Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


A Day in the Life: The Teacher

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Thumbnail image for Univcity03web.jpg University City High School is among the schools the Philadelphia School District plans to close as of June. 2013. This profile of teacher A.J. Schiera and of the challenges facing the school was reported in October.

By Connie Langland

The first thing to notice about teacher A.J. Schiera's classroom at University City High School is the soft sound of jazz as students arrive for their 8 a.m. class.

A second thing: The class isn't language arts, or algebra or biology. It's a program called AVID that helps students acquire the study skills and self-confidence to be successful in high school and college.

And yet another: The class runs 90 minutes, long enough for students to inquire about the college experiences of three new tutors, to learn two truths and one lie about each classmate and to debate which is more important, the question or the answer.

Schiera, 24, is a social studies teacher, a historian by training and a big fan of both University City High School and the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater. He began volunteering at the high school at age 19 as a Penn undergraduate, got hired right out of college in 2010 and now teaches two AVID classes, two urban education classes, plus one AP course in psychology and another in U.S. government and politics. He teaches 93 students over two days with class sizes ranging from 13 to 23.

Univcity09web.jpgAnd, he's a bit of an egghead, which makes him a perfect fit with the education reforms being attempted at University City.

"Onward!" he lightheartedly exhorts his students at one point, and it's an apt image for University City High -- a neighborhood high school that is pushing forward with innovative teaching and learning practices in the face of steep obstacles.

This is University City's third year as a Promise Academy, a designation that brought extra resources and more autonomy to this neighborhood high school in its first year -- though budget woes the past two years have adversely impacted all the district schools, including the eight Promise Academies. Staffing cuts have been a huge issue, and Schiera only narrowly avoided layoffs the past two years.

Upbeat indicators have been reported by Promise Academy leaders as well as by the charter management groups in the district's Renaissance Schools program, a parallel reform. (Promise Academies are operated by the district, Renaissance Schools by charter companies). Visits to Simon Gratz High School, a neighborhood high school now managed by Mastery Charter Schools, and to University City High had a singular goal: to gauge school climate, student engagement and teaching practices.

Ninety-minute classes are new to University City this year -- or rather, new all over again. As with many other innovations, the school tried but then abandoned the block approach in the late 1990s. Students attend two classes in the morning, have lunch and a homeroom period, then two more classes on day one, and their other courses on day two. The school has added an extra hour four days a week so students can get extra help, play sports or participate in an extracurricular activity.

Schiera is a fan of the block approach.  The longer stretch of time gives teacher and students more time to pursue group discussions, work on projects and accomplish multiple goals. His first-period AVID class, for example, included an SAT practice question and a warm-up exercise in which the 10th graders took a few minutes to jot down two true things and one lie about themselves, an exercise that gave the students, Schiera and three Penn students a chance to learn about one another.  LaterUnivcity05web.jpg they would delve into the art of questioning and then practice their interviewing techniques with the Penn tutors.

When his turn came in the two-truths-one-lie game, Albert shared that he is six-feet-two, likes to stay up late and hates basketball with a passion -- but his friends groaned, knowing better. He loves basketball. Melyssa said she is nice to everybody, likes to shop and used to live in Delaware. That stumped the group, until she insisted she's not nice to everyone.

"The reason we do this is to get to know each other and the new folks and also to practice asking questions of each other," Schiera said.

AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is a college readiness program started in San Diego that provides academic and social support for students in the academic middle, with the expectation that they will rise to the challenge. Advocates say it has proven successful in helping schools close the achievement gap that separates middle class from economically disadvantaged and minority students.

Next came a group discussion on how to ask questions, levels of questions, and the value of questions.  Ever heard of Costa's levels of questions? These 10th graders have, and that morning discussed the value of Level 1 questions, which are useful in  gathering information, Level 2 questions to process what you've learned, and Level 3, where the questions help evaluate, generalize, predict, imagine ....

"Think about the ways questions can help you in your classes. Also, keep in mind, these are the words teachers use on tests all the time," Schiera counseled.

"So, wrapping up, when it comes to learning, what's more important, questions or answers, and why?" he asked the class.

The responses were all spot on.

"The more questions you ask, the more answers you get," said Taiheed.

"Questions show you what you still need to learn," said Russell.

