Instead of shuttling between hour-long classes, students spend roughly four hours a day in their “arenas”—groups of 25 students who work their way through a self-guided online curriculum that is individually tailored to make sure each student develops the core “competencies” needed to graduate.
By discarding the convention that teachers should spend most of their days delivering content from the front of the classroom, teachers at Bronx Arena are freed up to teach small mini-lessons and work with individual students on developing—and reaching—their own learning goals.
That freedom is the key to re-engaging students who are all at least 16 years old and behind in credits when they enter Bronx Arena, explained Ty Cesene, one of the school’s co-principals. The idea is to give students ownership over what they’re learning by letting them participate in choosing their coursework and managing their time during the school day.
“The students have so much choice and power over what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis,” Cesene said. “We wanted to provide a full new experience so you had to adjust your idea of school.”
But the model can also be an adjustment for teachers.
Rebollar—who recently won a national TNTP Fishman Prize for quality teaching in high-need schools—paced around her arena one afternoon last month checking in on each student’s progress.
The student who was playing with a deck of cards, for instance, is working on a class that explores the theme “coming of age” and requires designing a board game to illustrate the concept. Another student, Amanda Lopez, asked about how to organize a presentation of her senior project, which focuses on the presidential candidates’ views on abortion. And the student who was playing Age of Empires? That’s Michael Gastambides, a 20-year-old whose senior project uses the game to compare monarchies to democratic republics.
Like many of the roughly 200 students at Bronx Arena, Gastambides felt disengaged and unhappy at his last high school, which was about seven times larger. “I kind of developed anxiety, I was claustrophobic, and I just stopped going,” he said of his last school. “I wanted an education, I wanted a diploma, I wanted to go to college, so I came here.”
Gastambides graduated this year, but he acknowledges that the self-paced aspect of his high school experience wasn’t always easy. “I would be lying if I didn’t say sometimes it is hard to get motivated,” he said. “The teachers, they motivate you—they come in and they say, ‘You can do this.’”
But getting students to graduation isn’t always easy. School leaders acknowledged Bronx Arena lags behind some of its peers in getting students to quickly accumulate credits, and has struggled with an attendance rate that hovers around 60 percent.
Cesene pointed out that even if students aren’t earning credits as quickly, that’s because the school requires students achieve proficiency in all elements of their coursework before they move on. And to boost attendance, the school has worked with its community organization partner, SCO Family of Services, which provides “advocate counselors” who make calls home and even visit if a student is chronically absent.