Vision

The Buddha tells the story in the Lotus Sutra of the spiritual seekers setting out in search of what? Enlightenment?

Their guide points and far in the distance they catch a glimpse of glimmering towers of gold. The trek begins. Day after day, through arduous terrain. At first, they catch sight of the towers only occasionally, in clear weather, from high ground. But day after day, they persist, and eventually, the sight of the towers becomes more constant, and as they continue, day after day, the city of gold appears to grow.

“We are almost there,” they think and push on with renewed vigor.

Day after day. Day after day.

On some days, it seems they will never get there, but they can see it. They can see the city getting closer and they persist.

Finally, they arrive. They collapse on the outskirts and pitch their tents. There is singing and dancing and rejoicing.

And then in a few days, their guide announces that it is time to pack up. It is time to move on.

The seekers are shocked, horrified. “No, we have finally arrived. Why should we leave?”

The guide reminds them, “You were seeking what? Enlightenment? The City of Gold is not what you are seeking.”

“But you told us,” they cry. “You pointed to the City.”

“You have come a long way. You needed the belief in a destination in order to come this far. Without that vision to sustain you, few of you would have been able to begin this journey.”

Enlightenment is not a destination. It is a journey. Our visions help sustain us on the way. Everything changes.

In our first charter, we envisioned a role in educational reform beyond the schooling of the students we would serve. We envisioned Lavelle Prep as a beacon of hope and inspiration for families and educators nationally who wished for integrated learning opportunities for their children but were thwarted by the stigmatizing views of atypical students then so prevalent in America.

Even before Lavelle Prep opened, we were being encouraged by many to bring the Lavelle Prep design to all five boroughs. It was intriguing, flattering, but the idea went nowhere. I was personally unready to take on the logistical challenges. And we were very busy with a start-up school. Almost all of our energy was going into the multiple challenges of making a new school design a reality. 

But everything changes. Three years later when our pro bono attorney suggested that we build the charter sector on Staten Island, — we were the first charter school on Staten Island and at the time one of only two, — we jumped on the idea, immediately pushing forward with a replication application for Lavelle Prep North. This seemed possible. It was a pathway to growth that wouldn’t require me to spend hours every week commuting between boroughs.

The idea died almost immediately. We were advised by the SUNY Charter School Institute to which we had applied that our application to replicate was premature. Lavelle Prep had not yet really demonstrated that it was an idea that worked educationally no matter how appealing the proposition might sound. It was not ready for replication. We pulled back our application.

Everything changes. Two years later, we tried again, not with an application for replication but with a new school design, for a transfer high school. (A transfer high school is a school for overaged and under-credited students at risk of dropping out, or not graduating.) 

At the time, New York City was operating 51 transfer high schools in the five boroughs, only one in Staten Island. The unmet need was enormous. These were students who were dropping out of school, the throwaway kids, the excluded.

Our application was rejected. But we had gained skills, particularly political skills since the Lavelle Prep North foray. Within months, we were able to reapply. This time the charter was approved.

In the process, a subtle shifting in the vision had happened, unnoticed. Without thinking we shifted from the typical charter school growth strategy in which an original school design is replicated, each school in the typical network providing essentially the same school design to a different community. We had embarked without fully realizing it on a very different vision of growth and a very different vision of what success might mean for us.

Rooted in our understanding that no school design could meet the needs of all atypical students, we had embarked on the project of creating a network of schools, all serving the Staten Island community, all offering slightly different educational strategies and designs. We were envisioning a network of programs fully integrating students living with emotional challenges and other special needs. With four differently flavored schools operating on Staten Island, we are now able to say that between the alternatives we offer and those offered by the district schools, Staten Island parents of special needs students enjoy a greater range of choice than parents in any other community in the United States.

But everything changes. For six years, we focused on growth without replication. But with no further charters available on Staten Island and the likelihood that it may be years before any become available coupled with the unanticipated success of New Ventures which had become the highest performing transfer high school in all of New York State, we were encouraged to once again consider replication.

I did not dismiss the possibility, but I didn’t jump on it either. We had a lot on our plate.

Then within days, two possibilities appeared. The voice of the Universe?

Could we work with the Shinnecock Nation, in Southampton, on the eastern tip of Long Island?

Now that was an exciting idea. Native peoples are perhaps the most excluded of the excluded. A year earlier, working with Zen Peacemakers International, we had begun a dialogue with the Lakota about creating a charter school on their reservation in South Dakota. But the time was not right. The ingredients were not there, the logistics very demanding. The Shinnecock are closer. We began meeting weekly.

At the same time, an introduction was made to charter people in Yonkers. Could we bring New Ventures there?

