Begin Again

Bernie always wanted us to begin again from scratch.

That has become an important principle in my practice. Problem-solving best begins with a fresh canvas. We constantly begin again. Every year, our schools begin again, even when it seems unnecessary. There are new members of every team every year, new ingredients in the mix. We don’t need to throw away our experience, we can continue to value our organizational learning. We can learn from our experience. Especially, we can learn from our mistakes and we can take advantage of our new ingredients to grow.

At ICS, we have been talking since late Spring about ways to increase enrollment in the Early College program. The most promising solution: By adding entry points in 6th and 7th grades as well as 8th and 9th, we could enable address the enrollment challenge.

At the same time, because it would allow students two more years to prepare for college readiness, it would substantially increase the percentage of students eligible to earn early college credits at Saint John’s University.

I love that serendipity. When the solution to one problem simultaneously, unexpectedly solves a second, it always feels to me like a sign from the Universe that we are on the right track.

Wow. But this shift forces to relook at our approach to differentiation among our schools. To begin again. From scratch. We are led to revisit decisions, some of which go back to the earliest months of designing Lavelle Prep.

We had come together around the intention of creating a pathway to college for Staten Island students who were living with emotional challenges. We quickly reached a consensus that the local public schools were doing a far better job serving young students, that the most pressing need was for better programs for older students. Our initial decision was, therefore, to design a high school program.

It was only when we consulted with the team at the Columbia Center for Children’s Mental Health that our planning shifted. They strongly urged us to begin younger. While they appreciated our priorities, they convincingly argued that starting in 9th grade, we would fail. By then, the target population would be too far behind for us to succeed. They urged beginning with 6th grade.

This advice converged with other information we had been gathering. Conversations with parents in a number of Staten Island neighborhoods were all revealing the same thing: Parents were most unhappy with the district choices for middle school.

We changed our design. Lavelle Prep would begin in 6th grade.

We were also being urged by city and state authorizers to begin even earlier, with Kindergarten. Beginning with the youngest students would give us almost four years to close any achievement gaps before the high stakes Statewide testing so critical in authorizer evaluation of charters kicked in.

This advice we did not accept. We didn’t want wait 6 years before we began to serve the slice of the student population, — middle and high school students, — who most desperately needed an educational alternative.

Lavelle Prep has succeeded in achieving the high rates of high school graduation and college acceptance to which we aspired (even with our students are entering sixth grade typically two years behind their district and state peers,) This year, Lavelle ranked third on Staten Island in the US News &World Report of high schools.[1] And Lavelle Prep has achieved this success despite the fact one third of our students are classified for Special Education, almost double the district average.

Despite this success, Lavelle Prep does not get the acclamation deserved. The fact is that our students often catch up slowly, progress atypically, is apparently difficult for authorizers to comprehend. Lavelle Prep is continually subject to scrutiny because our students lag behind district averages in elementary and middle school, despite the fact that they outperform state and district average in high school.

Even when we added the Lavelle Elementary division, we did it backwards, beginning with grades 3 to 5, holding back as long as we could on bringing in the youngest children, partly as a result of facility challenges. Partly, because our organizational experience in middle school transferred more readily to the higher elementary grades. We were working our way down.

But we have paid a price for this decision. Our elementary leadership assures us that if they had to do it again, they would begin with kindergarten and first grade. Not only would this give us a better chance to compete on statewide tests, it is a more natural entry point and therefore makes the challenge of student recruitment far more easily manageable.

Beginning again, taking a fresh look, we found ourselves re-looking at the way we had been differentiating among our schools. Our first foray into growth, our short-lived charter application for Lavelle Prep North, initiated in 2011, had followed the traditional charter school growth strategy, replication of a successful prototype in a new neighborhood. That application, submitted to the SUNY Charter School Institute was withdrawn. SUNY did not think that the success of Lavelle Prep had yet been sufficiently demonstrated. We were only mid-way through our first charter term.

By the time we applied for the charter for New Ventures, a new approach to growth had been articulated: No one school design can address the varied needs of all atypical students. Rather than through replication, we would grow by developing a variety of school designs, all of which shared a common vision, to provide college preparatory programs which fully integrated students living with emotional challenges and other disabilities.

Our friend and former Wagner College president, Richard Guarasci, strongly urged us to keep our schools co-located on one campus. Life would be much easier, much more manageable, he insisted.

We embraced his advice. Instead of differentiating geographically, we would differentiate primarily by entry point. Students would enter Lavelle Prep in 6th or 7th grades, later in the elementary grades as well, while students would enter New Ventures in grades 10 through 12. The Early College program was designed to fit neatly in between. Students could enter Early College in 8th or 9th grades.

However, with the planning for Richmond Prep, a shift in emphasis was underway. By emphasizing the integration of students on the Autism spectrum, Richmond Prep proposed to prioritize a different segment of the atypical student population. In part, to provide a differentiated appeal from Lavelle Prep for its general education students, Richmond Prep would build a strong focus and career orientation around computer skills. But most importantly by locating on a different campus, Richmond Prep would be able to effectively serve neighborhoods that were unable to access our Teleport campus.  

These shifts in thinking were underway as we began to face the Early College’s enrollment challenges. From the first year, the Early College lagged behind its enrollment targets. Initially, blame was laid to the facility challenges which plagued the school during its first three years. An additional culprit was the still future engagement of Early College students with SJU. (Students were not scheduled to begin classes on the SJU campus until this school year.)

Now, beginning again, taking a fresh look, we can see that two critical miscalculations played have a more substantial role in the Early College struggles. In planning to admit students in 8th and 9th grades, we overestimated the appeal of our early college program. First, we may have underestimated overall Staten Island satisfaction with available, district high school offerings. We had hoped that the early college offering would appeal to a wider range of Staten Island families than our previous schools ,which have drawn students primarily from the less affluent neighborhoods. But the Early College students have come from are the same neighborhoods as our other schools. The families to whom Staten Island charters appeal are those families who are dissatisfied with the education which their students are receiving in the district schools. These are predominantly less affluent families served by poorer schools and the families of struggling students, particularly those with special challenges. For most students and families in these circumstances, high school graduation may seem a long shot, college a distant dream. For these families, early college is seldom an important consideration.

The Early College appeal to 8th graders faced an additional challenge, one which it now seems we seriously underestimated. Eighth grade is an “unnatural” time to change schools. Students want to graduate from middle school with their friends. The anticipated “appeal” of beginning high school and then college a year earlier has not resonated in the way we had hoped. We are recognizing the wisdom of working with the natural school entry points (kindergarten/first grade, 6th grade, 9th grade). And we are remembering that our strength and appeal is in serving students who are lagging academically and socially, rather than the overachieving sector.

There is enormous energy in the process of beginning again. The energy of rebirth.

To study with Bernie was to be reminded always of the constancy of change. The most constant thing about Bernie was the frequency with which he was reinventing himself and the organization and the training paths which he was creating.

Every day that teaching is a wonderful jolt.

Almost three years after his passing, Bernie is still tugging on my coat.


[1] One of the two schools ranking ahead of us, Staten Island Tech, is among the most highly selective of NYC high schools while our students are all admitted through a lottery.