Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School
2015-2016 Model

Nurturing and Challenging Youth in a High-Poverty Area

Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School is one of several small schools created in the mid-1990s to replace a large, failing high school in the poorest Congressional district in the USA. Using a design inspired by the national Coalition of Essential Schools, it combines strategies to ensure that teachers deeply understand each student’s academic and social needs with the extended learning opportunities and supports of a community school partner.

Student Population Free reduced lunch
Special Ed.
Staff / Student ratio
489 98 10 25 1/21

School Contact Info

Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School
1021 JENNINGS STREET, Bronx, NY 10460
Grades: 9-12
(718) 861-0521
Principal: Jeff Palladino


In 1994, James Monroe High School in the South Bronx had a graduation rate calculated by some to be as low as 15%. Its students came from some of the lowest-performing middle schools in the city. Supported by the Annenberg Challenge, a group of school reformers with close ties to the Coalition of Essential Schools were empowered to develop a group of small schools to replace the failing large school.


At Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, a small group of teachers are jointly responsible for approximately 50 9th- and 10th-graders and stay with these students for two years to develop the deep relationships necessary to ensure students succeed regardless of their family’s circumstances and the quality of their previous schools. In the 11th and 12th grades, students have a different teacher for every subject but work with many of their teachers for two years. For all four years, each student has an advisor who provides additional academic and affective support. A community school partner, The Children’s Aid Society, is housed in the school to provide a safety net of medical services, tutoring, counseling, career and college exploration, and extended-day enrichment.


Fannie Lou is an outlier in terms of student outcomes for a free-lunch-eligible population, where many students enter over-age and almost all enter below grade level in math and English.


  • In 2015, 90% of the students who entered Fannie Lou with 8th-grade test scores somewhat below proficient (Level Two) graduated in four years, compared to 81% of such students citywide.
  • Of the students who entered with 8th-grade state test scores dramatically below proficiency (Level One), 62% graduated in four years as compared to 47% citywide.
  • Overall, the four-year graduation rate was 66% and the six-year graduation rate was 77%, in contrast to 59% and 66% for a city-created comparison group.

Key Policy Considerations

District Policies

Fannie Lou is one of 126 NYC DOE PROSE schools (Progressive Redesign Opportunity for Schools of Excellence). The most recent teachers union contract created this program, which the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) website describes as follows: “for school communities where teachers want to take on the work of transforming their school communities, PROSE offers the ability to alter some of the most basic parameters by which our schools function — including the way teachers are hired, evaluated, and supported; the way students and teachers are programmed; the handling of grievances; and certain burdensome Chancellor’s Regulations.” Fannie Lou has used this opportunity to build peer observation into its teacher evaluation system.

State Policies

Fannie Lou belongs to a consortium of schools that operates under a waiver from the state’s high school testing policy. The only Regents examination required for graduation is English Language Arts. In lieu of the other four generally-required exams, students complete and present projects that are scored, using state-approved consortium rubrics.

Key Strategies

  • Students stay with the same teacher for two years to ensure that teachers know them well as people and as learners. In Division I (9th and 10th grade) students have one teacher for both ELA and social studies and a second teacher for science and mathematics. Those two teachers, plus a special education teacher, closely collaborate as they serve the same group of approximately 50 students for two years. In Division II (11th and 12th grade), students have a different teacher for each subject but still stay with some of the same teachers for two years.
  • Ninth- and 10th-graders are grouped together, easing the transition for over-age entrants.
  • The two-year curriculum in these grades is nonsequential and can thus be taken in either order. Similarly, 11th- and 12-graders take many of their courses in a two-year nonsequential curriculum. One benefit is that multiple teachers are teaching the same course in any given year and can collaborate on writing and revising curriculum and planning together how to cultivate student skills, understandings, and connections over a two-year period.
  • Class periods of 60 to 105 minutes in the core subjects facilitate project-based instruction and individualization. Longer periods give the teachers who know students best the time to do academic intervention in a natural way without pulling students out.
  • Students present digital portfolios of major projects initially to be promoted to Division II and then again as a graduation requirement.
  • Writing and revision are central to every project in every subject.
  • Math curriculum is guided by the Algebra Project created by civil rights activist Robert Moses.
  • Students in Division I participate in community service or enrichment activities one morning per week, providing an extended learning opportunity for them and freeing their teachers up for collaboration and professional development around their interdisciplinary curriculum.
  • Teachers meet weekly with others teaching the same students to address specific issues and to ensure that advisors are kept in the loop.
  • Peer observation is both an integral part of teacher evaluation (through a special waiver) and the engine for teacher collaboration on designing, trying out, and evaluating classroom strategies/interventions with another weekly meeting time dedicated to that purpose.
  • A community partner, The Children’s Aid Society, provides extensive medical services (e.g., vision screening resulting in 280 students receiving free prescription eyeglasses in one year), tutoring, college counseling, and career exploration opportunities, including internships.
  • College Now courses, in partnership with Hostos Community College, prepare students for college-level work.
  • Advisors, each responsible for 15-20 students over a two-year period, communicate regularly with families; make sure students are programmed correctly and on track to meet graduation requirements and college application benchmarks; steer students to appropriate extended-learning opportunities; create a climate of peer support and college-going culture in advisory groups; coordinate with the community partner to ensure that their advisees get needed services; and, by knowing their advisees well, prevent students from falling through the cracks. 

