This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Just a few years ago, Anthony Rivera thought that college wasn’t for him. He hadn’t completely written off trade school or community college, but thought he would probably just work after high school.
“If I saw myself in college at all, it was not a high institution. I would just take my diploma and work, just make money,” Rivera said.
His plans have changed. Rivera found out in December that he had been accepted to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. With multiple short films under his belt already, he will head to Greenwich Village in New York City and follow in the footsteps of such alumni as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan.
Rivera and his classmates are set to be the U School’s first graduates. They’ve had quite a journey, the guinea-pig class in a school that aims to turn the idea of high school on its head.
As a young teenager in middle school at Mariana Bracetti Academy, a charter, Rivera was anything but a model student.
“My whole life, I grew up with a lot of people who put things on me like, ‘You won’t be nobody, you’ll be a trapper on the corner selling drugs, you won’t graduate, you won’t achieve anything in life,’” he said. “That was the route I was going. They would always see me fighting, getting in trouble with the law, cursing out my mom, getting kicked out of the house. I was just on the streets all the time. … I used to cause all the fights in the school.”
It is difficult to imagine that now. Today, Rivera is confident and thoughtful, driven to change the world and fight for social justice through his films. One of them, a 22-minute documentary called I Am Philly, is about this journey. Focusing on Rivera himself, the film shows the nuanced balance of life in North Philadelphia, the struggles of survival alongside the beauty of having hopes and dreams. The film premiered at BlackStar Film Festival in August, an event that honored Academy Award-nominated director Ava DuVernay. (Click here to watch a trailer for I Am Philly.)
Initially, Rivera wasn’t interested in pursuing film. In fact, if asked about his dream job, he probably would have said “surgeon.” But at U School he connected with Hakim Pitts, who works full-time there as a representative from The Future Project, a New York-based nonprofit that places “Dream Directors” in public schools across the country. Pitts and the other directors focus students on their futures by unearthing their passions and then helping them research opportunities.
Pitts introduced Rivera to documentary film, encouraging him to explore and see what he thought. Down the hall, digital media teacher Josh Kleiman, who also had a film background, taught Rivera how to use a video camera. After I Am Philly had been made, Kleiman saw Rivera’s potential and told him about NYU’s summer program for high school students interested in film. Rivera assumed that NYU was out of his league, but Pitts and Kleiman persuaded him to apply, telling him that there was no downside.
He got in, but still considered the program out of reach because of its steep price tag. More money eventually came through from NYU, but not before the U School community rallied behind a fundraising effort to make sure Rivera could make it to the Big Apple.
After a few weeks at NYU, Rivera had to propose a final project. He planned on making a music video “that was happy, that showed the beauty of where I am from. A Latino narrative that could, you know, change people’s perspective, because you don’t get films like that.”
But hours before meeting with his faculty adviser at Tisch to propose his final project, Rivera found out that his uncle and childhood best friend had just been sentenced to six to 15 years in prison — unjustly, he believes. This unleashed sadness as well as his creative juices. Having grown up with an incarcerated father, he became determined instead to explore and expose a system that breaks up families, separating children from their parents.
So his final project instead became a narrative short film called Black Butterfly about the trauma to children caused by mass incarceration. “The reason I made Black Butterfly was to release my hurt, release my cries, how I felt about Kenny being locked up. … I want to release how I feel about it, but I’m going to do it in an artistic way,” he said. The film was screened at the Angelika Film Center in Greenwich Village. (Click here to see Black Butterfly.)
Rivera characterizes himself as a filmmaker, entrepreneur, and activist, and his story exemplifies the mission of the U School, an innovative public high school in North Philadelphia. The school is unwaveringly student-centered. While students fulfill most of their instructional goals using computers, personal attention from teachers is abundant. Teachers design their own curricula, and assessments are based on demonstrated competencies rather than tests. The result sometimes looks messy, sometimes looks brilliant, and always looks so radically different from traditional schools that visitors and students often struggle to explain it.
“It’s actually hard to describe the school,” Rivera said. “I just don’t know the best words, because on one hand, I’m like, oh, it’s an independent school where students have free time, a lot of freedom, etc. But the way I normally describe it is that it’s an innovative school where students are encouraged to do what they want with their time but also get work done. You start to learn fundamentals of college while you are in high school. It is like a college-based high school.”
For first-time visitors, the school can initially seem cheerfully chaotic, but as the cadence of the day sets in, the delicate balance between structure and freedom becomes clearer. Instead of being organized by grade level, students take classes based on their ability to function independently.
