Two Engaging NYC High Schools: Maker Academy and iSchool

Students collaaborate at Maker Academy.
Gerry Irrizary’s makerspace at Maker Academy, Manhattan

In Gerry Irrizary’s maker lab (featured image), young designers use 3D printers to prototype sneaker insoles, fashion designer skateboards with laser cutters, and implement the latest strategies in user interface to plan new mobile apps.

The lab where teen dreams come to life is on the fourth floor of a city block-sized austere 1970s school building next to the New York City Police Department in Lower Manhattan. The lab is the heartbeat of digital design pathway at the Urban Assembly Maker Academy (@UAMakerNYC), a school founded in 2014 with support from the Carnegie’s Opportunity by Design grant program.

UA Maker Academy, Manhattan

Maker is one of the first schools in NYC focused on design thinking and mastery-based learning. The Maker staff “believes the world needs problem solvers who can find and solve challenges to create positive change in a world where change is the only constant.”

The hands-on school serves nearly 400 diverse students. About eight in 10 live in or near poverty.

Freshmen take a foundations class that is part coding, part design. It helps them choose between the digital media and computer science pathways.

Founding Maker Principal Luke Bauer has been a secondary teacher and administrator for almost 20 years, starting in Kansas City.

Maker Principal Luke Bauer with Jacob, founder of the Knuckleheads brand.

Maker is part of the Urban Assembly network of 22 small NYC secondary schools “with compelling themes, strong partners, flexible hiring and innovative teaching practices.”

Visiting other schools, conducting instructional rounds, and sharing problems of practice are some the benefits Bauer appreciates about the Urban Assembly network. Bauer conducts similar round with his teachers at Maker. Teachers present to each other at the end of the year.

Students in the computer science pathway learn to code in Python. The day I visited, students were working with an industry partner on programming a lighting show for an evening fundraiser. The partner, Stacks + Joules, trains young people for careers in building automation.

The facility is shared with three other schools including Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management, Manhattan Early College School for Advertising and the Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers. The four principals started at the same time and developed a collaborative relationship toward facilities sharing.

Community Connected Challenges at NYC iSchool

In a fifth floor Chelsea walk-up, Isora Bailey leads a small high school where young people learn how to imagine, investigate, innovate, and influence.

The NYC iSchool just celebrated their eighth graduating class–and they stay in touch. “Our alumni are motivated, curious people who can advocate for causes they care about,” said Bailey.

Every quarter, students engage in a challenge-based module that results in a product valuable to the community. For an econ module, students stand up a restaurant. A module on climate justice looked the historical causes of devastation in Puerto Rico. Another module considered the economic supply chain of t-shirts (inspired by the Planet Money T-shirt project).  By graduation, students have completed 16 challenges.

Across the curriculum, “there’s a lot of writing with purpose,” said Michelle Leimsider, founding faculty member and assistant principal. “We focus more on skills than content,” she added. Everywhere you look, students are reading and writing. (My favorite example is the hallway reading nook with a faux fireplace (above image).

The 465-student school is diverse by design. At least 60% of its incoming freshmen will live in or near poverty. “We’re stronger the more diverse we are,” said Bailey.

Students reading and discussing Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

Students at iSchool choose an area of focus that includes a sequence of courses, a couple college level courses and a senior project. The opportunity to develop a focus provides learners with the ability to dive deeply into topics of interest while developing skills that prepare them for college and careers.

Online learning helps iSchool students prepare for New York Regents exams typically beginning with Global History and Geography at the end of their first year.

A strong advisory system is at the heart of iSchool culture and academic success. Students meet with their advisors three times a week. Seniors have internship options. Some choose to student teach at the school.

These two schools ask young people to do work that matters. They are intentional about serving low income students–and they do it well, with intellectual cultures, strong supports, and sustained relationships. Add iSchool and Maker Academy to your list of high schools to visit.

For more see

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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