How We Do It: Success in the Classroom

I am a 7th grade math teacher at Success Academy Harlem West, a public charter school in New York City. After the well-documented success of our middle school students last year, I heard from people all across the country who want to know exactly what we are doing in the classroom that leads to such tremendous academic achievement.

This year's New York State scores were recently released, and our students again did fantastic: 96 percent of my 7th grade class for instance, passed the math test, compared to the state average of 34.5 percent and twice as many passed the reading exam, compared to statewide averages. Harlem West ranked fifth out of 1,880 other state middle schools in math and 30th in English Language Arts. Essentially, my students -- minority kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods -- crushed the test and are killing the achievement gap.

While there are many things we do differently at Success Academy compared with traditional district schools, I want to share just a few that I feel have allowed me and my colleagues to create successful classrooms. I truly believe that each of these components could be easily implemented in every school across the country.

First, one of the great advantages I have as an educator is the power of an extended school day. Our school opens at 7:30 a.m. and dismisses at 5:10 p.m., giving our students 7.5 more hours of classroom time per week than the city's traditional district schools. Those hours add up to 74 extra days per year. By the end of 8th grade, students at Success Academy will have received the equivalent of two additional years of instruction.

But more important than just extra time is how we use those hours. For me, I am able to plan lessons in which students explore advanced mathematical concepts, practice their skills, and partake in lengthy whole-class discourse. Because we believe that learning should be driven by student thinking, not by teacher talking, our extended class periods provide the necessary time for students to collaboratively and organically arrive at high-level mathematical conclusions. The same goes for all subjects.

Additionally, I see every day the magic in my students' eyes as they fall in love with science and reading. Our extended school day allows us to teach science five days a week and includes a 50-minute independent reading block each school day. Deep reading is key, but students also take an elective twice a day, developing their talents and passions in topics like chess, debate, robotics and theater.

Secondly, my students' success is a direct result of the professional development I receive. My principal has a candid partnership with all the teachers in the building. Weekly classroom observations and follow-up appointments allow me to reflect on what went well and also on areas where I can improve. My principal's feedback has been critical to my growth as a teacher.

All Success Academy principals and teachers spend the month leading up to the first day of classes in intensive training sessions. I just finished my third year of this program, and once again, I learned new techniques to better help my students achieve mastery. For me, teaching is a performance art, and extensive practice, feedback and professional development is essential to be at the top of my game.

My final point is much less easily quantified, but no less important. It's what drives my colleagues and me to work long hours and make ourselves available by phone or in-person to parents and students well after school hours and on the weekends.

In our view, teachers are tasked with arguably the most important public service in the country. We look upon our work as every bit as urgent as that of doctors or firefighters. The lives we attend to are just as dear, just as precious, and failure to help our students live up to their potential is just as tragic as a lost life.

In neighborhoods like Harlem, the power of a high-quality education can be transformative. It can literally save lives and build futures. It is the one true ticket to pursuing and realizing the American Dream. Three out of four of my students are poor or "low-income". They have none of the advantages my friends and I had growing up, yet they are every bit as deserving. A world-class education is their lifeline to opportunity and a better life.

I may not be skilled enough to set a broken leg or brave enough carry a person from a burning building, but I, like my colleagues, can work to inspire a teenager to believe in his own potential, to see that her future depends on hard work and perseverance, to teach them the math they will need in high school and beyond. At Success Academy Harlem West, the flexible and supportive school structure allows me to teach math -- and possibility.

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