Students are placed in one of three classroom organizations. The most structured classroom model is the “teacher-supported” classroom, which resembles a traditional classroom with direct instruction. The next level, “semi-autonomous” classrooms, function similarly to a teacher-regulated co-working space, where students can sit wherever they choose (often naturally reverting to small groups) and work independently and at their own pace on their assignments. These students receive daily check-ins from their teachers for questions, guidance, and to make sure they are on track. They also have 10- to 15-minute “mini-lessons” of direct instruction each day, and then every few weeks they have one-on-one conferences with their teachers to check their progress. Most students are in this grouping.
The last level is the “autonomous” students, whose experience is similar to a regulated study hall where students must be in school and regularly consult teachers, but not required to attend class lectures and can instead work in designated study spaces without constant oversight. This option is supposed to resemble college classes with work deadlines but less-structured class time, and it is available only to juniors and seniors who have demonstrated the ability to manage their time effectively.
Additionally, students across grade levels work on the same subject units, but with different requirements for their submitted work. For example, all grades may be working on a humanities unit exploring privacy issues and the internet, reading texts related to the subject. But the essays at the end of the unit have different requirements, depending on whether the student is looking to complete 9th-grade-level work or an 11th-grade-level competency.
The one-on-one interaction between students and teachers ensures that students do not fall through the cracks and that they get the personalized help they need, but the expectation is that the student is driving the academic journey, not the teacher. A computer dashboard updated by the teacher daily after their check-ins shows the students’ progress in real time, how quickly they are moving through the units and sub-units, their progress toward graduation, the level of work they need to turn in to receive credit for the course, etc.
But sometimes the hardest part is letting the students fall behind and then being there to help when they figure it out.
“At first I was like, yeah, I can handle all of this. This is great. I don’t have homework. So for the first two months, I didn’t do anything. In my head I thought I was doing things, but then I looked at my dashboard and it was like, ‘Nah bro, you’re not on track,’” Rivera said of his first year. He turned to his classmates, seeing how they were managing the workload (some better than others), and then he turned to his teachers, who helped him come up with a plan to manage his time in a way that would allow him to make up the work.
The result: Students who know precisely what kind of learner they are.
“There are different levels to learning in this school,” said U School senior Peter Dacius, who was in the teacher-supported group last year. “I feel like I still at times get off task and I just need that little boost [of oversight] so I can be where I should be.”
There is flexibility in the curriculum to integrate student passions into the work. For example, when the students had to take something that happened in U.S. history and write a fictional story, or “American myth,” about the event, junior Simone Cuthbert chose the story of Pocahontas because “it in itself is kind of a myth, considering how everyone only knows the Disney version.”
But instead of writing a story, she asked her teacher whether she could try to make a stop-motion video instead. Using the school’s lighting and video equipment, she made her own background set, shot the video, and edited it on the school computers. She not only got credit for the assignment, but she learned a new skill that she was interested in exploring.
This insight into student passions, individual potential pitfalls, the likelihood of procrastinating, the discovery of something new, and the panic of falling behind all add up to an experience that the faculty hopes will better equip these students for the ups and downs of life after high school.
“My charge was to have kids kind of hit that freshman ‘college wall,’ but in high school,” said principal Neil Geyette. The difficulty is that these life lessons can’t be scripted conveniently into the curriculum and it takes some kids more time to get there than others.
“The only way to get to that point is to step back,” Geyette said, and let those failures and panic moments happen along with the dreams.
Darryl C. Murphy
“Without the things we had to do in class, I don’t think I would have made these two films,” Rivera said, referring to the school’s curriculum, the flexibility to explore new skills and interests, and the emphasis on and openness to conversations about social justice. “I’m not going to write a paper about butterflies and roses. I’m going to write about something real. That’s why you see a lot of student works, and it’s like OK, they’re fighting for something, and the school does play a part because the school encourages those conversations.”
Rivera says he would not be where he is today, headed to one of the best film schools in the country, if it were not for the U School, its faculty, and his peers.
“A lot of visitors see the chaos within the school, but when you’re actually a student in the school, enrolled, you start to see the benefit of everything being given to you. … The school itself taught me how to be authentically me.”
Anthony Rivera is screening his documentary film “I Am Philly” at Taller Puertorriqueño (Fifth Street between West Lehigh Avenue and West Huntingdon Street) at 7 p.m. on April 6. Tickets can be purchased for $10 at the door or at this link.
This article is one of three in the final installment of “Recreating School” a project by the Notebook on innovative high schools funded by a fellowship from the national Education Writers Association. Reported and written by freelancer Melanie Bavaria.