Our Hedgehog

My entire Zen life has been about what the Zen community calls, “practicing non-attachment.”

Of course, you cannot work with or on non-attachment. Striving for non-attachment is totally illusory. You can only work with attachments, one after another, as they arise, seemingly endlessly.

In my personal experience, attachments to ideas are perhaps the most challenging. For anyone with an intellectual bent, attachments to ideas are particularly seductive. In today’s America, many of us drawn to Zen are intellectuals, at least to a certain extent. We have thrived in school and in higher education. (We counted once in the early circle around Bernie that was creating the Zen Peacemaker Order. The majority of people in the room had Ph.D.’s).  Learning to let go of attachments to ideas and theories has been one of the great liberating experiences of my life, which has allowed me to free myself from pointless and painful antagonisms with people who held different ideals.

Attachments to ideas are as pervasive in education as they are anywhere else; and at the same time – ideas, POWERFUL ideas, can be extraordinary catalysts in shaping and improving schools and education on multiple levels. We have found Jim Collins’ “Hedgehog Concept” extremely useful.

Waiting for my daughter, Jamie, to finish something she was writing at Barnes and Noble, I stumbled on Collins’ Good to Great (NY: Harper Collins, 2001). His Hedgehog Concept helped us crystallize the core of our success. A particular line hit home, “Hedgehogs… simplify a complex world into a single organization idea, a basic principle that unifies and guides everything” (91).  Collins went on to explain, the Hedgehog resides at the intersection of three circles: what we can be best in the world at, what drives our economic engine, and what we are deeply passionate about (95-96).

We actually didn’t know what our hedgehog concept was when we started out on our journey to creating Lavelle Prep and New Ventures Charter Schools, but one thing we were sure of was our deep passion for levelling the playing field for students living with emotional challenges. We began to bring people into a planning process who identified with this goal. Many were leaders in mental health services and education on Staten Island and a few from off-Island. The first core principle to emerge was that the school must be integrated, meaning that special needs kids would be educated right alongside general education kids (that is, everyone else), taking the same courses and being held to the same academic standards. The idea we embraced was that “separate but equal” was as much a fallacy in regard to disability as it was in regard to race.

But would parents of general education students send their kids to a school with a high percentage of special needs children? Perhaps. We asked ourselves, “What is the best mix educationally?” There are lots of theories, yet no real data. Debate raged within our team. Again we pondered, “What percentage of Gen Ed kids could we reasonably expect to attract?:” We didn’t know, but we eventually came up with a complicated plan for a three-tiered lottery, where 25% of the seats were reserved for students who met New York State Office of Mental Health criteria for “Seriously Mentally Ill” meaning that they were eligible for psychiatric day treatment services, 50% for students who met the less “serious” criteria required for treatment in a psychiatric clinic, and 25% others, “typical” general education students or students with non-psychiatric disabilities. After more than a year of negotiation with the New York City Department of Education, finally our unprecedented charter proposal for a fully integrated middle/high school with this admission design and including sixteen alternative budget scenarios anticipating a wide variety of enrollment and varying funds was approved by the Chancellor and forwarded to New York State Education Department where we hit a stone wall.

“Fifteen percent special education or a 100% spec education,” is what we were told by an associate commissioner (who also told us that no special education student could ever be a role model for a general education student). “Nothing in between, ” was the stern response.

Thankfully, we could fight this, the City people advised. We could take it to the Feds. They were sure we would win, but it would take two years. Or, we could accept the State’s terms, get our school open, and then work to amend our charter. We couldn’t accept either of these offers, and we didn’t want to wait two years. We opted for a straightforward, plain, “vanilla”, standard open lottery, while doing affirmative outreach to families of students living with emotional challenges, and opened with an unexpected ratio of two general education students for each special education student.

The ratio turned out to be a sweet spot, both educationally and fiscally. The school thrived, although demand for admission by general education students rose very rapidly. Over the first three years, demand by special education students doubled while demand by general education students increased by a whopping 600%. Gen Ed students were squeezing out the kids living with emotional challenges and threatening to erode our mission. At that point, we were able to amend our charter, setting aside 40% of the seats for special education students.

Our own “hedgehog” was emerging. We had stumbled upon an economically fortuitous design which enabled us to both operate effectively and to build the required operating reserves without depending on annual fundraising. Most importantly, we were developing our core expertise in operating fully integrated schools and classrooms. As our work has continued, we have come to realize that we are creating alternative schools which serve a range of atypical kids who struggle to succeed in the industrial factory designs of contemporary American education.

Are we the best in the world at this? It’s hard to tell. It’s hard to even find out who else is competing in our niche. We compete for students. At this time, our market is extremely local. We need only to be the best on Staten Island. If we were to expand off-Island, could we be the best in New York City or New York State? Can we be the best nationally? This is what we ask ourselves, daily.

We have successfully used this “hedgehog” to identify staff members whose passion is aligned with our mission and who understand our operating constraints and budgetary decisions, while screening proposals for new schools. When someone comes to us with a new idea, the first question we ask is,  “Will the proposed school have 30-40% special education students?” which allows us to determine if the proposal is a potential fit for us. If not, we wish them luck. Our “hedgehog” is our hedge against grandiosity. Our successes so far do not, and cannot mean that we know how to do everything.

We have recently opened a second school while having two more well along in the development process, while two additional proposals are just beginning to take shape. All are consistent with our hedgehog concept. And all, therefore, offer the promise of educational success and financial viability.

At the same time, this is only one side of the story. No “hedgehog” lives forever. Ours faces threats that we have identified. One, is that our “hedgehog” is highly dependent on a particular mechanism currently employed in New York State for funding special education. That mechanism could change each time the governor and the legislature engage in annual budget negotiations. The ratio could change, even the whole funding mechanism could potentially change. Either development could threaten the survival of our “hedgehog”.

Even if nothing significant occurs in our regulatory environment, our ability to expand on Staten Island (our current service area) is not unlimited. We will eventually saturate the market. Our staff recruitment and development model emphasizes rapid promotion for those with exceptional talent. For this, we depend on growth for without it, the young and talented are stifled by lack of opportunity. Growth of opportunities for our “hedgehog” depends on both new and schools and a growing student population.

There are additional threats, too. Most ominous, of course, is posed by the entrenched teacher union opposition to charter schools. Their campaigns to get rid of the charter threat to their closed-shop, dues-check-off type monopolies cannot be dismissed.

So, while we unconditionally love our hedgehog and wish him long life, we do so with the understanding that no hedgehog lives forever. While we work tirelessly to open new schools aligned with our niche model, we are also beginning to think about the future and how we might evolve.