Thinking about starting a school brought back a flood of memories of the school I helped start a decade ago this year.  There was a lot of stuff involved in this school.  Someone could easily write a book about all of it, but I don’t have time to do all of that, so this is just the broad strokes.  This ended up being a lot longer than I expected. If you read the whole thing, let me know what you think in the comments.

In 2004 I spent a weekend away from my teacher certification program and drove out to Doral Arrowood, a conference center in upstate New York, in order to attend a planning summit for a slate of new small schools starting next fall. I was excited just to have a job by march of the year before I graduated, and I was excited about moving to New York what and who wouldn’t want to plan a school? A month earlier a couple other friends from school and I had interviewed successfully so we already knew about the school-to-be.  We would have the 6th and 9th grade in the fall and expand each year until we became a 6-12 school.

The conference was held by Replications Inc, the organization who was helping usher us into creation. The organization was known for making new schools modeled after successful, the Kipp, the Noble Street Charter School, and Frederick Douglass were all approached as templates and people who were seeking to bring a new version of those middle and high schools could be seen walking around the conference center. Other people were there planing the second and third year of their school and often sported matching t-shirts, and rehearsed chants. They strolled through the decadent buffet of this conference center like the varsity kids strolling through a high school cafeteria. After driving from my student teaching in Boston, I very much felt like the out-of-place new kid hoping to survive in this new world.

Building A Foundation

The school that we were modeling ourselves afterwards was not going to be an iteration of a “No Excuses” school, but actually a school that started the larger small school movement. Central Park East Secondary School. This school had been very popular in the late 80s and even had a movie made about it. Fred Wiseman’s film in 1994 was a sequel of sorts to his original movie High School. Similarly, our school shared a mission of changing the high school process. Our graduation was supposed to be by portfolio, students in the lower grades would take combined math/science classes so as to form really strong relationships with their teachers. Our principal, who had more hair in the film, promised to bring the ethos of the school to the discipline and student relations. The emphasis on conversations, student-led restorative justice sessions, and multidisciplinary classes stood in stark contrast to some of the discipline-focused pedagogy that was being pushed by many of the other schools at the conference, and around the country.

I still have the binder given to me from that weekend, full of a lot of the thought process that we used to come up with our ideas for our school.  We settled on a focus including 8 different “Essential Features” that we wanted to include, with dozens more scribbled in my own notes, as if we would see if we could fit them in later. The nature of the conference was kind of stifling, we ended up setting the plan for the rest of the school at someone’s house later in the summer.

A Building In Search Of Itself

Also in the spring we planned a visit with our Principal, who could show a couple of us the floor where our rooms would be. We were on the top floor, there was a lot of light, and relative seclusion from the middle school that was being phased out. We walked past another new school in the building, also Replications and just finishing their first year. This school was modeled after a Boston Magnet School, and was run by an administrator who you could just tell worked tirelessly, along with all of her teachers, to create an entirely different environment on her floor than was in the rest of the school.  It was the only floor in the building in the school where kids would wear uniforms, and they traveled in and out of the building through a side staircase, and not the main entrance. As naive as it was, we sort of assumed that we would have the same success. Looking back on it, this was an eerie visit full of interesting signs that could have foretold future struggle.  Aside from the Principal, this visit was the first time any of us stepped foot in the neighborhood, or the Bronx at all.

The neighborhood where our school was located was the exact kind of place that had been weathered by various kinds of educational change.  The building itself was built in the 70’s alongside an expansion of public housing that expanded away from the school along it’s north west corner.  Orignally built as a Junior High School, it had been built with banks of rooms with movable walls which remained unused since the time when the Open Classroom model was envogue.  When we accessed the original school’s bookroom it seemed to document the various curricular changes of the past twenty years the rings of a tree, with most books barely being used before they were discarded.  I would occasionally go in there and sift through the unused student books from Math In Context, as the school had recently shifted to Impact Mathematics.  Before they finished phasing out they would have discarded impact for Connected Mathematics! This school had seemed to be looking for an identity, one separate and distinct from it’s nearby projects, and if the bookroom was evidence, it seemed like this search had been going on for a while. Hopefully we could put a stop to this and provide some consistency.

Losing And Finding Our Direction

We started like I any other school year starting, with teachers working really hard. We had very talented teachers, and we had gotten to know our kids ahead of time with the “Culture Camp” that we planned the summer before. In the year that followed, a number of things would test our effort and our ability and there was a lot of struggle. The number one thing that affected us was that our principal had sporadic health issues that caused him to be absent at unpredictable times.  By the spring we had gotten used to our Assistant Principal handling most duties, and he officially handing over the reigns of the school in the early months of next year. He managed to help us hire a fresh crop of talented teachers for the fall and ace our first school quality review, before handing over the role to our capable, but younger Assistant Principal.

At the meeting where our Assistant Principal took over, there was a silent tension like I’ve never felt.  Up until now we had always looked at the past, at this magical school that most had never seen, and at the leader whose stories and plans would deliver us there.  In a school whose design was based solely around one person’s ideas, what happens when that person leaves?  Our eyes fell on the AP, and on the other people in the room, as we sort of subconsciously deciding that we were needed to trust each other in order to get through this. We ended up having to decide for ourselves what we stood for and what was important. The next two years ended up being a very difficult period of time for the entire school community, but by the end, it felt like we had a clear direction.  

