Last year, in one of the first blogs, I wrote about Our Hedgehog. Waiting for my daughter, Jamie, to finish something she was writing at Barnes and Noble, I stumbled upon Jim Collins’ Good to Great. His Hedgehog concept helped us crystallize the core of our success.
Collins explained that 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.
We knew what we were passionate about — leveling the playing field for students living with emotional challenges.
We also stumbled onto our economic engine. After months of debate, our first charter school planning team had come up with a complicated formula for a mix of students with more severe and less severe emotional challenges as well as “regular kids.” When we couldn’t sell our complicated three-tiered lottery to the NYS Education Department, fifteen percent special education or a 100% special education, were the only two alternatives they would accept. Yet, neither fit with our vision of integration. Instead, 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.
Accidentally, we had found our economic engine. Our “Hedgehog” was emerging.
Since then, so much has happened.
We have expanded our first school, Lavelle Preparatory Charter School, to serve elementary as well as middle and high school students.
We opened New Ventures Charter School, a transfer high school serving over-aged, under-credited students.
Both are proving enormously successful.
Students who no one expected to succeed are now graduating from high school, and, in high percentages going on to college.
Last summer, we opened our third school, the Nicotra Early College Charter School. In 2020, we will open our fourth school, Richmond Preparatory Charter School, which will extend the Lavelle Prep model of success by reaching out to students on the Autism Spectrum.
All of our schools are college prep programs and fully integrate special education students and general education students in every class and program.
Every year we are refining our approach to providing 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 fail to thrive in the industrial, factory designs of contemporary American education as we know it.
Are we the best in the world at this? It’s hard to tell. But we may be the best in our student market.
We are really the only schools in our niche, providing boutique, college preparatory high school programs on Staten Island.
This is our Integration Charter Schools Hedgehog, and 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. Our “Hedgehog” is our hedge against grandiosity. Our success does not mean that we know how to do everything.
However, we have known from the beginning that no Hedgehog lives forever. The impermanence of all things is a fundamental lesson of Zen practice. Attachments, even to a beloved Hedgehog, can be a trap.
Although we have succeeded by concentrating on doing our one thing well, we vary our school design around this one focus to serve a diverse student need we have heard from both friends and critics that “college is not for everyone.”
Our integrated model has succeeded by moving everyone toward college, even our late bloomers who continue to struggle through middle school, only catching up later. A major reason that they ever catch up is that we do not give up on them through their years of struggle.
years ago, when the national student loan debt surpassed credit card debt, we adopted a broader focus on college and career readiness. So, we then set out to provide our students with employable skills at the same time that they prepared for college. Our hope was that that they would have the option after high school of earning while learning and thereby be able to reduce their borrowing.
At the same time, concerns have been mounting about the successes of our students in college. While there are graduates who are doing extremely well, many are struggling. We are not surprised, really. After all, our students flourished in a learning environment which was designed to accommodate their unique qualities, qualities which had previously confounded them in regular public schools. Most colleges are not like this.
Our faculty, which is certified in special education as well as the course content, looks and feels quite different than the faculty of the colleges they are attending — where, at the risk of sounding bold, they almost universally know nothing whatsoever about pedagogy. Is that why many are foundering?
Perhaps college, at least what is available today, really isn’t for everyone? Can we relook at college and career readiness and consider shifting the emphasis?
Yes, everyone needs the college-ready reading and math skills to succeed in the world of tomorrow. But maybe not everyone needs to go to college to achieve success. There are good jobs in the New York Metropolitan Area which do not require a college degree — like those in healthcare, computer programming, and building trades.
Have we grown sufficiently and gained enough success in our singular efforts to prepare an integrated student body for college, that we can consider broadening our focus?
Have the challenges of college, including cost, as well as changes in both the job and higher education markets created a new set of circumstances demanding evolution of our Hedgehog?
The Hedgehog remains, as Collins first showed us, an incredibly important tool for maintaining focus and for avoiding the distractions which could undermine our successes but nothing is forever.
Nothing is permanent.
Is this a moment of change?
Wisdom is the ability to see when to make a shift and when to stay the course.