A School That Refuses to Gentrify its Student Body: How Diversity Drives Excellence

By Michael Mulgrew, President, The United Federation of Teachers | Nov 14th, 2016 | CityandStateny.com

A 95% graduation rate. College acceptance letters from Columbia University, Swarthmore, Spelman, SUNY Binghamton and Temple.  A junior class where 96% of the teens have already taken and passed the state English Regents exam.

These are not statistics from one of New York City’s selective, test-based high schools, or from a school in a wealthy suburb. These are the hard-won numbers from Harvest Collegiate, a New York City public high school wedged next to a mattress store on West 14th Street in Manhattan.

Harvest had its first graduating class this past June, and its seniors reflected the city’s diversity: 58% Hispanic, 22% African-American, 11% white, 7% Asians. Their families came from every borough, and from every corner of the globe, from Albania to Brazil, India to Ireland, Mali to Vanuatu. And 64% were poor enough for the students to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Since Harvest does not screen students by academic abilities – it takes all comers – its first class arrived with a range of academic skills, from a few who walked in ready for college-level work to others who arrived reading and writing on a 6th grade level. Yet Harvest’s classroom are heterogeneous, a mix of all abilities sitting next to – and learning from — each other.

Four years later, not only did 95% of that first class graduate, visiting alumni were quick to say their demanding colleges were not a chore because “critical thinking” was now second-nature to them, thanks to their education at Harvest.

Neighborhoods gentrify. So do public schools, and success like this gets noticed by middle school students and families looking for the next “hot” New York City public high school, especially one in Manhattan. Clearly the 1,300 parents and students who came to Harvest’s recent open house recognized something special.

But rather than let the school’s growing reputation tip the student population toward wealthier families, Harvest’s faculty and leadership applied for and won a PROSE grant to explore ways to preserve the school’s diversity. PROSE is a joint-venture between the Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers that allows collaborative schools to adapt some of DOE regulations or union contract provisions.

In this case, Harvest tapped into a PROSE grant through the UFT, which will help broaden student recruitment by expanding the middle schools and communities from which it draws its students; and help the school as it preserves seats for students who qualify for free lunch so the school continues to reflects the economic diversity of the city.

Harvest sees diversity as the engine that drives its academic success, and takes great pride in the rigor – and creativity – of its course offerings. Harvest is one of the city’s more than 40 high schools that have won state approval to set some of their own criteria for graduation. Its staff creates courses outside the box, such as “Artist as Chemist,” as a way to engage a range of student interests and skills.

Students must present original work in English, history, math and science at the end of 10th grade and again to graduate. Their theses have to be presented and defended in a public forum, and could range from a historical research paper or a scientific investigation, to a dissection of the math in a musical score. Seniors must complete four of these performance-based assessment tasks, in addition to passing the state English regents exam.

Part of the story of Harvest’s success is its commitment to provide support that is tailored to each student – from sustained additional help for struggling students to an Open Honors program that allows students to gain additional credits in subjects in which they are strong. Here, special education students do honors and college credit work in heterogeneous classes, giving real meaning to the word integration. All students get the benefit of learning from and with students who are different from themselves.

Harvest is not a “beat the odds school,” a misleading description that often implies a combination of equity and excellence is somehow a fluke that can’t be replicated. Harvest is proof that diversity is a strength and an asset that can be nurtured.

Given the raw divisions of the recent presidential election, Harvest is a model for bringing different people together with the result that all thrive.

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