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Passion Fuels Change at Williamsburg Renewal School, Principal Says

By Gwynne Hogan | December 13, 2015 4:49pm
 New principal at J.H.S. 50 John D. Wells is working to bring student' and teachers' passions into everyday curriculum to reinvigorate the troubled school.
New principal at J.H.S. 50 John D. Wells is working to bring student' and teachers' passions into everyday curriculum to reinvigorate the troubled school.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

SOUTH WILLIAMSBURG — Once a vibrant pillar of the community for students and families on the south side of Williamsburg, the historic middle school J.H.S 50 John D. Wells has since struggled with declining enrollment, poor attendance and substandard test scores.

A year ago it was included on a list of 94 failing schools called "renewal schools" that would receive a boost in funding to extend the school day by an hour, add summer learning opportunities, and increase parental involvement and professional development.

Ben Honoroff, brand new principal who began this fall, has "hit the ground running" with the extended school hours, team meetings with staff to talk about best practices and staff visits to all students' homes to get parents more involved in their childrens' education.

Honoroff came to the school after overseeing 10 schools participating in the Department of Education's Middle School Quality Initiative. Before that, he taught history at the ACORN Community High School in Crown Heights. 

In addition to the "renewal school" program, J.H.S 50 is part of the mayor's Community Schools Initiative where the nearby community human rights organization El Puente is paid by the city to organize programming for kids and provide additional support to school staff.

And while it’s too soon to measure the long-term effects of the new initiatives, attendance has improved to roughly 93 percent from 89 percent last school year.

Honoroff credits that to the wide array of elective classes offered in the extra school hour. Dance, crocheting, spoken word, robotics and more have students more excited to be at school.

DNAinfo New York talked to Honoroff about what it means to be a "renewal school," how he's working to improve the school's climate and how he lets the individual passions of students and teachers guide curriculum.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What have the first few months been like as principal of M.S. 50?

We've faced struggles. Our data, our proficiency rates haven't been where they need to be. But I can't imagine coming into a better situation. I'm so excited to be coming on board as principal here. I have a staff that works tremendously hard and I have a dynamic community-based organization with deep roots in the community that's been with the school for 20 years and now is even more aligned and embedded. 

What did you consider when planning for activities in the additional hour of school?

I wanted to use this expanded learning time that we have to build on teacher passions and student passions and add to our school day and develop a rich array of enrichment activities that build on academic skills we want to teach, such as debate.

I left that first day really inspired because the teachers had tremendous amount of ideas, tremendous amount of passion that they wanted to bring. We have debate, we have robotics, we have spoken-word, we have podcasting, we have crocheting, we have video game design and computer coding. This is all part of the expanded learning time. 

It's really essential that the teacher wants to do it and love it and buy in and my teachers really, really do. Teacher after teacher had ideas, "Yeah I'll stay, I want to do a robotics course. Yeah, I'll stay I've always wanted to do crocheting with students."

How did parents and student react to an longer school day?

I was worried on the first day of expanded learning time because we had the school day went up to 2:40 last year and now the school day goes to 4:00, a significant increase in the school day. I was worried that students, they just were not going to stay. I remember telling our dean, "We have to watch out for kids trying to cut out," and not one, not a single student has wanted to leave early because they enjoy their expanded learning time activities. 

We give them choice, we give them a menu and they get to select their top five choices. 

Parents have been super excited. We had zero pushback. Parents are excited to have their students highly engaged. They're excited to have this wide array of activities.

You've put an emphasis on debate — why?

Debate teaches all of the skills that I hope my students will learn: reading comprehension, research writing critically, thinking critically, civic engagement, political consciousness.

I remember as a teacher our debate team lost to a suburban school in a tournament and the students who won were using this argument from Foucault. Back at school, my students came up to me and begged me over lunch to teach them Foucault. It's this external motivator that students really want to succeed and do well. 

At the middle school level, I preach to the students, debate is as much about listening as it is about speaking. It's about hearing your opponent and understanding their argument, taking notes and then refuting that argument. It's all the common core line skills that we're teaching in our classes about identifying arguments, citing textual evidence, using academic language.

All of those are really reinforced in debate. It just makes a lot of sense to have debate be a central piece of our school.

What's been the biggest challenge in the months since you've become principal of M.S. 50?

I feel really lucky that the staff has been very open and welcoming and excited and embracing of new ideas. They've embraced debate. They've embraced expanded learning times. They didn't have to have to a participate or attack it with such passion as they did, but they have. It's just, you feel like there's not enough minutes in the day to do all the work that we want to do. I think that would be the biggest challenge. I just wish the days were longer.