Wow. Very intriguing. Personally. What an amazing circle it would be if we could bring ICS which had grown so much from Bernie’s inspiration and teaching to the same Yonkers community where Bernie had built Greyston. 

Could we possibly apply for two charters at once? One for Yonkers and one for Southampton.

Why not?

Would Zoom make everything possible? I went from a meeting in Yonkers to a meeting in Southampton in the same afternoon. Before the Pandemic had taught us to work with Zoom, this would only have been possible by helicopter.

It would be a heavy lift but there was a need and there was desire.

Maybe.

But then the Shinnecock pulled back. The time was not right for them. The ingredients were not in place.

Meanwhile, pieces were coming together in Yonkers. We could share a building with an existing charter. Their leaders were eager to collaborate. This is a critical element. If the hardest hurdle in opening a charter is getting the charter, a close second is getting a school facility. And the leadership of The Greyston Foundation was welcoming. A circle of Bernie’s students and successors raised $50,000 to cover the costs of charter writing and initial relationship building in Yonkers.

Everything changes. As we moved ahead toward an application for a charter for the Bernie Glassman New Ventures Charter School, an alternative way of looking at the work we had been doing for 12 years arose: To look at our school building work through a venture capital lens. 

This came as a surprise. I had always looked at Lavelle Prep as our flagship school, for no other reason than that it was our first. But there was New Ventures, recognized for out-performing all other schools in its transfer school niche, while Lavelle Prep, despite some remarkable achievements was not yet a “model”. (Our early college high school was still finding its legs. Our newest school which will integrate students on the autism spectrum was not yet off the ground.)

Looking afresh at these schools through a venture capital lens, the world looks different. Each of our schools is an experimental, innovative design. Each is designed to address an existing gap in public education systems, a different model for providing integrated educational opportunities for atypical students.

Lavelle Prep provides integrated college prep programming for students living with emotional challenges.

Richmond Prep provides integrated college prep programming for students living on the autism spectrum.

New Ventures provides an alternative approach to “transfer schooling” which utilizes hands-on learning opportunities to move students efficiently to graduation.

Early College and Careers provides integrated access to an early college program for students whose challenges, — special needs and social disadvantage,– likely prevented them from achieving the early academic success which would allow them to access typical early college programs if any existed in their community. (1)

Venture capitalists make commitments to new products and services and they do so without the expectation that all of their investments will pay off. Only a relatively small percentage of investments need to be “winners” in order for investors to make money.

“Winners,” viewed from the venture capital perspective, would be those school designs that demonstrate the effectiveness which makes them replicable in many communities. Viewing our “investments” in new school design in this way, we can be thrilled that we already have one “winner”. New Ventures is a “winner”.

In our charter school world, we don’t have to abandon the others, those which have not yet achieved stardom or perhaps never will. Lavelle Prep, for instance, can still continue to serve Staten Island well. It is worthwhile. It serves the community. And as we continue to work at it, improving our ability to demonstrate its effectiveness in middle school, its success in laying the groundwork for high school success and also improving our ability to speak clearly to the niche that it serves, Lavelle Prep may yet achieve “stardom”.

We can look at our work through these two different lenses, on the one hand, building the Staten Island parent choice menu and, on the other hand, testing new school designs with a view toward replication. 

The challenge facing ICS is to see how we want to deal with these two things which are happening simultaneously.

First, we can nurture our Staten Island menu of opportunities. For the near term, with a cap in place on the issuing of new charters in New York City, our growth opportunities lie in the expansion of our existing schools. The most promising of these seems to be through the eventual expansion of the early college program and Richmond Prep to serve students in grades six through 12. This year we will be serving over 1300 students. We will have revenue of around $38 million. These expansions would increase enrollment to 2600 students and annual revenue to over $60 million.

Second, we can begin to scope out what it would take to scale New Ventures. Scaling will require a whole set of skills and capacities, human and financial, which are beyond what ICS is currently capable of. (While ICS can manage the first replication in Yonkers or elsewhere in New York State, significant scaling requires a different structure). This new structure can be independent of ICS or it can be related to ICS in a variety of possible ways. The plan to do this doesn’t yet exist.

ICS can move in one direction, or two. We can scale New Ventures (and in the future other of our school designs) or we can allow someone else to take this ball and run with it. One way or another everything changes. That is the journey of education reform.

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship

My senses have been stripped

My hands can’t feel to grip

My toes were too numb to step

Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering

I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready to fade

Into my own parade

Cast your dancing to spell my way, I promise to go under it
— Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man (2)

  1. None did exist on Staten Island when we opened our program, and ours is still the only one, although there is another now open which pretends to offer early access but only guarantees a pathway to an associate degree on the normal timetable.
  2. © Universal Music Publishing Group. 1965.