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A new high school in New York includes a combination of in-person and virtual learning

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Starting his freshman year this September at Brooklyn’s Edward R. Marrow High School, River Wedding felt overwhelmed by his huge campus of more than 3,500 other students.

The 15-year-old quickly turned to her high school guidance counselor for advice. A few days later, she transferred to the city’s program called School Without Walls, joining its first class of 55 ninth-graders.

“There were nine people in the class,” she said. “I was just like, ‘Wow, I can breathe.'”

The new school uses a hybrid learning model where students take turns completing coursework at home and in traditional classrooms. But unlike the hybrid program that schools hastily adopted in the midst of a pandemic — when students had more limited interaction with teachers during distance learning and fewer opportunities to work with peers when in the classroom — School Without Walls leaders hope to rethink that approach.

Students said the new school offers more structure and individual guidance for distance learning than they experienced during the pandemic. But the most significant change is the school’s focus on projects and fieldwork that take place outside the home and in students’ classrooms — opportunities that school leaders say would be more difficult to implement under a traditional schedule.

“We use hybrid learning so that students have better access to resources in New York and can participate in real-world learning,” said Veronica Coleman, program director. “For some students, going back into the building for a full day just didn’t feel like it was for them anymore.”

At the moment, students spend half the day at home completing assignments and working with their teachers online. The rest of the day unfolds in person at the Department of Education building in downtown Brooklyn. As the program expands to grades 10, 11 and 12 over the next three years, students are expected to spend less time on traditional coursework.

Veronica Coleman, principal of School Without Walls, leads students to the subway after a trip to Prospect Park.

Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat

High school students will complete at least one “passion project” of their own design. Some students are already thinking about topics ranging from graffiti and street art to fashion design that escapes traditional gender norms. Those projects will also include internships, college coursework or other on-the-job learning opportunities to foster “a better understanding of what they might want to do after high school,” Coleman said.

The school was under development before Chancellor David Banks took office, but it is in line with some of his early priorities, such as providing students with opportunities explore career interests long before graduation. Banks also said he wants to create alternative programs that high school students find more appealing.

A last-minute addition to high school enrollment

It remains to be seen how popular the hybrid program will become. Although the school offered 100 places this fall, just over half of them were taken.

Schools had limited time to encourage students to apply, Coleman said, as did the city announced that applications for participation in the program are open just before the high school admissions deadline. The program also initially recruited students along with a separate fully virtual program, also known as the “School Without Walls,” which led to some confusion among the approximately 15 students who later withdrew. (The city plans to change the name to the all-virtual program.)

Several students who registered said they enjoyed the program so far and appreciated the unusual structure of the program. One student, for example, said that being able to work at home half a day allows him to help take care of his grandmother.

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Derrick Newell said the school’s hybrid schedule allows him to help care for his grandmother.

Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat

Another student, Lena Gestel, said she was skeptical of School Without Walls at first, but soon found that the hybrid model allowed her to attend dance classes that would conflict with a traditional school day.

“It’s a lot better for my schedule,” Gestel, 14, said. In addition, she could get one-on-one help from her teachers when she was struggling with assignments.

However, one of the school’s biggest draws is the chance to get out of the traditional classroom and explore the city, especially after many students have spent long stretches of the pandemic at home.

Students have already taken several off-campus excursions, including visiting parks near the school’s headquarters in downtown Brooklyn. They conducted “empathy interviews” to learn how people use public spaces and how they could be improved. Through the partnership with the park department, students will have the opportunity to bring their ideas directly to the agency, Coleman said.

On a recent Wednesday, an environmental science field trip sent students to Prospect Park to learn about the local ecosystem. During the hour-and-a-half hike, they learned about local vegetation and also got some exercise — their Downtown Brooklyn building doesn’t have a gym for traditional gym classes.

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Students of the School without Walls dug up crayfish in Prospect Park during an ecology lesson.

Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat

Under the direction of the Parks Department and school staff, the students donned blue rubber gloves and lowered their nets into the creek, digging up leaves, mud and crayfish. They later conducted water quality tests for pH, temperature, nitrates and dissolved oxygen. They tested hypotheses about whether the water was healthy enough to support aquatic life.

“We’re just used to loving buildings and stuff,” said 14-year-old Faris Moataz, adding that he enjoys spending time in nature. “Just like knowing it’s here — that’s cool, too.”

Work at your own pace

The school was developed in collaboration with NYC Outward Bound, a nonprofit organization that supports a network of public schools that typically include intensive projects, outdoor educationand an consulting program called “Crew” where students become close to each other and the teacher over several years. School without walls received funding from the XQ Institutea wealthy organization that funds groups that is trying to redefine how high schools work. A group of student interns also contributed to the school’s project.

Moataz and other students said they appreciated the School Without Walls’ unconventional approach to academics. The program uses a “competent” method learning, where teachers ensure that students have mastered certain skills before moving on. Students receive narrative grades rather than traditional letter grades.

“This school really helps you understand what you’re doing,” Moataz said. “They are not binding on time. So if you do [an assignment] in a couple of days they will still take it.” He also enjoys being able to complete tasks at home, where he often finds it easier to concentrate.

Other students were more nervous about the school’s distance learning component, especially after the experience of online learning during the pandemic.

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River Wedding switched to a school without walls after feeling overwhelmed by the much larger Brookyln High School.

Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat

River, a student who transferred from Murrow, said she was studying remotely in high school during the pandemic, which made managing her time a big challenge.

“I was like there were no teachers, it was all on me, my grades were going down,” she said, adding that she missed long stretches of school. “I didn’t know what to do.”

But when she arrived at School Without Walls, she said the teachers offered a lot of help with distance coursework and weren’t “really controlling” or “very strict,” which helped motivate her to complete the assignments.

“You don’t feel like you have to do it right away,” she said. “And you don’t feel stressed and then push back.”

Alex Zimmerman is a Chalkbeat New York reporter covering New York City Public Schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

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