, was “just right”: From the moment we walked into the lobby and saw comfortable furniture and 8×10 photos of the current freshman class, I felt the warmth and the student-centered atmosphere of the school.
Our tour began with a meet-and-greet with Executive Director Bobbi MacDonald and Academic Director Mike Chalupa, where Bobbi and Mike shared City Neighbors’ humble beginnings and its overall mission and vision. What I remember most is their desire for students to be “known, loved, and inspired.” It’s clear that beyond the big, bold mural in the hallway, this mission is what drives everything that they do at City Neighbors.
The culture at City Neighbors fosters collaboration through project-based learning and an awareness of self and others through strong relationships with families and the community. When freshmen arrive, they are not left to figure out the City Neighbors way of life on their own; instead, students are grouped into “pods” (groups of 15 students) and stay together, with the same teacher (pod advisor), throughout their time at City Neighbors. This creates a family-like feel. Freshmen are also supported by upperclassmen, who take on the role of building community and setting expectations as they navigate the waters of their first year.
The student-centered space is what captured my attention the most at City Neighbors. Bobbi told us that students helped design the cafeteria (lounge), and it was like nothing I had ever seen—it had sectional sofas, restaurant-style seating with booths, high tables, and even a piano!
The classrooms are very spacious, and all of them have comfortable seating options like sofas and plush chairs. In the high school classrooms, students work in cubicle-like settings with office desks; there are also refrigerators for student use. The hallways are an extension of the classrooms, with additional seating and workspaces if students need. There is also a fantastic “maker space,” complete with a 3-D printer, computer lab, duck pin bowling alley, and construction tools for projects.
City Neighbors represents perhaps the greatest use of space that I’ve seen in all of our school visits. At the conclusion of our tour, we reconvened in the conference room, and someone asked, “How do you measure the impact of space design?” Bobbi explained that it’s hard to measure space design in terms of academic achievement, but City Neighbors’ attendance rates are higher than all of the Baltimore City Schools combined.
As I left City Neighbors, I couldn’t help but snap a photo of a street sign that sat in the office where we met that read, “Inspiration Lane.” My visit to City Neighbors was truly an inspirational experience that has me challenging my thinking in so many ways: What are my driving core beliefs about kids and parents? What would my dream classroom or school look and feel like? Are my classroom and school designed to make students and teachers effective, or are they set up for compliance? How do we make our thinking visible?
I plan to answer these questions for myself this summer as I transform my classroom into a learning space where my students, too, feel “known, loved, and inspired.”
Yolanda Johnson, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Cleveland Elementary School