September 25, 2012
I get asked frequently why I’m helping to start a school. I have three different answers to the question, depending on the audience. All are true, and I’m not sure they’re contradictory. The first story is the particular one. The personal one and the political one will follow.
I left Bronx Lab School at the end of the 2010-2011 school year. After 13 interviews, half of which led to offers, I joined the Academy for Young Writers, and two months into the year, I was the happiest I had been professionally for a long while.
In October, our principal told us the school was offered the chance to move from our crumbling Williamsburg building, which would see a new school added to it the following year, to a brand-new, state-of-the-art building. Not only that, the school would expand to be a 6-12 school, something long hoped for.
The rub: The new school would be in East New York. While this would improve the commute for most of our students, it meant my 20-minute bike ride would turn into more than an hour commuting by subway and bus. I told my principal that if the school moved, I wouldn’t actively seek out a new job for the fall, but if the right opportunity fell into my lap, I wouldn’t hesitate to move on.
In early January, a friend told me she knew someone great who had just been approved by the Department of Education to open a new school. When I emailed Kate Burch to find more about her school, I was skeptical. Having joined Bronx Lab in its second year and experienced the challenges of growing and sustaining a school, I swore I would only join a school in its infancy if the conditions were otherwise perfect.
Yet Kate’s plan for Harvest Collegiate High School was perfect — and perfect for me.
The school’s mission, which emphasizes teaching students to use their minds well as they become producers, rather than consumers, as a primary way of being in the world, captures some of my greatest hopes for education. The plan emphasizes common Habits of Mind, authentic assessment, a proficiency-based assessment system (what I normally call standards-based grading), and a curriculum that offers students a tremendous amount of choice in their classes. Most importantly to me, the school is a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a pilot member of the Consortium for Performance Assessment, a longstanding cadre of schools whose students demonstrate their learning through projects and presentations rather than simply on state Regents exams. On top of that, the school is part of the Institute for Student Achievement, the same organization that started Bronx Lab and Young Writers and with whom I do a lot of work. The school’s theme of harvesting and food production was not my first choice, but other than that, the school plan was one I would have written.
Kate and I set up a meeting for the following weekend. In the meantime, I reached out to people who know her and only heard wonderful things. Before going to meet with Kate and Atash Yaghmaian, our social worker who also helped put the plan together, I had a good feeling about the meeting, and I talked with my wife about starting a new school to get her blessings before the meeting.
Kate, Atash and I talked for about two hours in a small coffee shop in the West Village on a Saturday evening. We found immense common ground, with my ideas for the school often being things they already thought of and hoped to do. Still, I had one non-negotiable litmus test, which I usually save for the end of an interview: how long the principal plans to stay. I view starting a new school to be a life’s work, and it should not be taken on unless core founding staff are planning to see the school through for the long term.
When Kate volunteered early in the conversation that she didn’t have any further ambitions and planned to lead Harvest for the next 20 years, at least, I was relieved. I told her I was not interested in coming to a new school to as a teacher, but rather as a full partner in planning and implementing the school, which she embraced. I didn’t realize that I was having a formal interview to join the planning team until Kate offered me the opportunity at the end of the meeting, and I joined without hesitation. My wife and I celebrated that evening.
I expected to wake up sometime later with a sense of “oh my god, what did I get myself into?” But it never happened. I said I wouldn’t start a school unless conditions were perfect, and they are as close to that as they will ever be. That does not mean Harvest or my experience will be perfect. I know far better. The challenges ahead are immense. But Harvest has a number of advantages that will give it the opportunity to thrive. Some are the result of smart people, and some come from good and lucky conditions. I am humbled by our task, embarrassed by our riches, but more than anything, absolutely ecstatic to begin the journey.