When U.S. News & World Report released its latest edition of "America's Best High Schools," Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Alexandria, Virginia, topped the list for the third straight year. By all accounts, "TJ" is a remarkable learning community. Motivated students investigate everything from engineering to genetics to the social responsibilities that come with an education.
But getting into this public school is competitive. The admissions process screens for students who have demonstrated a high aptitude in math, science, and technology, as well as a willingness to push themselves toward excellence.
The student population is racially diverse: 58 percent white, 40 percent Asian, and 5 percent African American, Hispanic, or American Indian, although few kids come from poor backgrounds. (The poverty rate is 1.3 percent.) TJ shows just how well the public school system can work -- for some students.
Looking further down the list, I noticed that U.S. News highlights several schools where students excel academically despite the challenges that often come with poverty. There's plenty we can learn from their shining examples. (To get a closer look at one of these high-performing schools, see the recent Edutopia coverage of Houston's YES Prep North Central.)
We will know that real education reform has happened when schools like these don't seem like an exception. Clearly, we have far to go before all kids have the chance to attend great schools. So, I decided to check in with a principal whose school didn't make the honor roll -- not yet, anyway. And I found plenty to learn from this up-and-comer.
Welcome to BCAM
James O'Brien is the founding principal of New York City's Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School, an open-enrollment school. That means there isn't an audition or a portfolio required to get in or a competitive application process.
"We're on the lowest tier in the district in terms of admissions," O'Brien says. "All we know about our students in advance is their home address and where they went to middle school." Since fall 2006, when it opened to freshmen, BCAM has added a class a year and now serves 430 students in grades 9-12.
A community high school was just what O'Brien and a small team of colleagues had in mind when they proposed this new public school for the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. A Chicago native and Teach for America veteran with a passion for urban education, O'Brien lives just six blocks from the building BCAM shares with two other public schools.
The neighborhood is gentrifying, but poverty remains pervasive. Many kids have grown up amid violence and gangs. Although there are some high achievers in the mix, many others struggle with basic academic skills.
BCAM offers students an invitation to make meaning of their world through intensive study of arts and media. The three-year arts curriculum is not just theory -- BCAM students are active creators. They publish books, produce films, record music, and stage art exhibitions.
"We think about our students as authentic artists, even if they've never picked up a paintbrush or touched a computer before they got here," O'Brien says.
The results can be stunning, such as a recent production made in collaboration with mentors from the Hip Hop Theater Festival. Seeing this powerful video, in fact, was what first piqued my curiosity about BCAM. O'Brien shared a clip of it when he spoke at the PopTech, an annual conference of prominent thinkers organized by futurist Andrew Zolli.
And that's another thing that got me curious: What was an urban-school principal doing at PopTech?
Way Outside the Box
Many schools look for ways to engage with the larger community. Few work as hard as BCAM at "stepping out of the box," as O'Brien puts it, and into the world. He says he sees the principal's job as "thinking about the business world, the philanthropic world, and the nonprofit world as part of our regular realm." All those sectors are places where he looks to form partnerships and, he adds, "hustle for opportunities" for his students.
BCAM routinely partners with New York City artists, for example, to teach electives. Then there are business partners who provide students with extracurricular opportunities and internships. "These aren't luxuries or fancy add-ons," the principal insists. "It's imperative to give our students these opportunities.
"Not every BCAM grad will be built for college," he adds. "But we want to prepare them all to be healthy and successful adults. It may be an internship, a connection, or just the right handshake that will give them the opportunity they need to have a shot at a stable career."
It was while pursuing one of those connections that O'Brien learned about PopTech and the opportunity to be a Social Innovation Fellow. The fellows program brings together an elite group of change agents from diverse fields, and then supports them with tools, strategies, and expert advice to help grow their ideas.
O'Brien was the lone public school leader in this year's group, and that was fine with him. "It pushed me to think outside the box even more than I do," he says, "and I like that."
One of the wild ideas he's trying to incubate is finding a way for his students to get paid for their creative work. This strategy would redefine the high school portfolio to include a fund they could access upon graduation, along with artifacts of their academic achievements.
O'Brien is quick to acknowledge that BCAM remains a work in progress. This year's seniors will be the first to face the New York Regents Exams. The school also faces heightened accountability requirements that come with being part of the school district's Empowerment Schools program.
It's still a work in progress, but BCAM already offers plenty to like. At regularly scheduled events, students demonstrate what they're learning and showcase what they're creating.
"This is when they bring the ruckus," O'Brien says, his pride audible. They call it the Night to Shine.
What do you think America's Best High Schools should look like? Are there innovative examples in your community that get overlooked by the media? Please share your stories!