The Boulder Has Shifted at Brooklyn's Urban Assembly Unison School

by cynthia mcccallister

This post is guest authored by Unison School Assistant Principal, Amy Piller.

When Emily Jarrell became the principal at The Urban Assembly Unison School, her first experience in the role of principal, she knew she had a heavy lift in front of her. In fact, reflecting with a couple of staff members one afternoon in the first week of school, she was heard to have said, “Resilience or die.” The experience of heaviness at first felt overwhelming to Emily and all of her staff. But soon it began to take shape metaphorically, and the teachers began to refer to school culture as a boulder that needed to be moved.

The boulder made its immensity apparent in these ways: In its opening year, on average, every child had been suspended twice. More than 92% of students failed the state ELA exam, and 93% failed the state math exam. Students on average made less than one tenth of one point of growth on the Degrees of Reading Power assessment, less than two hundredths of the national average. The school’s VDIR number (Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting System)—a rating system based on the ratio of dangerous incidents to students— was above six, putting it on par with the most dangerous schools in New York City.

But the Unison School didn’t feel unsafe to Emily, where the students were clearly angry, and channeling their energy in negative ways. Students were distinctly disengaged and resistant to learning. And test results and behavior metrics bore out this reality. But Emily and the staff knew these achievement statistics did not reflect the students’ capabilities.

Primary Aim: To Raise Students’ Sense of Self-Competence

The Unison School was founded around the Learning Cultures model of educational reform (see As a committed Learning Cultures practitioner, Emily knew that the implementation of the curriculum model with fidelity would lead to the growth the students needed to make. Hiring a strong instructional team, themselves with significant Learning Cultures experience, Emily and her staff forged into the school year. Every teacher was paired with a mentor or coach that had Learning Cultures experience.

The Learning Cultures model is organized around a system of learning formats that specify certain types of activities students and teachers take part in to support high levels of student engagement and learning. The mission from the get-go was to put the Learning Cultures formats in place. Emily believed that these formats were key to getting the students the learning opportunities they needed. If students could have access to formats, in which they had choices, independence and feedback about their competencies, they would invest more effort into their learning. With more self-competence and agency, Emily knew the students would excel.

Teachers received summer training in advance of the school year on the curriculum model, but this was only the tip of the iceberg of training and support they would receive throughout the year.

For the first couple of months of school, teachers visited one another’s classrooms, participating in lab-sites in order to observe and reflect on how their colleagues ran the formats. Though the content was different across classrooms, the consistency of the formats across grade levels and content subjects allowed teachers opportunities to make critical observations and learn from one another about how to address myriad behavioral and academic challenges in the moment.

Teachers would continue to participate in on-going, rigorous professional development, teaching cooperatively in the formats together, giving one another feedback in action, and learning together ways to help students become stronger agents of their own learning and less ambivalent toward their responsibilities to hold colleagues accountable. Teachers responded by making impressive adjustments to their practice.

The Social Contract

Cynthia McCallister, creator of Learning Cultures, came to Unison during the opening week, and helped flesh out what all Learning Cultures schools refer to as the Social Contract. As part of her vision of the Learning Cultures model, she believed that students needed to understand their rights as students in order to be able to take on their responsibilities. She stood with Emily in front of class after class, telling students about the long struggle through the child labor movement and the civil rights movement to the present time, when every student has a right to a free public education. She presented the NYC discipline handbook, familiar to many students as the document that describes suspension procedures. But Cynthia instead highlighted the sections that delineate students’ extensive rights and responsibilities as being paramount. She brought particular attention to Responsibility #23, which states that students are responsible to, “provide leadership to encourage fellow students to follow established school policies and practices.” From that moment forward, the stage was set for Emily’s team to hold students accountable to holding each other accountable for learning and supporting their classmates’ learning.

