Four second-grade boys at Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx are lying on a rug, kicking their legs in the air as gentle saxophone music plays over a classroom speaker. But their teacher, Mr. Lozada, doesn’t tell them to sit up straight or stop wiggling: They can wiggle all they want, as long as they focus on the day’s math lesson on skip counting.
In another part of the room, a girl moves to the whiteboard to write up her solution to a math problem and several others work on iPads, while a co-teacher and a student teacher circulate around the room to help.
At first glance, the fluid classroom structure contrasts with some of the conventional wisdom about what it takes to learn at a high-poverty public school ranked higher than nearly 96 percent of elementary schools in New York City—results similar to those for the top-performing “no excuses” charter schools where strict rules and regimens are credited with success.
Instead, at Concourse Village, a combination of high expectations for students, a flat reporting structure that places a premium on teacher empowerment, and an innovative literacy-first approach in all subjects are helping the 361 students excel. Eighty-eight percent of students passed English and math state tests in 2018, more than 40 points higher than the citywide average, and in 2018, the school was awarded a Blue Ribbon for Excellence from the U.S. Department of Education.
Part of the school’s effectiveness stems from a belief that all students can learn when given access to both high-quality teaching practices and a supportive and safe learning environment, says Principal Alexa Sorden, a former teacher whose children also attend the school. Every morning, teachers greet children with hugs and handshakes as they arrive at school, scan for any signs of trouble, and intervene accordingly.
“We are located in the poorest congressional district in the nation. For a long time that was used as the excuse as to why success wasn’t happening,” said Sorden of the students, 15 percent of whom are homeless. “As a leader of a school, I don’t have conversations about whether a student has an IEP or lives in a shelter—I don’t believe those things stop you.”
Getting on the Same Page
The school wasn’t always a success story.
In 2013, Sorden reopened the elementary school after its predecessor was shut down for poor performance and disrepair.
“Previously, there wasn’t any consistency,” says Sorden, who grew up in nearby Washington Heights in a low-income household. “I needed everything to be aligned—from the furniture to the language—so the children could have a sense of predictability and feel safe.”
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When the same first and second graders returned for Sorden’s first fall on campus, they were greeted by a freshly painted building, new modular furniture, and new teachers. Part of the transformation included a shift in leadership that gave teachers more autonomy. A flat leadership structure—Sorden is the only administrator on campus—encourages Concourse Village staff to learn from each other and trust that they know what’s best for their students.
Using a carefully choreographed procedure called intervisitation, Sorden pairs off teachers with complementary strengths and weaknesses. For six weeks at a time, these pairs, or “growth partners,” visit each other’s classrooms once a week for 15 minutes to observe. Afterward, they meet to offer feedback in the same format that they teach kids: TAG (tell something you like, ask a question, and give a suggestion).
When Lizzette Nunez, a fourth-grade English and social studies teacher, came to teach at Concourse Village she noticed that there “was a difference in the climate.”
“It wasn’t ‘Close your door.’ It was ‘We are a team; we are going to help you; we are going to work together. If I have a best practice, I am going to share it with you’,” she said.
A Literacy-First Approach
To establish effective practices in the school, Sorden drew on her own nine years of experience as a classroom teacher and literacy coach, when she developed an approach called Collaborative Reading, a blend of choral reading and close reading.
In the model, students read portions of new, challenging grade-level and above-grade-level texts aloud together every day to improve vocabulary and boost reading proficiency. Then, they answer questions in small groups following the MACAS method (main idea, annotation, comprehension, author’s purpose, and summary) to demystify the often-opaque process of analysis in a shared, safe space before trying it on their own.
The school also emphasizes that literacy skills should be taught in all disciplines. Every class, from art to math, focuses on close reading and reflective writing to build students’ critical thinking about texts.
“I was prepared because the teachers taught me well,” says Kianna Beato, a CVES graduate and current seventh-grade student, who cites techniques such as annotation and rereading in both math and English as boosting her confidence and ability. “I knew there was nothing to be afraid of in a different school.”
In Yasmin Al-Hanfoosh’s class, Mozart is playing as third graders work in groups of six on close reading of scientific text. Al-Hanfoosh directs students to look at words that are in the prompt—“What are magnets used for?”—that are also in the text to find the main idea in the passage. When they finish, they go to a station and practice finding the main idea on their own in a new article.
In math classes, all students follow a set of five standard steps when they solve math word problems: annotate the problem; think of a plan to solve it; use a strategy to solve it; describe how it was solved using labels and math language; and finally, make connections by identifying patterns and rules.
“It’s important because their reading skills are going to improve,” explains Blair Pacheco, a math and science teacher. “They are honing in on specific words, so it’s going to help them get the gist and really understand the content of what they are reading.”
A Culture of High Expectations
The focus on literacy has even extended to developing a deeper understanding and appreciation for art.
In Courtney Watson’s second-grade art class, students discussed sophisticated concepts like how color conveys mood in artist Romare Bearden’s The Block and Edward Hopper’s Railroad Embankment, and how mood connects to understanding features of rural, urban, and suburban communities. Afterward, they applied the themes to their own pieces of artwork.
“A text can sometimes be very intimidating, especially for a struggling reader or an English language learner,” said Watson, referencing the student demographics. “Art is a universal language—every child can read a piece of art.”
This interdisciplinary approach has pushed many Concourse Village students above grade level in reading and math proficiency, including students who started at the school knowing little to no English. Notably, English language learners and students with disabilities, who number roughly a quarter of the student population, score higher than general education students on both math and English language arts state tests.
“We are a community—that’s a true statement,” says second-grade teacher Richard Lozada, who grew up near the school. “I have support; I can go to anyone. It’s making people feel very comfortable to ask what is needed and learn from each other.”
Schools That Work
In 2013, Principal Alexa Sorden, a former teacher and literacy coach, took over Concourse Village Elementary School in New York City after its predecessor was closed due to poor performance and disrepair. When the 361 students—nearly all of whom came from low-income households—returned to school that fall, they were greeted with a renovated building, new teachers, and high-quality instructional practices in every classroom.
Under Sorden’s leadership, the pre-K to 5 school has blossomed. Using a flat leadership structure—Sorden is the only administrator—teachers are empowered to learn from and support each other and share accountability for student outcomes. An innovative, literacy-first approach helps students develop foundational skills in every subject, from English language arts to math and art.
- The school was ranked better than 95.8 percent of all elementary schools in New York City in 2017.
- In 2018, 88 percent of students scored advanced or proficient on the New York State exams in both math and English language arts, more than 40 points higher than the citywide averages.
- The school received a Blue Ribbon Award for Exemplary Performance in 2018.