It was first-hand experience gained from her 18-year perspective as New York City Schools’ coordinator of gifted and talented programs that inspired Cheryl Hadzmitriou to leave that position and co-found a school based entirely on the best practices she’d observed over the years.Opening its doors to students in the fall of 2007, the Bayside Enrichment and Long Distance Learning (BELL) Academy in Queens, New York, has since gained an international reputation as a unique public middle school that functions like a high-performing private prep school.
The BELL Academy is designed around the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM), an approach based on the research of Drs. Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis of the University of Connecticut.Central to Renzulli’s SEM is a belief that every child has gifts and talents and that instruction should address his or her individual interests and aptitudes.
“We like to say educate children one at a time,” says Hadzmitriou, “and that means differentiating learning and providing students with as many choices and opportunities to succeed as possible.”
STUDENT-CENTERED AND DATA-DRIVEN
The Renzulli approach begins with establishing a data-rich personal profile for every student reflecting interests, learning strengths, and preferred methods of instruction. Accessible to teachers, parents and students, profiles supplement the school’s multiple other methods for collecting key data to help BELL educators target instruction and build on the motivating factors that increase student engagement and positively impact performance. The Renzulli program also includes an extensive library of pre-screened resources, including web sites, software, books, articles, and more, tohelp teachers customize activities for students.
Part of the BELL curriculum is a semester-long, project-based cluster program, where students choose their top three choices from a list of ten at the start of the school year. These courses also reflect teacher interests and strengths, with staff surveyed each year to determine their major areas of interest. Yoga, cooking, quilting, newspaper, drums, Latin dance, woodworking, community service and similar topics are among those from which students can choose.Cluster lessons comprise 90 minutes a week and have no hard and fast lesson plans but are driven by student interest. For instance, in instructional technology specialist Robin Russell’s yoga cluster, students research the history of yoga as well as practicing yoga, and at the end of each semester, crafting products of their choice, which might be a PowerPoint, a movie on the effects of yoga on relaxation, health, and blood pressure or anotherform of personal expression. Says Russell, “Cluster programs supplement the purely academic and add another dimension to students’ daily lives.”
Technology is also harnessed to assist in differentiated instruction at BELL.Throughout the year, Russell works closely with classroom teachers to craft projects that dovetail with lesson units, and empower students with 21st century investigative skills. For instance, Russell’scooperative poetry unit has kids creating their own poetry packets, using the Renzulli library of resources to add graphics from selected web sites, links to resource information, and first-person interviews with authors. “The beauty of Renzulli,” says Russell, “is that it includes tons of pre-screened resources geared to various reading levels so kids can pose questions and explore the web to find the answers to those questions themselves.”
Additional activities to engage students in higher-order thinking skills include such open-ended assignments as identifying and analyzing several ways in which Dr. Martin Luther King influenced civil rights in American life, or researching and creating pie charts to display the different cultures represented by the BELL student population.
Renzulli’s virtual library is also useful for remediation or intervention, as teachers can send kids links to grammar sites, so they can independently complete practice exercises at home. Teachers can also take students on virtual field trips using Renzulli, visiting ancient Greece or exploring different rooms in the White House, says Russell.
EXTENDED FAMILY ATMOSPHERE
A positive and nurturing environment is another element central to student success atBELL, says Hadzmitriou. “Every staff member knows every student by name, and students are nurtured from the time they walk in in the morning until the time they leave at night.”
Indeed, when students struggle at BELL, they may well be assigned morning announcement duty through the school’s radio station to encourage a feeling of self-worth. “Kids who might fall through the cracks elsewhere don’t at BELL,” says Hadzmitriou.
A 2009 district report card captures the special essence of BELL Academy. “From the daily morning announcements made by students to the after school All-Stars [enrichment] program, BELL Academy is a middle school completely focused on ensuring the academic and personal success of every one of its students….Displays of photographs and honors celebrate the accomplishments of students, who are highly fortunate to be a part of the supportive, ‘family-like’ school community.As shared by a parent, ‘At BELL, teachers are not just teachers, they have big hearts and care for our children’.”
COMMUNITY AND GLOBAL PARTNERSHIPS
What Russell terms the “urban advantage” of proximity to hospitals and museums, such as the Bayside Historical Society, the Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of the Moving Imageinject a “real world” element into the BELL curriculum, and offer students exposure to a variety of cultural and scientific influences while providing opportunities to give back to the community.
Students involved in community service clusters raise money for Toys for Tots, Haiti relief, the Ronald McDonald Cancer Center for Children, and assist seniors and homeless people with clothing and food drives.
Internationally, videoconferencing technology allows students to learn about worldwide cultures and issues through ongoing communication with peers in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Italy and other countries.
Today BELL ranks in the 98th percentile on New York State math and English language arts tests, is the number one performing school in the borough of Queens, and oftenreceives700-plus applications for the few student lottery slots it has available each year.Additionally, BELL boasts a record number of students accepted into specialized high schools such as Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and LaGuardia High School of the Arts, which traditionally accept only the top two percent of students.
The 2009 district report card identifies BELL’s partnership with Renzulli Learning as an“outstanding feature” of the school, helping teachers establish individual learning goals for students and enlisting parents as partners to help achieve those goals.
Hadzmitriou talks about special education students receiving honor role certificates, about students making special trips to the office to say good morning to the secretary, and a boy who at his previous school, was absent 130 days in a single year, but since attending BELL was doing “unbelievably well.”
“Come see our school,” says principal Hadzmitriou to a reporter expressing awe at BELL Academy’s innovation and accomplishments. “I guarantee you’ll be hooked.”