New Horizons in Classroom Equity

As the Shorewood School District prioritizes advancing classroom equity through curriculum and student engagement, one group making strides in this area is the New Horizons Charter School. This alternative high school is designed to empower students through hands-on learning in a collaborative setting with staff, community and parents.
“We evaluate, reflect upon, and incorporate [equity] into everything that we do,” says New Horizons Director Bohdan Nedilsky. “With each project, we give each student the opportunity to understand how to address equity and be a part of something that impacts the community. We know equity is a messy process to tackle, but we have so many courageous young students who have initiative and who want to be a part of that change. It’s my job to provide experiences which help my students develop the skillsets and perspectives to be able to handle these big societal issues.”
This academic year, the school’s equity-centered curriculum revolved around three main components: the UW- Madison Great World Texts program, Lending Libraries, and focus group work at North Park University in Chicago.
Great World Texts connects students and teachers across Wisconsin to UW-Madison scholars through the shared project of reading and discussing a classic piece of literature. The culminating event is the Annual Student Conference where they all come together to share their interpretations of the chosen text and hear from distinguished speakers. This year, the book chosen was A Small Place, a work of non-fiction that explores the island of Antigua where author Jamaica Kincaid grew up, but from the perspective of a tourist. The students worked to address equity through this literature by examining the inequalities that happen to the residents in the book.
“The [annual conference] exceeded our expectations,” says New Horizons freshman Jayden Nelson. “There were so many students from different backgrounds there and we learned a lot from the discussions. Walking around listening to all of the other projects was really cool and it was interesting to see the different perspectives and creative ideas people had for the same book.”
New Horizons students also designed and built 27 lending libraries -- free book exchanges housed in small wooden boxes -- to donate and install in parks throughout Milwaukee such as Victory Over Violence Park and Peace Park, as well as at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. At King, Shorewood students read together with younger students to encourage a love a reading, spark creativity and build community.
“Our goal [with the libraries] is to create healthy spaces within the community that bring people of all ages together,” says Nedilsky. “It’s so important to provide spaces for people to gather, converse, and connect with one another.”
At North Park University, students participated in focus groups and discussions alongside sociology students as well as students from Chicago’s Percy L. Julian High School’s alternative education program, Becoming a Man (BAM).
“We have all explored justice in education as part of our [curriculum] but these meetings weren’t just about examining inequity in education,” says New Horizons sophomore Jack Stuhlmacher. “It was also about learning from one another other. I had a very in-depth conversation with a student, who—I found three weeks later—was homeless but had made school a priority, and that was pretty eye opening for me. I would have had no idea he was struggling with something like that.”
“It was also interesting to hear that [other students] associated Shorewood with being privileged,” adds New Horizons senior Percy Duckworth. “After talking though, we discovered that we all have common struggles and that we’re more alike than we thought. There is inequity in every school regardless of location or economic status, and we really started to understand each other better after [the discussions].”
One of the biggest takeaways that Nedilsky hopes his students gain from all of these unique experiences is that fostering equity is a continual and reflective process, which needs constant tending to.
“There is no end to addressing equity,” says Nedilsky. “Next year, we’ll build off of the foundation we’ve laid and strengthen and expand our equity circles. My students are living proof that if you engage young people and connect them with their communities, they can accomplish great things.”
(Photo taken by Jon Kirn for Shorewood Today magazine.)