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Multiple Choice

Leslie Blatteau’s senior seminar was abuzz one morning this April. Students sat clustered around six rectangular tables, chatting as they waited for the lesson to begin. Blatteau strode to the front of the room, all business in a white polka-dot button-down and black high-top sneakers. “Welcome. We’re going to get started.”

Two students in the front row sat on their phones, texting. “Folks, I need your focus this morning,” she said, addressing the room at large. At another point, two students in the back chatted away. “Zach and Victoria, one mic, please,” she said firmly. After running through a rubric on introductory paragraphs, she passed a sticky note to each student. “Tell me what you need,” she said, “and tell me what you’re straight with.” Then, the students fanned out to the Dell computers lining the periphery of the room and sprang into action. Each was working on a six- to eight-page research paper on an international human rights issue.

Blatteau teaches a senior seminar on law and political science at Metropolitan Business Academy (MBA), a magnet school located just south of Wooster Square. While traditional public schools in New Haven only admit students from the immediate city, magnet schools also admit students from surrounding suburban districts via lottery. With twenty such schools, New Haven has the largest magnet system in the state. But unlike charter schools, magnet schools are governed by state education standards and held accountable to New Haven’s Board of Education, meaning that they face the same curricular restraints as traditional public schools.

MBA, though, is different. Classes here, in contrast to the vast majority of New Haven’s schools, are not sorted by academic ability. Judy Puglisi, the school’s principal, said she views the practice of tracking based on perceived ability level as the product of bias. “Often, children who are viewed to have negative character traits don’t get tracked appropriately due to adult biases,” she wrote in an email. “If a kid has to babysit and doesn’t have time for homework after school, this child may be assigned to a lower track. The positive aspects of a non-tracked room include bringing diversity of thought into the room, challenging stereotypes and biases, and improving instructional pedagogy.” One student in Blatteau’s course had transferred from New Horizons School, a transition school for at-risk students, at the start of that year, and was writing his first-ever research paper for the course. He had chosen to research child exploitation at United States-operated factories in Sierra Leone.

At MBA, students receive traditional grades, but most of the emphasis is on process; teachers provide extensive feedback emphasizing revision and long-term improvement. The research paper Blatteau’s students are working on will culminate in a social justice symposium in May, where they will present their findings to an audience of parents and community members. “Even if the outcome isn’t an exemplary paper, the student’s identity changes as a result of going through this process of researching and writing,” Blatteau said. “The student has internalized what it takes to write a research paper; they see themselves as a social scientist.”

Eighty-five percent of MBA’s students are of color and its faculty is almost all white, making the racial dynamics of the classroom a focus for teachers. “Teenagers naturally question authority figures because their sense of justice and their sense of right and wrong is on overdrive,” Blatteau said. “We try as majority-white teachers in this school to not see outspoken black and brown teenagers as a threat to us, but as people who are trying to make the world a better place.”

MBA is a “trauma-informed school,” providing intensive clinical support and counseling for students based on their individual needs. Puglisi, noting that students who exhibited behavioral issues were often dealing with outside stressors, started a weekly after-school drama club for students with high rates of absence. She then helped develop a course called “Alive,” taught by a history teacher and a trauma clinician, that engages with social justice issues, much like Common Ground’s senior seminar. Now, a team comprised of a social worker, six social work interns, and two trauma specialists hold weekly case management meetings and develop plans to help individual students.

MBA’s approach — project-based, non-tracked, trauma-informed — is the product of over a decade’s work. Blatteau and Puglisi met at Connecticut Scholars, a now-defunct New Haven school for ninth and tenth graders, in 2007, where they began to develop the approaches that now inform MBA’s core philosophy. “This common vision has been systematized and integrated into all aspects of the school community,” Puglisi wrote, including scheduling, allocating funding, supporting students, tracking academic progress, promoting student leadership, and hiring staff. There’s a reason few public schools look like this: it’s extremely difficult to do. But Blatteau and Puglisi’s work demonstrates that while innovation may be more difficult to implement at a school like MBA than at a charter school like Amistad or Common Ground, it’s abundantly possible.

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