SONYC Youth

In mid August, I was given an incredible, if daunting, opportunity: to design an after school program drawing upon CityPathways ideals for a wonderful 5-8 charter school in BedStuy supported by a grant from DYCD's new Schools Out New York City (SONYC) after school expansion.  The timeline was treacherous, as the program needed to start on Sept 10 and as of my engagement on Aug 15, there was no staff, structures, program design, parental notification, nada in place (nor was there much paperwork completed for the required School Age Child Care (SACC) licensing--an enormous lift that engulfed much of my September, but I didn't yet know that.)  This, combined with my knowledge that other funded programs had been working on their program model--and hiring all available talent--throughout the summer, gave me pause.  But give me an available canvas, a budget, and an opportunity to create great learning opportunities for kids and I can't say no.  So I jumped in, trying to gain fast track understanding of the school's needs and opportunities and to map community assets that I could draw upon.  Some of the design constraints:

  • Programming couldn't start until 5:15 in light of a long school day followed by an hour of academic enrichment--a long day for early adolescents whose school day started at 8AM
  • No facilities beyond classrooms were available
  • Limited time was available to identify and onboard staff--and hundreds of other new programs had been hiring for comparable positions all summer
  • Limited access to school leadership to try to integrate with existing instructional model and school culture
  • No knowledge of how many students would end up participating, or who those students would be
  • An unfilled Program Director position--the person who would actually be running the program I was to design (and who would undoubtedly want input into the design)

As such, it became clear that designing 6-8 week cycles of learning would be advisable--both to give kids exposure to different kinds of experiences over the course of the year and to enable experimentation that we could learn from formatively and incorporate into design of the next 6-8 week iteration.  I divided the year into five cycles, working around school vacations (when unfortunately, the school noted it couldn't be open.)  Each cycle would culminate in a Field Trip Friday--an off-site experience connected to the content of the club that would serve as both an incentive for positive participation and an amplification of the club's theme--and a Community Celebration during which every student would perform or present projects in progress for parents and peers, making clear that each club should be production-oriented, that work should be regularly shared, and that families should be actively included in the celebrations.

I determined that a two-pronged staffing structure would be optimal--hiring Teaching Artists with deep expertise in their craft and experience working with middle school youth who would teach a 75 minute club twice a week along with "SONYC Coaches" who would be generalists and work with the kids for 2.5 hours each day throughout the week, developing deep relationships, providing continuity, and being a point of contact for families.  I quickly crafted job descriptions for the SONYC Coaches and prayed to the gods of Idealist.org that there would still be (competent) people looking for after school jobs by this point in the summer.  Meanwhile, I tapped into the wonderful HiveNYC network to identify high-quality organizations that might have teaching artists available to work with the school, holding my breath that the tight timeline (starting in three weeks!), the timeslots, and the budgetary constraints would be feasible.  I was gratified that many made themselves available to explore, including Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, MakerState, The LAMP, and YMCA's MVP Teen Fitness Challenge, as well as some wonderful nonHive orgs like NYC Urban Debate League and Teachers and Writers Collaborative.  

The most fortuitous find of all was Rozz Nash, founder of the Brooklyn Performing Arts Intensive who had lived just blocks from the school for many years and connected me to a cadre of wonderful, road-tested teaching artists.  Despite having just relocated to Oakland with baby twins, Rozz moved mountains and made magic to develop a repertoire of possible programming with me (Hip Hop, Yoga, Voice,  Drama, Martial Arts), to line up talented folks who could make the schedule work. and to be an all around dream liaison.  

Despite the constraints of the program, there were some things I refused to compromise on. One was that there be an Activity Fair to kick off the program, entice students to join, and provide "ten minute tastes" of each Teaching Artist's offerings in small group rotations so that students could make informed choices about what they wanted to sign up for.  Committed as I am to creating a "marketplace of middle class opportunities"--not shoehorning students into whatever program might be available--I wanted to ensure that 1) there was a wide variety to choose from (we ended up being able to offer 14 different options over the course of the week); 2) students would gain exposure to multiple kinds of clubs; and 3) students would get their preferences to the extent possible.  I informed prospective Teaching Artists that we in fact couldn't make a solid commitment to hire them unless we had enough students sign up for their Club--a good way to ensure that they 'sold' the Club well to kids in their 10 minute tastes, and a good way of underscoring that kids were to be at the center.  