One class conversation was not, however, all that it took to shift the school culture. At Cynthia’s recommendation, each class developed lists of the behaviors that got in the way of learning, and made suggestions about what responses were appropriate when students broke commitments. Taking all suggestions into consideration, the school leadership developed a ladder of responses that outlined ways that students would be supported to regulate their behavior and consequences when they failed to do so. 


These conversations and procedures provided the supports needed to cultivate positive behaviors in the majority of the students. But further efforts were redoubled with students who maintained dispositions of defiance and resistance.

For these students, Cynthia recommended individual Interventions, which were essentially a one-on-one version of the Social Contract Talk, but which required students to describe the specific details of their own behaviors that prevented learning and hindered the growth of a positive school culture. These meetings involved as many adults from the building as could be gathered—the student’s teachers, the social worker, teachers, administrators, deans and the student’s family members. Toward the end of the year, students themselves took part in these meetings, as emissaries nominated by their classmates to be Keepers of the Culture and to provide positive support to peers who struggle began participating in interventions. In total, over 20 interventions were conducted, and slowly, even the most defiant and oppositional students began to honor the Social Contract.

During Cynthia’s periodic visits, she gave Emily and the teachers feedback about the implementation of Learning Cultures. She often made critical observations of nuanced behaviors that teachers could easily miss. These typically focused on how circumstances allowed students to be passive in their learning or unaccountable to rules.

Little-by-little, the boulder began to shift. Students began attending to lessons. They began to engage in work-time activities with initiative. They began to hold each other accountable. In one classroom, after almost an entire class period had been taken up to address misbehavior, the quiet kids started their own revolution. They even ran their own intervention with their classmates in which they voiced their objections to behaviors that interfered with learning and proposed strategies for their classmates to work collaboratively to support one another’s learning. After this incident, a staff member wrote her colleagues:

Dear Boulder,

At times you can be stubborn.  But, I need to let you know that we just got a few more hands pushing.  So buckle up.


The Unison School

In classrooms, you could see the growth actually happening. During Work Time students who were once the focus of behavioral intervention meetings now worked in Responsibility Teams with their peers, making good choices about how to meet their collective learning goals. During the end-of-class Shares, these same students stood up and shared their work with their classmates, or gave constructive feedback to their peers.

And in the broader picture, you could begin to see a culture of possibility, where students gave teachers a chance to teach, and defended each other’s right to share with and learn from one another.   

What did this mean in terms of numbers?

21.8% of the students school wide moved from below grade level to grade level or above grade level

59.6% of the students school wide made average yearly growth

58.8 % of the students school wide outgrew average yearly growth

66.6% of the students in the lowest quartile made at least average yearly growth on the Degrees of Reading Power assessment

63.3% of the students in the lowest quartile at least doubled the average yearly growth on the DRPs

Both the 6th and 7th grades overall outpaced the national average on the DRPs 

The Violent and Disruptive Incident Report number plummeted from a 1:6 in 2012-13 to a 1:0.5 in 2013-14 (meaning that for every two children, there was a total of one dangerous incident compared to six incidents per child the previous year).

The median adjusted growth percentile for Unison students in math and ELA compared to NYC schools citywide and to ‘peer’ schools of a similar demographic profile are presented in this 

At some point in the spring, when teachers took time to stop and look back at the path they had crossed, they saw that they had moved the boulder. Students were writing spoken word poetry about a range of topics as heavy as misogyny, on one end of a continuum, to 360 waves on the other. They experimented with the physics of parachutes and brainstormed ways to prove pencils were not alive. And instead of channeling energy into diatribes of resistance towards teachers, students infused the spirit of argument into their discourse about academics.

About the Author: Amy Piller is Assistant Principal at Urban Assembly Unison School. She formerly taught at the Jacob Riis School in Lower Manhattan, where she worked with Learning Cultures creator, Cynthia McCallister, to implement the model in her 6th grade ELA/social studies classes.



cynthia mcccallister
cynthia mcccallister


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