Fear

To engage in Zen entrepreneurship is to engage with the possibility of failure.

Working on this new charter application for the Bernie Glassman New Ventures Charter School to be located in southwest Yonkers, fear comes up.  

First comes the fear of failure. We are stretching. What if we can’t get this charter proposal done? I breathe through this. I have an easy way to talk myself through this year. I have the Christmas/New Year’s Holiday week. This Covid COVID year for sure I am not going anywhere. I will continue to socially isolate myself. I will get up at the same time in the morning to meditate. I will have the time to work on the charter. I keep breathing.

What if the proposal is rejected? It might be. I will feel hurt, rejected, embarrassed. I want to hit a home run every time. Take a breath. I know it took three application rounds over three years to get our first charter, the Lavelle Prep charter. New Ventures took two rounds, as did Nicotra Early College, although we were able to do those second-round applications in the same year so it didn’t seem as painful, as frustrating as the Lavelle Prep application. Only our fourth charter Richmond Prep was approved on the first try. 

I remember my conversation with Susan Lavelle in those early years as we waited to hear the fate of our third Lavelle Prep application.

“What will we do if we are rejected again?” Susan asked. Susan had signed on as a founding member of our board of trustees and had been instrumental in our naming our first school for her late husband, Staten Island Assemblyman John W. Lavelle.

Looking across at her —, — I think we were having coffee at a diner —, — I remembered a mother we met a few years earlier at an early community forum to discuss our school mission and design. She had come up to me at the end of the event to thank me.

“Every time I try to do something to get the schooling my daughter needs, the DOE does something to create new obstacles.”

And still, she persisted. At that moment, I had felt if this mother can keep fighting, I cannot give up. I have thought of her often. I think of her at that moment in the diner with Susan.

“We will keep trying.”

I knew too even then that our efforts were making a difference, that even in failure, our effort to create a school that would level the playing field for students living with emotional challenges and their families was making a difference.

What will happen if this initial application fails? We will learn from the failure. And we will use where what we learn to go back again. Stronger. Smarter.

I breathe. I know I have lived through this fear before. I smile at a familiar demon.

And then there is another fear. 

Getting a charter is an easy part. Then we have to do in practice what we promised to in the charter application. 

As we began writing the charter for the Bernie Glassman New Ventures Charter School (BGNVCS), it is becoming clear that we will be tackling homelessness. As we talk to Yonkers leaders, this is an emerging theme. And this theme resonates. 

In Bernie’s work in Yonkers, building the Greyston Bakery and the array of housing and social services with which he surrounded it, he was bringing to the societal table those who had been excluded. It feels so fitting that a school in his name would take up this challenge. 

I find the fear welling up. We have been encouraged to undertake this replication because New Ventures on Staten Island is the highest performing transfer school in New York State. Our program is wonderful. Our school team is wonderful. We have a plan to replicate this highly successful design and culture in Yonkers. But I am aware that other transfer high schools are working with students who bring different challenges. New Ventures State Island has relatively few students are living in temporary housing, almost no students with histories of incarceration. 

Will we succeed if we are serving a student population in which a much higher percentage is facing the challenges of temporary housing or homelessness? I feel the fear rising. Will we rise to the challenge?

I breathe. I realize that I am setting the bar in my mind very high. We never set out to become the highest performing transfer high school. We wanted to provide a safety net for kids who were not otherwise going to graduate from high school, to help them find a path to college and a career. Yes, I am thrilled and proud of the recognition which New Ventures Staten Island has achieved. Because of this, we are in a position to replicate. But the Bernie Glassman New Ventures Charter SchoolBGNVCS doesn’t need to achieve the same acclaim to begin to fill a critical gap.

There are other fears. Big fears and smaller fears. 

The challenge of new learning often triggers fear, nr. No matter what I have learned before. 

Bernie Glassman New VenturesBGNVCS will present new challenges. Operating over distance —: we have built a network of schools on Staten Island and are evolving management processes for a five school network. But Bernie Glassman New Ventures BGNVCS is not simply going from four schools to five, it is also adding the dimension of geographic distance.

Strangely, COVID-19 Covid has helped to prepare us for this. We have learned to do so much remotely that the challenge is not nearly as daunting as it was a year ago. There is a lot to learn,  but we have newly developed and, important skills and capacities.

And the challenge is more than distance. There is the challenge of bringing the school to a different community, a community that I don’t live in, that I have only visited (weekly, often twice a week, while I was studying with Bernie and Jishu). This is frightening, but not as frightening as I would have thought a year ago. The work we have done in our schools following the murder of George Floyd, post-Floyd to begin to address the racial divides in our school community has shown me something important: I did not know the Staten Island community as well as I thought. We thought we knew things that we didn’t know. We are learning we are continuing to learn. I am still breathing.

Perhaps then in entering Yonkers we have an advantage: we know that we don’t know.

For me, probably the biggest challenge lies in actually building a school program and culture which fully integrates, fully welcomes and embraces, and serves students living in temporary housing. We have done this successfully with students living with emotional challenges and other disabilities. That is a comfort. And this is different. This is a new challenge. 

This is new learning.

Still breathing. 

I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn. For me to learn. For us to learn. Each time we have opened a new school, we have discovered new things which as they ripple through our older schools enrich all our programs, benefit all our students. Stand-alone charter schools can become insular, closed systems. The growing school network continually brings new ingredients, new energy into the mix, fostering continuous learning and growth.