Dispatches from Great Classrooms: Ruskin, Florida

This spring, we’ll be doing something we’ve never done before on the TNTP blog: taking our readers inside excellent public school classrooms where students—many of them low-income and minority students—have access to challenging content and fantastic instruction. We wanted to know what it feels like to be a student in those classrooms. To find out, we needed to go back to school ourselves.

Last week, we showed up at seven a.m. to Earl J. Lennard High School in Ruskin, Florida, outside Tampa. Almost a quarter of Ruskin’s residents live below the federal poverty line, and the area has seen a huge population boom in recent years—Lennard serves almost twice as many students today as it did just a few years ago.

For nine years, 2014 Fishman Prize winner Kelly Zunkiewicz has taught math here. We observed three of her classes: two periods of pre-calculus and an AP Calculus class.

I already knew Kelly was one of the best teachers in the country: In five years, she increased Lennard’s AP Calculus exam pass rate from 11 percent to 80 percent, and dramatically increased the number of girls taking the class. Of 27 schools in the district that offer pre-calculus, Kelly’s students have been first—by a wide margin—for the last four years. But these stats, and the amazing essay she wrote as part of TNTP’s Fishman Prize residency, didn’t prepare me for what I saw in her classroom.

When the bell sounded, Kelly’s students were seated in groups of four. They immediately began to work on a problem which, according to Kelly, always builds off the previous day’s lesson with one extra layer of complexity to push students. After a gentle reminder to get started, Kelly barely said another word for the rest of the period. Literally.

Instead, the students became each other’s teachers. They worked in pairs first to solve the problem, showing their work on dry-erase boards, and then to correct quizzes they’d taken the day before. Kelly’s approach to tests is to return them without grades; instead, where a student has arrived at the wrong answer, Kelly highlights the last thing they did right so students can correct their own mistakes. In class, they work together to make sure everyone at the table understands the work. The groups are carefully selected to pair students with complementary strengths and weaknesses, so they’ll be able to support each other effectively.

I heard one student, Sean, ask his partner, “How do you know that?” And Zak described the value of learning from his peers: “We might have two or three different ways of solving a problem. So the next time, if my way doesn’t work, I might try someone else’s approach.”

While students worked in groups, Kelly floated from table to table. Sometimes, she’d ask a clarifying question, leaving bread crumbs for students who were stuck: “Why did you make that move? Is there something else you could’ve done there?”

But she never gave away the answers.  

We wondered if kids might get frustrated by this, but Kelly’s students were invigorated by the challenge. As I hovered near desks, talk was consumed by the problems at hand. Later, more than twenty students lined up to tell us how much they love Kelly’s teaching. We heard time and again that Kelly’s tough love approach, coupled with ambitious content and the high standards she holds for her classes, proved to many students that they could master something difficult.

Here’s some of what these high schoolers told us:

“I was never really that great in math. When I got this math class, I was scared, like, ‘No, I can't do this. I'm not a math person.’ But I learned a whole lot more this year than I have any other year combined. We all understood that this is going to be a harder teacher to live up to. She is more for national standards, and she always wants us to be the best. That's great. I'd love to be the best, too.”

—Alaina, 12th grade

“Other math teachers say 'this is how you do it.' Ms. Zunkiewicz is really good at getting you to understand why the formula does this and how everything is connected. There's an expectation of excellence, but with the grace you need to be able to feel like you can ask questions. It pushes you harder to really think through it, but it's more rewarding in the end. If you put more time and effort into something, it's going to stick with you longer—in math or in anything else.”

—Ethan, 11th grade

“Ms. Zunkiewicz sets the bar really high for us. She believes in me, so I went out there to try to do what I had to do to fulfill my potential. I'm the only one out of my friends graduating high school. Freshman year we had a big group. I'm the only one standing. I'm very proud of that.

I got a text from my mom this morning that I got accepted to college. I'm the first one in my family to be able to go to college. I didn't think I was going to go. Ms. Zunkiewicz pushed me into going to university, and a math field. I'm going for engineering. I never thought I'd be here, but I made it.”

—Noe, 12th grade 

Kelly’s classroom showed us what’s possible when a great teacher puts tough, exciting content in front of kids and pushes them to tackle it. We’ll be sharing more student stories from classrooms like hers in the months to come. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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