At University City, there are fresh signs of success -- about two-thirds of 11th and 12th graders are enrolled in high-level math courses, according to Principal Timothy Stults. The school now offers 15 AP courses in different subjects and an honors anthropology course, and students in the middle academically are urged to sign up. But the school has a long ways to go: The school performed poorly on the spring PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, which tests reading, writing, math and science), with 72 percent of 11th graders scoring below basic in math and 60 percent performing at below basic levels in reading. Those numbers are lower than the average for neighborhood high schools, which are 55% below basic in math, 47% in English.

In a troubling development, enrollment dropped 10 percent this fall to about 600 students, which Stults attributed to multiple factors, including a decision by the district to expand the number of seats at high-performing schools such as Central and Girls High. Neighborhood schools such as University City face increased competition from charters and from district-run special admission schools, of which Central ad Girls are but two. (Tom Ferrick writes about the wider effects of the new competition in a blog post here.)

Parent perception also is an issue. "For the past eight to 10 years, there's been this overwhelming rumor that the building was going to close," said Stults.  "Over time, people have become uninvested. They ask, why send my son or daughter if the school's going to close?"  Stults also said he has had to hone marketing skills in the face of the new competition.

Univcity24web.jpgThe school's renewed connections with Penn, Drexel University and other institutions, as well as its oft-stated commitment to push students to excel, are beginning to attract attention, Stults said, with some students now commuting from Northwest, Northeast and North Philadelphia neighborhoods: "What they've heard is that we work hard from wherever they are and get them ready to go to college."

Enthusiastic, unflappable and using his own repertoire of approaches to instruction, Schiera found ways in each class to hold students' attention.  The AVID class woke up with the two truths and a lie exercise. The AP government class was starting to drag -- the teenagers had lunch on their mind -- but their teacher had a great idea for getting them to focus on the difficulty of winning when a supermajority vote is required. The promise of candy!

With a quick walk around the room, Schiera tallied Reese's peanut butter cups, KitKats and Snickers as class favorites but 11 of the 16 students would have to agree on the brand. It took three votes for Snickers to win, and more votes for students to agree on how much they might contribute toward the treat.

The only real issue with misbehavior arose early in the urban education class. One young woman ignored Schiera and kept talking nonstop, distracting the student next to her.

Finally, Schiera spoke directly to her: "Sometimes, when you're upset, it works best to let it fade away." That counseling worked; she seemed subdued through the remainder of the period.

Such events, he said, are mere "bumps in the road" -- disruptions that a teacher must learn to manage.  These problems aside, school climate has improved immeasurably. When Schiera first visited the school as a volunteer five years ago, "I remember watching a fight start right before my eyes -- and breaking it up," he recalled, adding, however, that he has seen more fights at Penn intramural games, which he referees, than at University City.

As violence issues have waned, the focus has shifted to attendance and class cutting. The school has recorded two incidents leading to suspensions so far this year: a student was caught with marijuana and two students got into a fight during lunch. The hallway can sound noisy between classes but students, all dressed in khaki pants and white shirts, moved along to classrooms without undue rambunctiousness.

Schiera's style is to draw connections between the subject matter and the lives of his students. He asks a lot of questions, drawing his students out. A student in the urban education class spoke firsthand about charter schools -- he had transferred from one.

Schiera, from the Chicago suburbs, seems to have an easy rapport with his students -- he's only six years older than some of them.

"I've seen him teaching since I was in ninth grade, and I choose to take his classes," said Abul Jubaid, 18. "He's more like a college professor, the way he breaks it down part by part and how he asks us questions."

The challenge as a teacher, Schiera said, "is finding out what my kids already know" and then building on that.

Stults concurred. "Our kids come into school unprepared to be scholars, but we can build those skills and we find they are capable of competing in AP psychology, capable of a collegial level of involvement."

The theme in Schiera's government class is, "How do you build a government you can trust?" -- a college-level inquiry, indeed.

"Authentic intellectual work, that's what I'm aiming for," the teacher said.


 Photos of A.J. Schiera and University City students by Peter Tobia


In Part Three, we  profile of a teacher at Simon Gratz, once a public high school and now a charter school. Under the district closure plan, Gratz will remain open and take students from other public high schools that are being closed. Click here to read on.
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