Everyone is Unique

The Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The teacher, the teaching, and the community of practitioners. Or as Roshi Bernie Glassman says: Buddha, the Oneness of Life; Dharma, the absolute uniqueness of every moment; Sangha, the Unity of Oneness and Diversity. Bernie often refers to Enlightenment as the realization and actualization of the Oneness of Life. But always the truth of Zen lies in simultaneously holding the Oneness and the Diversity of Life.

Two truths. Everyone is irreplaceable. Everyone is unique. Teachers and students, everyone is unique. Some people are more unique than others, the motivation behind why we are creating schools which serve the most unique students.

American schools are largely designed for average students; typical students. Social scientists studying large populations including students recognize that on almost all characteristics, populations tend to cluster around the average. But our students are generally the outliers, the atypical. American schools are organized by grouping students according to chronological age. Yet, as Robert Sapolsky points in his recently published seminal work, “landmarks of adolescent maturation in brain and behavior are less related to chronological age than to time since puberty onset.”[1] As a consequence, the typical adolescent’s “steady improvement in working memory, flexible rule use, executive organization, and frontal inhibitory regulation (e.g., task shifting)”[2] is occurring at a pace only loosely related to chronological student groupings.

In school districts such as ours, and on Staten Island where most schools do a reasonably good job with typical students, it’s the atypical students and their parents who seek the alternatives of which public charter schools can provide. These are our students. From our point of view, the challenge of the typical student is more easily addressed. Because variation among these students is minimized, instruction can achieve standardized goals within large classes and with teachers focused on content. These schools, like their large classes, can be easily managed because school leaders can focus their attention on the needs of the great majority of students.

State and Federal achievement goals which define success around benchmarks such as “80% of students will meet standards” dictate that school leaders devote themselves to the success of the typical students. While the failures of the atypical 20% can be safely ignored. As schools grow in size, even in the best districts, to 1,000 students in elementary schools and to 2,000 and even 3 or 4,000 students in secondary schools, it becomes quite literally impossible for a school leader to pay attention to the unique learning needs of the 20%.

Enter Integration Charter Schools. We are intentionally designing small schools for the atypical student. At a planning meeting for a school which will integrate students on the Autism spectrum, I first heard the famous adage, “When you’ve met one Autistic person, you have met one Autistic person.” Our experience leads us to a broader formulation: “When you’ve met one atypical person, you’ve met one atypical person.” This is a statistical phenomenon, not a moral phenomenon. Populations cluster around the mean. As you move away from the mean, the density of the population decreases. And the people who are atypical on one dimension are very often atypical on another as well. So it seems, for instance, that a great many people who have deficits in social processing skills often associated with Autism spectrum also possess atypically high IQ’s. The more dimensions on which one is an outlier, the more unique the individual.

These students need smaller classrooms. In classes of typical students, the teacher can teach the average student and most students will succeed. And if an 80% success rate is good enough, then the teaching is good enough. Atypical students require teachers to take into account each individual’s needs. This is impossible in the typical large class. In New York City public schools, there are generally 34 students in a class because that is the maximum size allowed by agreement with the union. Our classes are capped at a maximum of 17 or 18 students.

And where the City’s general education classes (designed for typical students) are invariably staffed with a single teacher, our schools have a teacher and a teacher assistant for at least 60% of the school day. The richer staffing and the smaller class size greatly increase the opportunities for instruction in small groups and on an individualized basis. While typical students will survive (even if they don’t thrive) in the larger classes of public schools, all students are unique enough to benefit from the opportunities provided in our integrated schools.

And we continue to learn. In the words of a famous Zen Koan, “Not knowing is most intimate.” Attachment to what we know, or think we need to know, leads nowhere.

Over the last nine years, we have learned that the smaller class size and the richer staffing is still not enough. Teachers must have the skills and passion to individualize instruction around the needs of each student in order to best meet their needs. These skills are rarely intuitive, and often need to be cultivated and refreshed. While some think that all teachers have them, it is the teachers who have specialized training in Special Education who are most likely to possess the requisite skills and attitudes. In our schools, all students receive instruction from teachers certified in Special Education for at least 60% of the school day.

And even this is not enough, still. Even with this resource intensity , many atypical kids will still not easily find a fit for success. For them to succeed, we still need to find adjustments even within our structure which will allow them to succeed. These adjustments more often than not require action beyond the authority of teachers. They require principals with the authority to make the out-of-the-box adjustments which an individual student needs, and this will only happen if principals have the passion of special educators themselves. They must have the time to pay attention to the needs of each individual. This is not going to happen in schools with 4,000 or even one thousand students. We, therefore, limit the leadership responsibility of our principals to a maximum of approximately 500 students.

Everyone is unique. Everyone is valuable, even the atypical students. In some ways, they may be the most creative students and potentially the most contributive members of society.

Bernie Glassman, in Instructions to the Cook, articulates the commitment which has inspired the mission of our schools: To bring to the societal table those who have been formerly excluded. We are building schools which will provide a pathway to college and career for the atypical students who have been systematically excluded from the pathways to success.

[1] Robert. M. Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Huamns at our Best and Worst (NY: Penguin Press, 2017), p. 158.

[2] Ibid,, p.159,