I made cool posters (or as cool as I can make posters) to mount throughout the halls during the first day of school--and made sure to note that there would be pizza.  And to pray.  Thankfully, the poster-pizza-prayer combination seemed to do the trick.  Given that our funding was contingent on getting 90 students to commit to attending school until 6:30 PM each day--adding 540 additional hours of learning time of their own volition, and given that there were only 116 students registered in total on the first day of school (numbers subsequently increased) meaning that we would have to attract more than 3/4 of all kids, and given that the school had not offered anything remotely akin to this before, I was very nervous about whether any students would show up at all.  But come they did, in droves, and they were remarkably engaged throughout and well behaved in progressing through their 10 minute rotations.  The energy throughout the Activity Fair was high (especially over eight hours into a rigorous day at a "no excuses" charter) and extremely positive.  I had students fill out preference sheets ranking their top choices for each day as well as telling me a bit about the things they enjoy doing.  While some question whether early adolescents really know what they enjoy, every single one of the 110 students who filled out a form listed at least a few things they enjoy doing (true, some entailed eating and sleeping but hey, it's a starting place.)  And while some (including me) question whether middle school students would choose to commit 540 hours to an untested set of activities when they could otherwise be just hanging out, the students voted with their feet for this SONYC program.

And then the fun began--I hadn't quite realized how complex it would be to program 110 students into three clubs per cycle, prioritizing their preferences as well as ensuring that they had a rich mix of experiences over the course of the week (i.e. inclusive of arts, STEM, and movement) and that each club had a reasonable number of students with a balance of gender and grade span.  Ideally, I'd have built an algorithm for this (or had my good and talented friends at Thoughtworks, where CityPathways is incubating, develop an algorithm) but I used a good old Excel spreadsheet and elbow grease.  About 60 hours of elbow grease.  It was akin to a five dimensional game of chess, and each adjustment had a ripple effect on everything else.  It didn't help that new forms came in over the course of doing the programming, handwriting wasn't always clear, Teaching Artists' availability shifting entailing schedule reconfiguration, the (surprising) overabundance of students entailed creating two new clubs ASAP--and trying to figure out what students would be most interested in them though they hadn't been on the preference sheet.  "Clubbed" was how *I* felt in trying to configure the clubs to optimize everything.  But there's no satisfaction sweeter than getting all the puzzle pieces into place.

Except getting all the students into place.  The first full day of programming arrived, which coincided with the very first day for the Program Director, the SONYC Coaches, and the Teaching Artists, making for a very challenging first day from a logistical standpoint.  Figuring out how to pick up students from different classes at the end of the day and get them first into their Academic Enrichment class and then to their assigned clubs in different rooms and configurations was messy--but once they got into their clubs, it was marvelous.  I felt so happy gazing into each room, seeing students on their feet (or in downward facing dog in yoga, or in ginga crouch in cooper, or banging on bucket drums in Rhythm and Dance, or huddled in groups making LED-fueled greeting cards in MakerState.)  Consistent sleepless nights and Excel-induced eyestrain were all worth it.

Were this to be a full CityPathways prototype, after two cycles of exploration, students would start to "concentrate" in pathways of greatest interest to them, taking on progressive levels of challenge and responsibility and, when possible, increasing the amount of time they spend offsite.  But the mandates of the SONYC program, combined with the length of the school day, combined with the Program Director's priorities, make this unlikely. Still, it's provided a tantalizing taste of what's possible for CPaths, and I look forward to future opportunities to prototype additional elements.

My role onsite with the program itself winnowed down after the first weeks (though my time on the SACC license metastasized...) so returning for the first Community Celebration in late October was particularly thrilling.  Given that it was their first event of this kind, and just seven weeks into programming, I was super-impressed by the kids' enthusiasm and engagement, and by how respectful and supportive they were of one another, giving huge rounds of applause for all the students who presented from other clubs.  You will be too:

From yoga asanas to hip hop sequences to agile improv sketches to spoken word soliloquys to a hip rendition of "Hallelujah" to martial art displays, it was impressive to see how much the students had grown.  And to know how much more seriously they'll take their "clubbing" in the next cycle now that they've had a taste of what it's like to perform publicly and be celebrated by peers and parents.

Kudos to the de Blasio administration for making this possible and to the staff and families of the school, and the SONYC Coaches and Teaching Artists, for making this work.