Seated at a cafe in Fishtown, Argelis Minaya-Bravo was overwhelmed by the prospect of starting her senior year.
“I’m sorry, I just had a reflection sort of moment there,” she said.
But unlike many students her age, it isn’t so much the unknown future that makes her pause. It’s the realization of how far she has come.
“I’ve changed so much,” said the 17-year-old. “I feel like I know who I am now, and it’s weird to say, because I struggled with that a lot.”
Minaya-Bravo is a student at the U School, one of eight high schools in Philadelphia’s Innovation Network. All of the network's schools are committed to the uphill battle of reinventing the traditional high school to improve student success.
At this moment, she had only recently returned from a summer program at Harvard, where she took college-level classes with students from around the country. There, she got a taste of what could be in store for her after graduation — professors and office hours, a heavy reading load, and dorm-style living.
“I was so scared. I was really, really scared. You know, it is Ivy League and it’s known worldwide,” she said. “I thought I was going to feel just really uncomfortable and not be able to combine with the environment there because of where I come from and stuff like that.”
Minaya-Bravo is from the Kensington neighborhood of North Philadelphia, which she fondly refers to as “K&A” for the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny. It's a neighborhood that recently made headlines as the economically depressed center of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis.
The first few days of the summer program were tough. One of her fellow students complained about the color of her new Mercedes, a gift. Another student tried to make conversation by asking her “what are you?” in an attempt to discern her Afro-Latino heritage.
“I guess they didn’t know how to properly ask where I come from, so a lot of them assumed I was African American. … They didn’t know what Afro Latina was,” Minaya-Bravo said. There were certainly times when she felt out of place.
One student tried to connect with her by saying he’d seen the GoFundMe page that she had created with her teacher to raise enough money to get her to Harvard. Her classmates had helped her make a video, and her friends and teachers had spread it like wildfire so that, within a day, all the money had been raised.
“The whole school just worked to get it out there,” she said. “It went crazy.”
But in Cambridge, Mass., she was with a whole different group of people and she felt like the only student who had to raise money to get there.
“Their problems were so minimum compared to what Philly kids go through. … It was really hard to see that kids my age have it better and easier. It’s one thing to talk about classism, and then it’s another thing to see it in your face.”
But it didn’t take Minaya-Bravo long to find her group and her groove. “It took a little bit, but I got it,” she said. In the end, she had “the greatest time.”
After finding a group of peers, she started to focus on the work. The college class setup, with little oversight from professors, who simply trust that students will get the work done, was its own culture shock for many of the students. That was true even for some whose parents could afford to give them a Mercedes — who were used to rigorous, highly structured classes and extracurricular activities.
“A lot of them weren’t used to being that free and holding yourself more accountable to your own work, and turning some stuff down so that you could study, or do stuff like that. But with the U School, I was totally used to that because that has been my whole high school experience,” she said. Being on her own, prioritizing when to socialize and when to study just was not a big deal to her.
“I was used to that, but a lot of them weren’t. … Their schools were really, really strict.”
At Minaya-Bravo’s high school, students are split up by degrees of autonomy rather than by grade levels. The U School lifts up students’ ownership of their education in all of its many forms above everything else. She has earned the right to be in the fully autonomous group, where most of her work is done independently in consultation with her teacher but without constant oversight.
Over the last four years, Minaya-Bravo and her classmates – the school’s first graduating class – have learned not just history and biology, but a great deal about themselves.
Like many students in that first class, she ended up at the U School by chance. It was brand new; no one had heard of it. The principal, Neil Geyette, had come to her middle school to make a pitch to the 8th graders for the three new Innovation Network schools that were opening that year.
They heard his earnest pitch for a place that promised a curriculum based on projects, not tests, and did no less than re-conceptualize high school. Ultimately, although that lofty vision was nice, it was secondary to the ideas that it was an alternative to their “neighborhood school” and that it wasn’t going to have a uniform.
Her grades from middle school were not stellar. Neither was her behavioral track record. “I got by with C's and D’s and some B’s. I was bad; I just lost my way. I had a lot of stuff going on at home, so when I used to come in to school, I didn’t connect with anything that was going on in school. I just felt isolated.”
Minaya-Bravo had a tense relationship with her mother, who struggled to pay the bills, and she was angry at her father for being incarcerated and leaving her when they had always been close. She had little clarity about whether and when her life would be more stable.
“I was rude. I was so angry. ‘Can you be consistent for five minutes, please?’ That was my constant battle with myself. Why was this happening to me? Why couldn’t I be a normal kid and have both my parents in my life? … My life was just all over the place.”
With everything else going on, school was not her top priority. “None of the work mattered," she said. "It was just dumb. I had bigger stuff going on, you know? So stupid reading questions and stupid essays, it was just so irrelevant in my life. … I felt as though nobody got me, so I would lash out. I would throw chairs at teachers and stuff like that, because they just assumed a lot. If you don’t have the homework done or if you have bad grades, they just generalize you to be this bad kind of student.”
