At 8:30 on a Thursday morning, things are hopping at Innovation High, which serves grades 9 through 12. Students quickly pass through metal detectors with what seems like a minimum of fuss. Ms. Redella Gunter, who staffs the front desk, appears to know every one of these kids; she addresses many of them by name.
School colors are hunter green, blue, and yellow; there’s a lot of green in evidence on the painted walls of the corridors, and in some offices.
Posted outside Innovation High School Principal Dr. Wachera Brown’s office are team goals and action plans, which give hints about the academic culture at the school.
One of the most important facets of Innovation is the advisory program. Mornings from 8:30 to 9:05 students check in with their advisors for community-building exercises.
We stopped by to audit these programs and take pictures of students and teachers as they interact during the sessions.
We start with biology teacher Ms. Stacey McKoy, who’s moderating a discussion about manners, which starts with the basics of please, thank you, good morning, good afternoon, and the relative merits of good evening and good night.
In Digital Art, Mr. Eugene Wang goes around the room, sharing the specific goals of some of his students. Justin wants to be more articulate, using a new word every day. Another student wants to become a better volleyball player, another better at basketball, another better at track. They all have the Surface Pro 4, a great device for digital art. One student shows us the updates he’s designing for the flag of PS 38 elementary school.
Math teacher Ms. Priscilla Camacho teaches pre-calculus and geometry. I figured the geometry part because when we arrive at her class, they’re deep into a discussion of triangles. You can tell right away why she was awarded Innovation’s Teacher of the Year. She’s bursting with energy and personality. She looks like a student, but has the commanding presence of a professor. When I disclose that I was terrible at math, she shoots back that I wouldn’t have been so terrible if I’d had her for a teacher. Touché.
We’re standing in the common room when two faculty, easily identified as phys-ed teachers, saunter in. They’re wearing track suits and have that confident, easy gait of the athletically adept. It’s lucky they’re on board for all those kids in Mr. Wang’s class who want to improve their volleyball, basketball, and track skills.
Ready for Prime Time
Dr. Brown put it in a nutshell: “Our mission is to offer students a STEAM-focused, project-based experience to prepare them to be real-world problem-solvers.”
Wow, that’s a mission that most of us could have used when we were in high school. The goal is to create “innovative critical thinkers” who work “collaboratively” and are “college-and-career-ready.”
“We hope students who select Innovation have some type of interest in science,” Brown says. “Most of the areas we provide are around STEAM areas,” she says, meaning Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math.
Currently, there are only about 254 students in the school, which is at 239 Bergen Ave. By comparison, Dickinson High School has about 2,200. “It’s definitely a small community,” Brown says, “because in a small school setting, students benefit from a personalized, individual instruction program that makes personal connections with students.”
The holistic approach is important. “Teachers work collaboratively in order to develop lessons for students that have an interdisciplinary focus,” Brown says. “Many classes connect across content areas,” adding, “Leaders who come to speak to the student body sense their enthusiasm about Innovation, as well as that of staff and teachers.”
At Innovation, the school experience isn’t just about classes, courses, and curricula. “It’s about creating a learning environment,” Brown says. “Everyone works as a team, where feedback from both teachers and students is accepted, so that we can grow in our work.”
Brown, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology as well as a master’s in biology curriculum, is well-positioned to steer the ship at Innovation High.
A relative newcomer to Jersey City, Brown came onboard in April 2016. “I’m still learning the community,” she says. “The staff here is remarkable. They work hard and are supportive in carrying out the vision in regard to innovation. Everyone works as a team and supports each other. The diversity of staff and students is rare.”
Our signal to leave the premises is the most iconic of all sounds for any high school student: The bell rings. As we make our exit, students file out to their next classes.
One of them, Ninth Grade Class President Justin Suarez, said he ran for the office because he wanted to “do good deeds for the school.”
That’s just the kind of attitude that Innovation High School inspires.—Kate Rounds