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Curriculum and Instruction

Across the curriculum, units are organized around themes with culminating projects that enable students to craft their own question and require substantial reading, writing, and revision. Teachers stress depth over breadth, encourage substantial class discussions, and make writing a routine part of class, even in math.

Interdisciplinary Approach

In Division 1, students take a two-credit humanities class taught by one teacher, combining English and history. Some units are thematic. For example, when students are studying and researching the Holocaust, they are also reading Night by Elie Wiesel. At other times, English and history may be taught as separate subjects but connected by a central question. A similar approach is used for science and mathematics.


Teachers use materials developed by the Algebra Project at Harvard University. Typically, students come together around a shared experience in the physical world that guides a unit of study. In the words of a veteran math teacher, “Students have to move from how people describe the world to pulling out what are the features that are important for us to describe what we're describing, and then the abstract representations of the mathematics. From people, to features, to math.” For instance, students take a trip together, describe it in a “trip line,” and are guided to “mathematize” their experience in studying integers and vectors.


The schoolwide curriculum for advisory addresses study skills, health, safety, social issues, community service, “restorative circles,” and preparation for college and careers. The school works closely with College Access: Research and Action (CARA:NYC) on its college exploration curriculum.

Use of Technology

As principal Jeff Palladino explained in a Washington Post article:  “Using iPads to teach literacy to create asynchronous classrooms so students can read different books at their own pace and work on student-teacher-decided literacy goals has assisted us in giving students ownership over their reading. Transitioning from paper portfolios to digital portfolios has been very beneficial to students, families, and staff. Students are now able to have a collection of their best work throughout their four years of high school in one digital site. Students and families can access this work at any time; it is a powerful archive of student learning and achievement.”

College-Level Work

Two Division II teachers are trained in and teach courses designed by the City University of New York (CUNY) to prepare students for college-level reading and writing. Students also have opportunities to take college courses at New York University and Hostos Community College.

Teaching Reading to Secondary Students

Fannie Lou has created an iBook with text and video demonstrating how teachers diagnose and address their students' issues with decoding, fluency, and comprehension.  It can be downloaded for free here.

Course Taking

Division I (9th and 10th grade)

This is a schedule for approximately 25 9th- and 10th-graders who travel together all day. Their classrooms, including the gymnasium, are only a few steps away from each other so there is no need for passing time. Each student group has a different class-change schedule so there is never congestion in the hallway.

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Division II (11th and 12th grade)

Unlike Division I, students do not travel in cohorts, and they have a different teacher for each subject. However, like Division I, two grades are mixed and students stay with the same teachers for two years in a two-year nonsequential curriculum. Classes are held on a different floor so students from the two divisions never mix in the hallways.

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Because of a special waiver from the state, the school only gives one state exam, in English language arts, as a graduation requirement. Not giving state tests in science, social studies, and math has freed the school up to emphasize depth over breadth in content coverage and sustained effort and revision over timed tests. The main forms of high-stakes assessments are written projects and oral presentation of those projects. In addition to completing and presenting projects every semester in every subject, students must present and defend a portfolio to move from Division I to Division II. Graduating seniors complete seven “mastery” papers. Four of these papers, in math, social studies, science, and English, are judged with state-approved rubrics used by a group of schools called the New York Performance Assessment Consortium.

As the school has grown larger, due to overcrowding in the Bronx, some adjustments have been made to ease the paper burden on teachers and advisors — focusing less on documenting progress over time and more on mastery. However, recent digitization of the portfolio process has made it easier to collect and examine more work.

Most of the students who enroll in college immediately after graduation attend branches of the City University of New York (CUNY). The high school has an arrangement with CUNY for students to prepare for and take the CUNY entrance examinations necessary to place out of remedial courses while they are still high school seniors.

The following is a description of the school’s 10th- and 12th-grade portfolios from the school’s website:

The Language Portfolio

In the 9th and 10th grades, students complete a language portfolio each semester. Work for this portfolio is based on the exhibition projects completed in each course, reflecting the learning goals and essential questions for that class. Pieces for this portfolio will require work both within and outside of class and are to be submitted in revised, final form. Each 10th-grade student will present his/her language portfolio, as a whole, at the end of the 10th grade for evaluation by committee in order to advance to the 11th grade. Tenth-grade portfolios are due in January and must be presented to the student’s portfolio committee during the Spring Family Conference. In order to present, a student must have completed the portfolio with revisions and practiced their oral presentation in their advisory.