We never sat down and decided, but it felt like we had discarded all but 3 of the “Essential Features” that we submitted to Replications Inc in when we were planning the school. We could, however, detailed much more about those 3 things than many other schools in the city. Our school had been recognized for our portfolio assessments by New York State. Also our kids were becoming experts in our Perspective, Evidence, Relevance, Connections, and Supposition, our Habits Of Mind, as we infused it into all of our classes.  We also maintained our low class sizes and our Advisory relationships but we never really worried about other things.  Certainly other things happened at the school, but these things became the things that HAD to happen, and HAD to happen well.

Once we got started forging our own path it became clear what things were really important, and what things weren’t worth the fight. We also became much more connected to our community and had done some amazing things, I thought, in order to get our first class to graduate. I was really proud of my bozo the clown project where kids would throw a ball into a cup 10 feet away and had to find an equation to model the ideal arc of flight (without graphing calculators!). At the end of the year we had an emotional first ever graduation, celebrating our growth as a school and the growth of our students.

It’s Not Your School

The following year 3 things happened that sent home perhaps the biggest lesson, of starting your school, and that is that it’s not your school. Any school only exists in the context of the larger social, bureaucratic and government context first, and under your leadership second.  If those entities don’t get what they want, your plans will have to change.

First, our principal was given a dramatic promotion to a network, and she was replaced with another principal who was intimately familiar with our school from preparations for our various quality review observations and what not. This principal had great plans for the school, and went to work rearranging staff and other things in order to fit those plans. She was a successful turnaround principal would before there started being official “turnaround schools”.

Next, the city’s report card came out, which showed that we earned a “D” and based on that they said that the school needed to be shut down. In my heart of hearts, I really think we did enough work with our graduates to prove that we didn’t deserve this ranking, but there isn’t much we could do about it.  A week or so later after we are all gathered at a meeting, presumably to talk about this, when the Principal sort of walks out, and this woman we’ve never seen walks in and starts addressing us. She is in fact our superintendent, making the first visit that we know of, and she was there to tell us that we are being phased out.

Schools obviously are getting phased out over the city, that’s what allow new schools like ours to exist, but I didn’t think it would be us.  She gave us instructions on how long the process would take, what to tell parents, and how the school would proceed over the next few years. The students would be not allowed to transfer to other schools in the district, and teachers would slowly be sent to look for other jobs at the end of each year until our current freshman had finished their senior year.  As soon as the superintendent walked out, before we had a chance to catch our breath, our union rep, and district level union rep and some higher level union rep in a suit marched in and began addressing us.  They explained how these meetings were going on all over the city, and enough is enough! They explained that the decision had to be formalized after a series of hearings and we could testify at all of them.  Our Rep had promised that if our school wanted to fight, the union would bring enough other members to turn these hearings into a giant scene and use that to sway the opinion of the City’s Panel on Education Policy and ultimately force them to vote to save the school. They asked us at the end, “Are you ready to fight?”

“Yes.” We said we were ready to fight.  All of our school was involved, even our new Principal, who was expecting to have more time to show that she can lead the school than the month between her appointment and the Superintendent’s visit. It’s not like we are thinking our failure should be rewarded, but to be phased out of existence after one graduation class seemed like a waste in the effort the city put in having our school get developed. I was really invested in the process of getting us ready for this, and even pulled together a number of powerpoints about the school for the community hearing we held in our school. I prepped a bunch of kids and took them down to the actual PEP panel that happened in Brooklyn Tech, where few of our kids, and some teachers had ever been.  This hearing would see over seven hours lots of different schools like ours were being told that they were being closed down. Some were schools that had been in operation for much longer than ours, one had graduates that went on to have kids go to that high school.  Another school had brought about 40 kids to the hearing, with each reading letter after heart-wrenching letter about how much their school meant to them.  Another school had been constantly moved around, never operating out of the same space for two years straight.  One of our students said that they attended an elementary that had been closed, and a middle school that is now closed, so if the DOE is moving to close their high school, how can the DOE not say they have failed to give them an education? The audience was 90% of people who were against the closings and included dozens of local politicians and dignitaries. The kids’ metro cards were set to run out, I think it was around 11, and then at the end of the night the PEP moved to vote, and methodically went through each school and voted to close all of them, as if the last 5 hours, or 5 years for that matter, were meaningless.

Watching how few of these people on the panel felt any sense of responsibility to use their position to advocate for the 1000’s of people who care about their schools was the third thing that year that really drove the message home about how little power you have over a school. Getting over it is still taking a long time.

Moving On

The next year a new school started with a group of 6th graders on the first floor of our building. This school had a novel approach, as it had a medical theme, and a medical organization to sponsor it. It even had cute little 6th graders wearing cute little scrubs. I wasn’t around to see it as I decided to leave in part because of the disappointment with the vote but largely because my girlfriend had been working at the same school with me for 5 years, and we both thought it would be good to see if our relationship could exist without us both being at the same school.