Perfect Good

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

We are exploring the process of replication. It seems new to us, but actually, this is the third time we’ve been thinking about it. The first time was even before Lavelle Prep opened. Even in those earliest days, based on our school design, people were encouraging us to replicate. 

“There should be a Lavelle Prep in every borough,” they told us.

We were flattered. Excited, even. And ultimately overwhelmed. We opened Lavelle Prep on a shoestring with almost no infrastructure to support the school operation. The thought of traveling from borough to borough was overwhelming. The idea was dropped.

A couple of years ago, the idea of replication recurred, suggested by our pro bono corporate lawyers. But with a wrinkle.

“Build the charter sector on Staten Island,” they suggested.

Again we were flattered and intrigued. This time, we tried. The student demand was there already — beyond what we could accommodate at Lavelle Prep. So, we began the charter application for what we called “Lavelle Prep North”. We were warned off by the authorizers.  They were telling us that our prototype wasn’t ready yet.

And now, we are thinking about replication again. We are thinking about replicating New Ventures in terms of a multi-step process beginning from the mission, through school design, through building the first prototype, to replication, and finally scaling up.

These are not the discreet steps that they appear on paper. 

The process begins with a mission, an end in mind. 

We have been fortunate to have been clear from the start. Before our first schools were born, before even the parent organization, The Verrazano Foundation, was born — to level the playing field for people living with mental illnesses, emotional challenges, and other disabilities. As we have learned, we have refined our articulation. 

Our schools were designed from the start to fully integrate students living with emotional challenges with their more typical peers. We understood from the beginning the continuity of this mission, with the other struggles of the second half of the 20th century against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin.

What we discovered as we began to open our schools was how formidable the intersection of these factors was. When we look at our schools, we see the enormous challenges faced at the intersection of race, poverty, and disability. 

The second step in our process is school design. Responding to the challenge of leveling the playing field for students living with emotional challenges and other obstacles is to design the school. This design process was a major element, and the most time-consuming aspect, in the charter application process.  (The second major element was the organizing of community support for the charter application).

The third step, the development of first prototypes, has been the most time-consuming. We have done the initial design work four times, and we have received four charters. 

Lavelle Prep and New Ventures are far along in the prototype development process having opened in 2009 and 2015, respectively. Nicotra Early College, now in its third year, is early in the prototype development process. Richmond Prep, which will open in 2021, has barely begun this process. 

What we have learned is that between the dream, the vision, and design for a new school, lies an enormous amount of hard work, work which seldom proceeds in a straight line. The process of implementation is inevitably and intrinsically a learning process. Schools are designed with a “student” or “students” in mind. Sometimes, the envisioned kids show up. Most often, many of the students who enter a charter school (Remember, our students are selected through a lottery)  are not the students we expected. 

We adapt. We learn. 

When we are successful, we are relatively happy with our product, our school, our program. For instance, we opened Lavelle Prep with the intention of creating a college prep program that levels the playing field. Bottom line: Lavelle Prep is fully integrated. Students living with significant challenges and their more typical peers thrive together. Our students graduate from high school; most choose to go on to college. Lavelle Prep has always had a high graduation rate. This year, 100% of our senior class graduated.

For the fourth step, replication, it is not enough. 

Sure, the new prototype is ready for replication when it proves itself in practice and in operation. But, proves itself to whom? 

First of all to us, the entrepreneurs, the innovators. That’s basic integrity. We are not going to scale up until we are confident that the prototype will really benefit people.

Beyond ourselves, who else needs to be interested? In the case of charter schools, first, there is a need for a partner community interested in replication in their community. Not everyone in the community needs to be on board. Charter schools are controversial. There will be opposition. 

Currently, teachers’ unions often view charter schools as threats. But there needs to be a group of community leaders and parents whose children might attend the schools, who really want to bring our charter schools to their community. 

Is this absolutely necessary? Yes.

Does that mean that we wouldn’t go anywhere where there is opposition? No.

Charter replication faces an additional obstacle that is not often faced. In order to move forward, we need approval from the governmental charter-granting agency. They need to be convinced that the school to be replicated is high-performing, worthy of replication.

That doesn’t always occur just because we are proud of our school. Witness Lavelle Prep. 

We set out to achieve high-graduation parity for students living with emotional challenges and other disabilities. We are proud of what we’ve accomplished, but the authorizer looks at the scores which our students achieve in 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade high-stakes tests. In those grades, our students are still lagging behind district peers. The authorizers shake their heads. We frown. They are, we think, missing the forest for the trees. But they are the authorizers. 

Lavelle Prep, despite its success, is likely unreplicable in New York State until we get our middle school scores up.

Can we do this without undermining our graduation successes? Or the authorizers changing their school evaluation rubric?

Meanwhile, New Ventures is, by authorizer standards, not just the highest performing charter transfer school (schools serving a population of students who are two or more years behind their age peers in progress toward high school graduation), New Ventures is the top-performing transfer school in the state. Period. New Ventures is ripe for replication.

This is exciting but requires a word of caution. “Ripe for replication” does not mean ready for scaling up. Step One is mission clarity. Step Two is a school design. Step three is the prototype construction. Step Four is replication. Step Five is scaling-up.

The next step for us is to prove that New Ventures can be replicated. New Ventures success goes beyond mission and design. In the process of implementation, a lot was added. 

There is a magic in the staff chemistry that is palpable. They support one another, they are energized, passionate and they smile. 

This translates into chemistry among the students which help them to persevere, to transform previous educational failures into success. There is something special, too, perhaps in the Staten Island community which helped gain the support and participation of local elected officials, business, and community organizations crucial for the success of the New Ventures design.

How replicable are these ingredients? How well will we adapt to the challenges of a new community? Will we get it right the first time? Perhaps. How many successful replications will it take before we can say, “We know how to do this”? Only at that time are we ready for the next step, scaling up. How many years away is that moment? I don’t know.

We may be able to take step 4 replication now. We are proud of New Ventures. We have a powerful mission and a great school design which has proven itself in the prototype. We are getting to know some communities which are perhaps interested in partnering in replication. There appears to be a willingness on the part of the authorizer to consider replication.

Will replication be successful? I don’t know.

Will it lead to scaling up? I don’t know.

The only way we can begin replication is to take advantage of whatever opportunities which fall in our laps. The unique confluence of community support and authorizer interest doesn’t happen every day.  We must be nimble enough to respond to opportunistic invitations and move forward by trying things out at the same time we’re learning how to replicate.

The Zen entrepreneur lives in the present. 

Not to be living in the future. Each step presents enormous challenges. When we think too far ahead the challenges are overwhelming. To ask now how we will face the challenges of scaling up will stop us in our tracks. We can talk about possibilities, imagine scenarios. How will we know which path to take? We can only know that they will look different when we get there.

Not living in the past. When we pass the three-fold test of readiness for replication, a school is achieving our goals, another community wants what we have, an authorizer is satisfied that what we have is worth sharing, the criteria for moving forward have been met. We can decide for ourselves that we are happy with our prototype. 

We can always hold back. We can always focus on making New Ventures even better. And of course, we are doing that every day. And we can take the next, mission-driven step. 

David Frank, the head of the New York State Charter School Office is fond of quoting Voltaire. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”