On a Monday morning in mid-May, a student stood at the front of her fourth-grade ELA class at Concourse Village Elementary School (CVES) in the Bronx and led her fellow students in a shared reading exercise.
“Now that we’ve read the text, we’re going to our phase one question,” she said. “Which sentence best explains the main idea of the excerpt?”
Seated at tables in groups of four to five, the students pored over the excerpt from The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo while music from the TV show, “Jeopardy,” played in the background. When the music stopped, the student leader returned to the front of the room. “Remember,” she said, “you find the main idea by looking back at the text and the details and thinking, ‘what is this mostly about?’”
The classroom erupted into lively small-group discussions while Raquel Linares, an instructional coach/ELA social studies teacher, walked around the room helping students identify the main idea, which was, “Rob finally opens up his suitcase and lets his father know how he feels.”
This sense of camaraderie and exuberant, interactive learning emanates from every classroom in the school, and is entirely by design—by Founding Principal Alexa Sorden’s design, to be exact. “There’s energy in the building,” Sorden acknowledged. “The school feels good, smells good, looks good, and that’s intentional. I wanted to create a beautiful place for my kids. I want our students to know that we love them and care for them.”
Changing the culture
Sorden had a clear vision when she founded Concourse Village Elementary in 2013. Cultural change and instructional rigor were paramount. “To make real improvement, we needed to transform the culture,” she said. “Everything had to be positive.”
It helped that the principal had an innate understanding of her students’ circumstances. Most of her kids are black or Latino, and live in the high-poverty Melrose section of the Bronx. More than 15 percent of her students are homeless, and 25 percent have Individualized Education Programs.
Sorden, like her students, grew up in a low-income household—in Washington Heights, just north and across the Harlem River from her current school. Her mother immigrated to NYC from the Dominican Republic, and her father, an African-American from Georgia, had only a third-grade education. While Sorden feels grateful to have had a stable home life, she said, “I’m really able to empathize with our children. I understand that there are statistics stacked against them, however, we do not teach with that in mind.”
Indeed, as Sorden began hiring for her new school, she had a litmus test: “I needed to know that teachers believed in my kids,” she said. “In the past, many adults felt sorry for these kids and their circumstances, and tried to make it easier for them,” she said. “I wanted my teachers to know that these kids have grit, that they can do it. ‘Push them,’ I said. “Hold them to high expectations.’ This is how you break cycles.”
Close reading and consistency
Sorden, who earned her master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College, knew that the ability to read on grade level could change a child’s life. A certified reading teacher, she taught in City public schools for nine years, with a focus on close reading, annotating texts, and student discussion. While a teacher, she developed a five-phase process for shared reading, in which the entire class reads and analyzes the same material for 15 minutes a day over a five-day period, starting over the next week with a different text. This approach is now embedded in Concourse Village Elementary’s curriculum.
Sorden’s modus operandi is consistency, which means that all of the students use the same annotation markings and teachers allot the same amount of time for activities. “We move as one,” Sorden said. “No one here arbitrarily runs their own business. We all work smarter because we work together.”
When Sorden talks about working together, she isn’t exaggerating. She visits classrooms daily, and not necessarily to conduct observations. “I’m in classrooms learning beside teachers, teaching beside teachers, and interacting with the kids,” she said. “I have to know my students.”
“I needed to know that teachers believed in my kids.” – Principal Alexa Sorden
Students defy stereotypes
Under Sorden’s leadership, student achievement has soared. In 2016, almost 99 percent of her kids passed the New York State Math exam and 94 percent passed the ELA exam, more than 50 points higher than the citywide average.
Although Principal Sorden is not in it for the glory, she has received plenty of accolades. Not only is Concourse Village a Showcase School, in 2017, Sorden won the prestigious Ryan Award for exceptional leadership for closing the achievement gap in urban K–12 schools. In addition, this year, her first-grade teacher, Marisol FitzMaurice, was a recipient of a Big Apple Award.
Perhaps the best testimonial is the fact that Sorden’s two daughters—Madison, 7, and Mia, 9—attend her school. Two-year old Maison may follow suit when he’s older. How do the girls address their mom at school? “They call me Mrs. Sorden,” she said.
To avoid potential conflicts of interest, her husband is the one who interacts with their daughters’ teachers. “I don’t get involved,” Sorden said. “When we’re in school, we don’t cross the line.” Then, with a touch of humor, she added: “They know that if they ever stop living up to our school’s core values, they don’t come to school.”
This may sound like tough love, but consider that the source is a principal who loves all of her students as if they were her own children.