Academy for Young Writers:
Keeping Their Eyes on the Prize
By Abner Oakes
ISA's Director of Outreach
The nine-year-old Academy for Young Writers in Brooklyn, NY exemplifies the nature of ISA’s successful school partnerships. A shared core philosophy and pedagogy are the foundation upon which the partners build to create and sustain a high performing school. “We chose ISA as our partner,” says Principal Courtney Winkfield,” because we believed in their seven research-based key principles, their concept of school as a connected community of adults and students, and their rigorous, inquiry-based model of teaching and learning within and across disciplines. Their approach to school design was not limited to procedures and schedules, the technical aspects. It was research-based, created deep, sustainable change in every aspect and at all levels of school life, and was comprehensive, not fragmented.”
In keeping with the ISA principle of building relationships and personalization, every student has an adult advisor and a cohort of core content area teachers and a counselor who remain with their same group of students throughout each school year. “Our teachers know our students deeply,” Principal Winkfield emphasizes. This process, called distributed counseling, creates strong, long-term connections between students and their teachers and counselor and ensures that a core group of adults is consistently engaged with students and families throughout each of their high school years. This advisory team is knowledgeable about students’ needs and how to best meet them; they are also able to provide early, effective intervention when required. Winkfield credits the student-teacher advisory process with helping her students and their families successfully navigate the college admissions process, especially in situations where the student may be a first generation college enrollee. “Many educators may not be aware of the powerful body of research that validates the impact of the teacher-student relationship on increased student performance, but we have experienced it first hand,” the principal says, “and know that our students would not achieve as much academically without this strong bond between them and their teachers and counselors.”
The school’s instructional theme is writing, and ISA’s instructional core—including, an inquiry-based, interdisciplinary approach to curriculum and instruction—is integrated into it. “Even though writing is our academic theme,” Winkfield explains, “this does not mean that writing is an isolated activity confined to English classes. Our students continuously write across all disciplines as a tool for generating comprehension and retaining knowledge.” Winkfield shares another example where the school wanted to transition its math instruction from ‘chalk and talk’ to a more inquiry-based approach that would help students become more critical thinkers in mathematics. “The ISA team challenged our thinking and supported us as we effectively deepened our mathematics instruction throughout the school. We were able to move our students’ mathematics learning from memorization and replication to understanding the big mathematical ideas and concepts that foster meaning and relevance across the specific sets of knowledge and skills that they were learning,” Winkfield stated.
After almost a decade of successful operation, Winkfield emphasizes that the staff is vigilant about constantly monitoring progress on key performance indicators and maintaining integrity of implementation of the ISA approach. She points out that ISA’s principle of ongoing organizational improvement is an integral component of their school culture. “We always analyze what we do to see if it works and adjust to continuously improve our policies and practices.” This dynamic leader and her team view the school as an interconnected system of relationships, actions, and outcomes where each decision impacts the school at multiple levels and in a variety of ways. “We always ask ourselves, even at the most granular level, if a decision coheres with the ISA principles, if it supports and reinforces our mission and values, if it accelerates or impedes our progress as a school that prepares all students to succeed in college. We have become quite masterful at diagnosing our own issues and finding the best solutions because of our understanding of these principles and the research on which they are based. I am fortunate to be able to bear witness over time of the effectiveness of the ISA approach. I have deep respect for the work that they have done with us and that they continue to do in partnership with other high schools that are members of our ISA network.”
Courtney Winkfield is the second principal of the nine-year-old Academy for Young Writers and was one of the school’s founding English teachers. In 2014, the Daily News listed the Academy for Young Writers among the top high schools in the NYC Department of Education.