The Graduation Portfolio

In the 11th and 12th grades, students complete mastery and reflection work in seven different content areas. For each area, students will produce a major project designed to demonstrate advanced content and skill understanding. Mastery projects will not attempt to cover all material studied, but are designed to reflect an in-depth understanding of a particular issue in the context of the overall discipline and incorporation of the Habits of Mind and work. Although these projects will generally be undertaken within the classroom with the support of the teacher, they will also require a significant amount of independent work, with an eye toward college expectations.

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In Division 1, faculty and students are organized into “houses.” Each house consists of a math/science teacher, an English/social studies teacher, and a special education teacher. Together, the three faculty members teach and advise a cohort of 50-60 9th- and 10th-graders. In Division II, students get a new advisor and faculty members meet weekly for 11th- or 12th-grade house meetings based on the current grade of their advisee group.

Most students with IEPs are in an Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) setting in which general education and special education students are served in the same classroom by two teachers jointly responsible for the full class. There is also a self-contained 15-1 class for students whose IEP requires it.

Schedule Basics

Fannie Lou is divided into two divisions: Division I (9th-10th grade) and Division 2 (11th-12th grade). In both divisions, shorter periods are scheduled for PE and advisory. Lunch is scheduled for 30 minutes. There are no bells and no time allotted for passing since classrooms used by a particular group of students are within steps of each other. Because different groups of students move from one class to another at different times, there is never a large number of students in a hallway at any time (except dismissal).

Division 1 Schedule Example


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Key schedule strategies:

  • Five separate schedules, each for one house
  • Each house has A and B strands and students stay with the same group of about 25 students all day. (There is one exception — one house has just one strand of 25 students to accommodate an increase of enrollment in recent years.)
  • Students have humanities and math/science every day, although the amount of seat time per day varies. The time of day when classes meet varies daily and on some days, the same class meets twice.
  • One-half day per week, students are scheduled for CO — short for Community Outreach. This is when 9th- and 10th-graders either do community service at a hospital or school or participate in an enrichment activity with a range of community partners.
  • On Tuesday, when the A strands have CO, the humanities teachers are freed up to meet. On Thursday morning, the B strands have CO, freeing up the math/science teachers to work together.


Division 2 Schedule

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Key schedule strategies:

  • English, social studies, math, and science are scheduled in four blocks that meet either three or four times per week, usually at varying times of day. All four blocks have the same total amount of seat time.

Full Master Schedule

Professional Development

Joint Planning

Ninth- and 10th-grade math/science teachers meet together one morning and English/social studies (humanities) teachers meet together another morning. In both cases, every team member is teaching the same year of a two-year interdisciplinary curriculum, which they write and revise together. Typically they will write a unit in a pair and share it with the full team for feedback, using a tuning protocol. The team collectively chooses which skills to focus on, the central questions for each unit, and the culminating projects and exhibitions in a given semester. Over the semester, teachers look at student work together to identify trends and implications for the next steps in the next unit.

Other Collaboration

Teachers also use this collaboration time to sharpen their pedagogical content knowledge. For instance, the math/science teachers meet periodically with a veteran 11th/12th-grade math teacher and/or a math consultant to immerse themselves in the math they will be teaching. They actually do the math as if they were in a graduate course — and train to use the Algebra Project materials.

All teachers meet weekly for 75 minutes with others who advise the same cohort of students to address specific issues and keep each other informed as advisors.

Peer Observation

In both divisions, shorter periods are scheduled for PE and advisory. Lunch is scheduled for 30 minutes. There are no bells and no time allotted for passing since classrooms used by a particular group of students are within steps of each other. Because different groups of students move from one class to another at different times, there is never a large number of students in a hallway at any time (except dismissal).

Student Community

Every student participates in community service and/or extended learning opportunities. An important student-run event is the annual “Peace Block Party” held in a park across the street from the school to oppose gangs and gun violence. In the words of one student, “Student government is the voice of Fannie Lou. Every time there’s an event here, they call student government to get the things done. We are a major help in the school.” The championship male basketball team, the subject of a New York Times article, has a 100% graduation rate.

Professional Community

Teachers have broad decision-making powers, particularly regarding curriculum and professional development. The NYC Department of Education’s 2015 School Quality Review for Fannie Lou Hamer concluded: “Teacher teams consistently engage in organized, collaborative work utilizing an inquiry approach that focuses on analyzing a variety of data and student work. Leadership structures provide teachers with opportunities to engage in instructional decisions. The work of teacher teams has led to improved teacher practices and progress toward student learning outcomes that are aligned to schoolwide goals. A distributive leadership structure engages teachers in instructional decisions that impact student learning."

Family Engagement

Advisors meet several times per year with advisees and their familes to review student work, set goals, and develop strategies to ensure the best possible experience for the student. A full-time parent coordinator recruits new families, connects families to Children’s Aid services, school and parent programs, and events and reaches out to families to address issues and encourage involvement. Families are invited to participate in student portfolio presentations.