Growing Equity Together Update: City Neighbors High School

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Editor’s Note: Back in May of this year, we told you about a handful of Eagle Rock staffers who had recently attended Deeper Learning 2016 — a three-day conference in San Diego, Calif., that attracted a powerful group of educators, all of whom were focused on creating more opportunities for students to learn deeply.

It was at that event that Eagle Rock’s professional development associate, Sarah Bertucci — who is participating in a 24-month Deeper Learning Equity Fellowship — presented a project proposal that involved facilitating a cohort of five schools through a yearlong process aimed at improving equity in the schools through independent projects. That project, titled Growing Equity Together, was launched this summer when staff from the five schools gathered in Estes Park for the first-ever Growing Equity Together Summer Institute.

With that as a backdrop for today’s post, below is update from one of the five schools participating in project (City Neighbors High School in Baltimore, MD):

From Cheyanne Zahrt, Principal — City Neighbors High School:

After attending the Deeper Learning and Equity program last summer at Eagle Rock, City Neighbors High School decided to embark on increasing student’s independent skills through independent projects. As a school, our teachers have worked with students on content-driven projects, but we have never embarked on independent projects.

In short, each advisor agreed to take on this endeavor and to create a plan that best supports the students and each grade level. As a staff, we started off the academic year by sharing our interests and creating posters that represent us individually. The staff collaborated around this activity and we used it to motivate and connect with our students.

Examples of our posters include:


From Tamara Jolly, Chemistry Teach & Advisor — City Neighbors High School:

Fostering a culture of student-driven interest has been very enjoyable and informative with my senior advisory. I actually introduced the topic of student interest at the very start of the year while my advisory was collaboratively creating our weekly schedule. I explained that we would be working on independent interest exploration during advisory and we needed to block off specific times for researching, discussing, and sharing. I gave them some examples of topics I would personally pick to explore, and they all began to suggest ideas for interest-based discussions. We decided use our Wednesday advisory time to circle up and share individual interests each week.

After the schedule was finalized, Wednesdays became a day we all began to look forward to. First, students engaged in an interest survey designed by our Eagle Rock team. Specifically, students were asked to answer questions such as, “What makes you smile?” or, “What makes you feel scared?” They then analyzed their responses individually.

The following week, I met with each student for five to 10 minutes to discuss his or her answers. The objective of our discussion was to come up with one topic they would want to independently explore over the course of the first semester. The final topic was written down and my students and I signed the document to make it official. Some topics from my advisory group included:

How does poverty affect an entire community, including those not in poverty?

Could we ever time travel? What is the time space continuum? What is quantum physics?

What is the history of people and race? Where did different races originate?

What is happening in the mind (brain) of a serial killer?

How are people currently are being affected by large systems, such as the police, government, and education system?

What the current state of policing is in our city? How do they really interact with people in our communities?

Each Wednesday, a few students share their topics with the advisory, while their peers ask probing questions about their motivation for picking the topic and their current knowledge on the topic. I went first, modeling how to share and question. We are now moving into the research phase, which will begin to address our objective of improving independent research skills.

So now that students have their selected their topics, the research begins! I have learned so much about my students already through the interest selection process. Students I thought I knew very well, surprised me by their choices, as for some their explanations were deep and personal. As an advisory, we have learned a lot about each other and I am excited to see where this process will lead us over the course of the semester.

Andrea Rhea, Environmental Science Teacher — City Neighbors High School:

In the Pod I advise, exploring interests began with a scavenger hunt of various interests of the school’s staff. The students learned about the interests of teachers and administrators by observing staff interest posters outside of each classroom and office. Students were able to find staff members who shared similar interests and were also able to relate to some of the staff interests.

We debriefed with a discussion about personal interests and how we can incorporate them in our Pod time, student internships, presentations of learning, and other academics areas. This led to students independently completing a graphic organizer to help them explore their own personal interests — which also included current news that stood out to them, fears they had, and unusual curiosities.

With a focus on things students wanted to know more about and were curious about, I conferenced with all of my Pod students about their interest graphic organizers. This focus brought up a lot of interesting questions that students didn’t even realize they had. Together, we identified an interest that they would like to explore further. To help, I asked them each “If you could learn anything this year, what would you want to learn more about and why?”

During the first two months of school, students and their advisors have enjoyed working to determine their interests. In the second quarter, students will start working on a project about the interest they identified. It is our hope that as students continue to identify their interests, the staff can coach them to address individual skills in their projects.

Rushie McLeod, English Teacher and Advisor — City Neighbors High School:

Since interests and independent work were the focus of our Growing Equity Together Summer Institute in Colorado this past summer, I’ve thought to bring it to my students in two ways.

In my English class, students are given weekly in class trackers. Each day there are multiple assignment choices. While students have the ability to choose which assignments they would like to work on each day, there are a certain number of assignments due at the end of each week. The In-Class Tracker works as a way to foster independent working skills and allows me to conference with students individually.

Additionally, with student interests in mind, I’ve decided to forgo teaching assigned novels and allowing the students to choose novels they would like to read based off their own interests. The results have been pretty great for a ninth grade English class. Students are reading and I’ve even had a couple of silent periods because students are so invested in their reading.

During Pod, my students have had to dive deep into their interests. We’ve even taken to Wednesdays being a day where all students will share their interests with the class. Recently, one of my Podsters shared his love of puppetry with his peers. Only good things can come of sharing interest projects and I can’t wait until the presentations of learning in January.

Editor’s Notes: Four additional schools — Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in Bronx, NY; Highline Big Picture in Seattle, Wash.; Winooski Middle/High School in Winooski, VT; and Eagle Rock School — will soon share their Growing Equity Together updates and results with posts similar to this one. Check back soon for those updates.

For more information about Baltimore’s City Neighbors High School, please visit

For information on Baltimore’s City Neighbors High School’s use of Pods, please see

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