Even though she had had to test into her special admission middle school, not one adult asked her what was happening in her life. “Nobody really seemed to care; nobody noticed. Even though my problems were my own, I guess I needed somebody to acknowledge them or something. Just like ‘hey, it’s OK.’”
She knew she had the potential to be better, but she was spiraling. Her grades and behavior in middle school came with consequences. After applying to a handful of citywide admission high schools, she was rejected by them all. She was headed to her neighborhood high school, then Kensington International Business High School (now part of Kensington High), which had a bad reputation among her peers, until a letter came in August from the U School.
'Our first batch of pancakes'
A few weeks later, Minaya-Bravo walked into one of the two brand-new schools sharing a shuttered elementary building at Seventh and Norris Streets.
The first two weeks were spent “unschooling.” All the Innovation Network schools shun irrelevant worksheets in favor of projects that are connected with real-world learning. But the transition for students, most of whom spent years in traditional classrooms, is steep.
In small-group workshops, teachers “would ask you stuff about yourself, like what kind of student are you, what do you like to do, how do you like to learn, what do you expect from your teachers,” Minaya-Bravo remembers. “By the first week of school, I was getting to know myself, what kind of student I was and why I was the way I was.”
She was already building relationships that she had never experienced in her four years of middle school.
No one had ever asked her before what she wanted to do in the future, but she liked thinking about it — “What do you want to do with your life? What is your dream? What wakes you up in the morning? What keeps you up at night? At the U School, that’s what it was all about: dreaming, and looking to make that happen.”
But exploring interests and pursuing dreams requires taking a risk.
For the U School principal Geyette and his teachers, the dream was to build a new school that was centered on students in every possible way. That meant testing the model they had designed, trashing what didn’t work, redesigning along the way, and a lot of ad-hoc problem-solving.
For students, that first year was both a period for individual self-reflection and for the creation of strong, almost family-like bonds in the face of loosely organized mayhem. At the end of the two-week “unschooling” period, students got to choose their “possi” — what the U School calls advisory. They chose the teacher they best connected with and would stay in that teacher’s possi for all four years of high school.
Like the advisory programs in most Innovation Network schools, “possi” is the base molecule on which the entirety of the U School ecosystem is built. Students (and teachers) are fiercely protective of the one period a day when they have possi. Some possis play ice-breaker games, others have restorative circles. Some are chill, while others are hyperactive. But all of them are organic and built over time.
In a complete reversal of her middle school experience, these bonds among students, teachers, the counselor and the principal were, at a certain point, the only thing keeping Minaya-Bravo at the U School.
“I saw the vision of the school in the long run,” she said, but the structure wasn’t there. “I don’t know, it was just painful to see it not working, because it hit the point where, in freshman year, it wasn’t working. It wasn’t even working for me. I’m not saying I’m the perfect student or whatever, but I was trying to see the model, and at some point, it was just like, ‘I can’t function here.’ The model was constantly changing.”
“It’s been so many redesigns. I can’t even count how many,” said Maggie Stephan, the founding special education teacher at the U School. “But it goes back to reflection and saying, ‘Is this working?’ If no, it’s not working, let’s redesign it.”
While tough on the kids in that inaugural class, that chaotic first year had a purpose. Geyette fondly calls that group, including Minaya-Bravo, “our first batch of pancakes.”
She, like most of her classmates, came back the second year, realizing that even though the structure was constantly changing, this was where she would be given the space to find her path. Not only were her teachers and staff constantly taking risks, failing, and trying again, they were also encouraging her to do so.
The opt-out campaign
In February 2016, Minaya-Bravo was in the second semester of her sophomore year.
The school had found a rhythm that worked. The teachers had ditched the original, purchased curriculum in favor of designing their own, one better-tailored to the students and the school’s mission. By then, the major kinks had been worked out and the school was running more smoothly.
But another change was coming, seemingly minor, but all the way from Harrisburg.
On Feb. 3, 2016, Gov. Wolf signed a bill to delay implementation of the Keystone exams as a graduation requirement until the 2018-19 school year. That meant Minaya-Bravo's class of sophomores would not have to pass the English and algebra exams in order to graduate.
Although most students in the state took the test anyway — it is a significant data point for individual schools and districts to track overall achievement — Minaya-Bravo wasn’t so sure this testing was a good idea.
“Of course we were all planning to take it, because we needed it as a high school requirement, but when [Wolf] said that we didn’t need it, I was like, wait a second. Why are we going to waste so much time? We were all super nervous about [junior year] and SAT prep and stuff like that, so we kind of wanted to … start SAT prep in sophomore year so that when we go to junior year we would be a little bit ahead. That’s what we wanted to do during those days. [Instead] we were taking the Keystones, even though it wasn’t a requirement,” she said.
So she started doing some research, a skill that she had honed in her classes.