EPIC Schools: Putting Young Men of Color in the Center of the Design (Part 1)

Harvey Chism
Harvey Chism

This series on Epic North High School, originally published at CompetencyWorks, was based on site visits in 2014 and 2016. See also South Bronx Community High School for another school using the EPIC model.

I’ve visited a lot of schools. I’ve seen confident students before. But the students at EPIC North took me totally by surprise.

Even though they were only in their second month of school, twenty ninth-graders streamed into the library, surrounding me, shaking my hand, introducing themselves, and… networking?
The questions flew at me from all sides. Where are you from? Why are you interested in EPIC North? What company do you work for? Have you met any of the staff at EPIC before? You do, how did you meet Harvey? Then two students sat down next to me with the clear intent of continuing the conversation: Now that we’ve met, what can I tell you about EPIC North?

I wasn’t interviewing students – they were interviewing me! When ninth graders know that they have powerful voices and aren’t afraid to use them, it’s clear that something special is happening.

Changing the Educational Trajectories of Black and Latino Young Men
The story of EPIC Schools starts with the New York City’s Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), founded in 2011 as a public-private partnership to improve the life outcomes of Black and Latino men in New York City. Principally, YMI focuses on the education, employment, health, and justice outcomes of these young men, and serves as a precursor to the national My Brothers Keeper initiative.

As an institutional partner, and with resources from the Open Society Foundation, the NYC Department of Education established the Expanded Success Initiative (ESI). ESI is a multi-year two-pronged strategy. The first strategy involves support for a portfolio of forty high schools that have demonstrated significant graduation power but desire to advance the levels of college and career preparedness among its graduates. Participating schools implement improvement strategies in the areas of academics, school culture, and youth development. The second part of ESI focuses on the creation and launch of a breakthrough high school model that, by design, improves the college and career readiness outcomes of all its students with a particular focus on Black and Latino young men.

Overall, ESI seeks to bring together creative ideas and research approaches to increase the number of African-American and Latino young men who graduate from high school prepared for college and careers. ESI currently faces a two-part problem: increasing graduation rates and making the diploma meaningful. (For those of you interested, sixty-two districts have joined onto the President’s Initiative, My Brother’s Keeper.)

With a three-part theory of action, ESI has highlighted three domains: academics, youth development, and school culture (with an emphasis on cultural relevance). To work within these domains, they’ve created a professional learning community, invested in forty high schools to strengthen their approaches, and established the ESI Design Fellowship.

It’s this last one we’ll focus on most. Through the Department’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness and under the leadership of Vanda Belusic, Julian Cohen, and John Duval, the ESI Design Fellowship brought together nine design fellows. Duval was at the helm as architect/director for the Design Fellowship initiative. (Also worth mentioning is Leonard Medlock, who provided coaching support, guidance, and mentoring for the use of design thinking methods in new school design). Also included in the process was the team that would give birth to the EPIC school model: Tabari Zaid Bomani, Harvey Chism, John Clemente, Brandon Corley, John Duval, Natalie Ferrell, Darius Mensah, Paul Perry, Vadewatie Ramsuchit, and David Weinberg (now principal at EPIC North).

This fall, EPIC opened its three new schools (EPIC North, EPIC South, and Nelson Mandela High School for Social Justice). These schools all share a common model, with a beginning freshman class and plans to add more grades in the coming years. The schools are open to all students, with the assumption that what is going to work for Black and Latino young men is going to work for all students.

The Magic of the EPIC Design

David Weinberg
David Weinberg

I spend every afternoon on the phone with a fourteen-year-old who is struggling to figure out what it means to be himself, be a young man, and to be a young man of color. Adolescence can be a slippery time for any kid, but add on a dad in the criminal justice system, poverty, and the treacherous nature of racial injustice, and it becomes an absolute whirlpool. At a time when our nation is trying to figure out how to improve – greatly improve – the outcomes for young men of color, it’s invaluable to see how the EPIC team has woven six values and nine elements into its mastery-based school design.

As Principal David Weinberg explains, “We aren’t just trying to close the achievement gap. That’s using a deficit model. When we started designing the school, we wanted to have a place where students discover the things that make them special. In this way, we are recognizing students as assets and affirming their creativity and intelligence…something that a lot of schools fail to do.”

This is systematized in a number of ways, including a comprehensive approach to the competencies students are developing (more below) and “selectives” (short programs of study that cover just about anything and everything: resume writing, understanding mental health, technology, and analyzing pop music). A student later described this quality of EPIC as, “We measure ourselves on attainments in two ways: academically and as a person.”

Six Values of EPIC School Design
Accomplishing this dual approach – equal emphasis on academic growth and personal growth – requires a unique school design. From the start, ESI set six values that would help them accomplish this:

  • Empowerment
  • Personalization
  • Inclusion
  • Collective work and responsibility
  • Continuous growth and learning
  • Cultural relevance

And because their goal was to create a school where students flourish (and maintain vigilance against deficit thinking and other traditional assumptions of education), the EPIC team engaged twenty student design fellows from a range of NYCDOE schools to collaborate in the year-long design process. The student design fellows were also especially integral to developing frameworks for the schools’ restorative practices and CORE advisory program.

The result is a nine-part design that makes up the EPIC Schools approach.

Nine Elements of EPIC School Design

  1. Culturally responsive education (CRE) lens with student agency at its core is used in all aspects of school
  2. Competency-based approach with three domains: Academic Knowledge and Skills, Academic and Personal Behaviors, and College and Career Readiness
  3. Digital pathway to personalize learning
  4. Systematic assessment includes emphasis on formative, multiple measures, performance-based unit assessments, and annual Gateway project
  5. Data-driven design to support students, parents, teachers, and youth advocates
  6. Family support and advocacy provides comprehensive supports including Rites of Passage program and restorative justice approach
  7. Early college experiences starts in ninth grade
  8. Workplace learning experiences using apprenticeship infrastructure
  9. Redefined adult roles across EPIC network of schools draws on distributed leadership and investment in culturally competent human capital

From what I can tell, culturally relevant education – connecting learning to the cultural backgrounds and experiences of students – is the heart and soul of the school culture at EPIC.

In order to create a culturally relevant culture and educational program, staff need to know about the cultures of their students and what is happening in their lives. It means being comfortable talking about race and gender, understanding the impact on education, and coming up with ways to eradicate all those “isms” that shape the lives of children and teens.
It means meeting the kids where they are in their development in just the same way we meet them where they are academically.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the EPIC North visit, where we’ll take a deeper dive into the school’s unique perspective.

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