Awa sobbed in our office. “Can’t you just let me try?” she pleaded.
Awa, an 11th grader who came from Senegal in 9th grade, was begging to take the New York State English Regents exam in January. We told her she’d take it in June when she had completed the coursework for the exam. She left in tears.
When I started our school in 2011,* I thought that the experience of taking a state exam was so valuable that it was worth letting a student try, even if they weren’t 100% prepared.
This approached worked for some students like Jennifer, who initially didn’t pass the Algebra exam in June of 9th grade. However, she attended summer school, asked questions no matter how trivial they seemed, and then passed the exam in August.
On the other hand, Matilde also failed the exam in June, but had a different experience. She came to summer school, but was shy and didn’t want to ask questions. In August, she failed the exam again. The next January she failed again. She started to think she was dumb. Eventually, she passed the exam, but the experience of failing again and again had frustrated her.
This year, our school had a major culture shift: we decided that students would need to demonstrate “test readiness” in order to take an exam. We defined “test readiness” as demonstrating success on a practice exam and in class work, and attending extra tutoring opportunities after school and on Saturdays.
This caused some upset. “Don’t you want me to graduate?” seethed Camila at the 11th grade assembly, when we told her she should wait until June to take a science exam. She proceeded to glare at us for the entire assembly.
But the shift also resulted in clarity: teachers got more specific with students about how to study. Teachers also created the strongest practice exams they had ever made, and then really analyzed the results to pinpoint what they needed to re-teach. More students than ever showed up to after school and Saturday tutoring.
On exam week, several kids still showed up and begged to “just try.”** They were persistent. I knew that part of their persistence was the legacy of my own attitude testing five years ago.
But it was also a reflection of our population of newcomer immigrant students: they are persistent. They want to get ahead and succeed.
Two years ago, a student named Bashir, originally from Yemen, wrote a letter to me, begging to take the English exam a semester early. “I’ll work harder than a donkey,” he wrote. “If you let me take this exam, I’ll give you my right arm.”
Based on the quality of his letter, I allowed him to take the exam. He passed and ended up being able to graduate a semester early.
Our students’ persistence is one of the many gifts they bring to this country. Our school is privileged to help our students channel their persistence, and these days, that task feels more important than ever.
* High School of Language and Innovation is a public school which I started in 2011 under the New York City Department of Education’s Office of New Schools. It accepts newcomer immigrant students from all over the world who have been in the United States for less than 4 years.
** In New York State, schools may not bar any student from an exam who has taken the requisite coursework, and we did allow students to take exams if they had completed the coursework.
All the names of students have been changed.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman