Category Archives: Uncategorized

How to Build Community, One Cut at a Time

All my life I’ve been telling people that my father helped shape my work ethic with his example.  Today, on the day of his retirement, aside from recalling the thousands of corny jokes he has told, I realize that he also showed me how to create a loving community.

My father, Antimo Evangelista, known to his customers as Andy, began working in 1968 alongside his brothers Sigfrido (aka Siggy) and Bruno at the barbershop owned by Siggy and, at the time, another uncle named Nunzio.  My father and Bruno bought the shop (and kept the name Sigfrido’s) when Siggy retired 30 years later. For the past 10 years, my father owned the shop by himself, with Bruno retiring to fight a brave and inspiring health battle.

In a small family-owned business, there is no such thing as a middle manager, so if the shop was open (as it was every day except Sundays and a few major holidays), my father was there. For the past 10 years he has worked six-day weeks with no sick days or vacations, save for the few occasions when a rare day or two when one of his brothers would fill in for him.

That consistency — along with the 5 a.m. wake up, hour-long commute from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town, and the 11-hour day in the shop — are what taught me my work ethic. There is dignity and validation in putting in that kind of effort day, in and day out.

[caption id="attachment_530" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="The author and the owner"]Steven and Antimo Evangelista[/caption]

But there was an even more important quality that my father and my uncles brought to Sigfrido’s. As he has made his last cuts this week, we witnessed the reverence and care he had for his customers over five decades being returned to him by them. He treated each of them as equals — no matter their station in life — and they collectively let him know how much they will miss him and have appreciated his loving touch.

My father’s shop welcomed people from all walks of life. Manhattan’s wondrous diversity spilled into the shop every day. People on the fringes of society found acceptance in those chairs, some of them hanging around and becoming fixtures in the shop, because they felt the same respect as the police commissioner, the television stars and high-powered bankers who were also members of the clientele.

[caption id="attachment_532" align="alignleft" width="239" caption="The prices haven't moved in years."]The old fashioned cash register and storefront window[/caption]

As my dad wraps up his career, he’s cutting the hair of his first customers’ grandchildren. He has hardly raised the prices the last 20 years — he wanted to respect the needs of his customers — and along with that consideration and the old fashioned hot towel straight- edge shave, it’s no wonder those customers have sent postcards to the shop from seemingly every corner of the world.

Every day at our school we start the day with a morning meeting in each classroom. The purpose of the meeting is to convey a sense of belonging, importance and fun to each child. It is the foundation of our school’s commitment to a positive community. It’s something Andy, along with his brothers, did for his customers ever day for the past 48 years without a break.

Now did you hear the one about the guy who walked into the elevator with a supermodel?

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Letter to Testing Families

March 28, 2014

Dear parents of third, fourth and fifth graders,

As you know, the English Language Arts test is next week—Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

You have probably heard about all the controversy of parents “opting out” of the test and all of the fear and wrangling that’s going on. If you haven’t, ask around and get up to speed on the current debate in education, because we are in historic times and you can empower yourself and our community with information.

To summarize, many families are taking the extraordinary step of refusing to have their child take the state test because they are worried that there is too much emphasis on the “high stakes” test.

I very much agree with why those families that are protesting—but I think that opting out is the wrong way to approach it. Tests, good and bad, are a part of life.

At our school, we make our own decisions about teacher evaluation and student promotion. Test scores are only a part of those decisions. Our relationships with students and all of the in-class data we collect weigh much more heavily. We put the tests in their proper perspective, and they only serve to confirm or enhance what we already know about how we are doing.

I know that our scholars are ready for the test. We won’t be perfect, but we are going to do our best and use the test to show how much we have learned.

I want you to know that we have a number of incentives for doing well on the state test. If students hit their target test scores, they get to attend the Laser Tag trip coming in the fall. But even better, if they try their hardest and do their best (they will judge that with their teachers’ help), no matter their score, they will have a special dress-down day and outdoor ice cream party on a sunny day later in April. We are more interested in effort and improvement than we are in going crazy over high stakes scores.

Please support your child to do his or her best—get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy breakfast and be ready to focus and attack that test like a tiger!

Sincerely,

Steven Evangelista
Principal

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Any Family

The scene: a community board meeting in New York City, circa 2005.  A charismatic executive was speaking to the crowd about a new charter school network that was in the offing.  The executive emphasized that the school didn’t need community board approval but felt it was important to have the blessing of these community leaders.  After a few perfunctory comments about school design and achievement gaps, the executive uttered a carefully crafted statement I have been thinking about ever since:

“We will work with any family that will work with us.”

On the surface it sounds great, even noble.  Who wouldn’t admire such openness, even magnanimity?  A typical public school educator would probably shrug and say, “I do that every day.”  But a reformer with a cape coming down from the elite to work with the little people promises to work with them all!

A close parsing of the dependent clause of that sentence, however, reveals another side of the hero story and raises questions that get to the heart of a core issue about school reform and school design that our board of trustees will debate tonight at its public meeting.  Who exactly are we serving?  What is the real cost of serving everyone?  And who, exactly, wants to work with us?

An alternative—and, I would say, more noble–statement would be: “We will work with any family.”

The question of whether or not to include the dependent clause boils down to this: Are so-called high-performing schools of choice on one level just great sorting factories?  Are the “families that will work with us” just another way of identifying the same families that researchers like economist James Heckman would find already imbue in their kids the “soft skills” required to persist and be successful in school, college and life?

If so, what happens to those other kids?  The ones whose parents are intimidated by the prospect of charter school rigor, or by the demands of keeping up with the schedule and the requirements of having a child in a charter school, or who won’t agree or feel they can’t agree that it’s important to get their kids to school on time and in uniform every day?

Creaming and Counseling Out

According to defenders of the status quo, the charter answer to this predicament is to ignore the problem so it will go away for someone else to solve.  Charters allegedly use intimidating, even hostile techniques such as harassment both to prevent parents who are less engaged and equipped to support their child’s education from signing up (so-called “creaming” or “skimming” the best students and families) and, if they do sign up, to push out those less engaged parents once they show their stripes (“counseling out”).  This issue has long been Criticism Number 1 of charter schools, and charter folks like me have spent years denying that our own schools engage in such practices, even as we know, and admit, that it happens elsewhere to varying degrees.  (As an aside, I know that this practice occurs at district schools as well, increasingly as school choice has proliferated; I know because I’m curious and parents with firsthand knowledge and an atypically blunt principal have told me so.)

I also argue that de facto counseling out occurs as a result of high expectations.  If I demand that a child come to school on time every day—and then have our school social workers and parent coordinator work with that student’s family if the child is repeatedly tardy or absent —some families will choose the path of least resistance and transfer their children to a school down the street that won’t bother dealing with attendance concerns.  In these cases (which are rare) I don’t see an alternative for preventing that family from leaving our school other than lowering our standards—and that’s not an option.

Charter Choices

To the extent that there is counseling out, are charters making conscious choices to push out or exclude families that require greater resources or refuse to get on board?  Or do some parents self-select out simply as a result of the rigor or perceived rigor of school policies?  How aware are charter operators of the enrollment and attrition implications of their policies?

I believe that by failing to answer these questions explicitly, comprehensively and publicly, charter schools are wasting the opportunity to contribute to long-lasting, meaningful reform.  As a charter school founder and mentor of mine told me recently, “In 25 years no one will care about this school’s or that school’s test scores.  A rigorous analysis will be longitudinal, and start with all the students in a school’s original cohort.  If you’re only reporting on the ones who stay, you’re not doing rigorous research.  And no one should care.”

There are some charter schools confronting these questions, but I’m not entirely satisfied with their answers.  KIPP, among the largest and most respected charter schools, publishes its own annual report card that asks questions such as: “Are we serving the children who need us?” and “Are our students staying with us?”  The report contains statistical answers on how many students stay in the program and the demographic composition of students—more transparency than you will typically find in a public school district—but no analysis of how a “no excuses” policy impacts those statistics.

Is Harlem Link Intentional?

At our school, we have always believed that having high expectations can lead to an inclusive and still high-performing school, if all families are required to meet the same standards but support is provided to ensure that those who need help get it.  We have continually raised expectations—for everyone about everything—and have seen that the strain of meeting these expectations has exposed some disagreement over the standards by some families.

Examples of our policies include:

  • If a child comes to school out of uniform, we require that to change and are unyielding about it, but if acquiring a uniform is a demonstrable financial burden, we will provide a uniform.
  • We have hired multiple support personnel to hear the concerns of and provide support to parents—including two full-time social workers and one parent coordinator for our small student body of 300 students.   (There was one counselor and no parent coordinator at my first public school, which had an enrollment of 1,700.)
  • If a child comes to school late multiple times, several different members of our staff will contact the child’s parent or parents to offer support and remind them of the importance of being on time. If we ask for a meeting and a parent misses the meeting, we will ask to reschedule.
  • When seats open up in the upper grades, we continue to enroll new students to fill those seats.  We plan our budget accordingly, knowing the burden it places on all of us at the school to acclimate new families and students to our expectations and support new students who, on average, enter far behind the typical academic performance of our current student body.
  • We have three full-time Academic Intervention Services teachers to help with remediation for students who are behind academically.  (That’s one for every 100 students, compared to one for every 350 or so at my first school and probably most schools nationally.)
  • We have continued to support the independence of our parent association, which has since our opening year elected its own leadership, even though in some years in the past the parent willing to make the most noise and get elected president was a disgruntled one who used the office to grind an ax rather than make productive change for children.

Behind each of these policies is a conscious decision that has a discernible impact on the composition of our student body, on whether the children of parents who are uninformed about, feel powerless to control or simply disagree with our society’s norms about the basics of school readiness continue to attend our school.

Tonight, as we begin the process of building our next five-year strategic plan (2014-2019), we will debate whether we should continue these policies and others like them and we will take a stab at uncovering their true costs.

My presumption entering the debate is that if we are to take the stance that we are here to serve “all families” (without the dependent clause) we need more resources than we have now.  Two social workers and one parent coordinator aren’t enough—simply because instruction needs my full-time attention and that of our other instructional leaders.

Right now, we’re half an instructional team.  Half our attention seems to be occupied with issues like those described above.  (I’ll bet the ratio is even higher for many district school principals.)

What if we had not only two but a full team of social workers, who would work not in the school but in needy families’ homes?  What if we supplied everyone with a uniform?  What if we had intervention teachers who only worked with individual students who were new to the school in the upper grades and need remediation?

Well, you might say, why don’t you do all those things already?  Why don’t you spend your money more wisely to meet your mission?  You won’t typically find me saying, “Schools need more resources.”  That’s because I know that the money that is currently allocated to district schools in high-poverty neighborhoods is typically not well-spent to begin with.

In addition to having a strong curriculum, faculty and school ethos, I hope I have demonstrated that our school has already devoted significant time and money to providing support to families that need it and ensuring we attract and retain students of all varieties.  What I’m saying is, if we are to serve “any family” and not just “any family that will work with us,” we need a parallel school, one for the soft skills that in high achieving communities are taken for granted.

You don’t have to look far down the street from our school—Geoff Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone are basically trying to do these very same things (except, they were a social service agency that started a school rather than the other way around).  Our questions are different: What can one school do?  What can each school do?  What does each school need to do?  And tonight at our board meeting, what ought we do?

This post also appears at Chalkbeat.

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Response to Bullying

“Isn’t it in our DNA to hurt each other?”

The question came from Taj, a fifth grader who is getting ready to graduate after six years at Harlem Link. The occasion was an impromptu discussion I started in his class’s morning meeting on May 21, the day after a bullying-related suicide by a 12-year-old in Queens.

Although we don’t have a bullying “problem” at our school, I told Taj’s class we did. “As long as this abuse continues to happen around the country and close to home,” I said, “I feel we have a responsibility to do something about it. This problem is ours as much as it is for that school in Queens that the 12-year-old girl attended.”

After 10 or 15 minutes of whole-class and small-group discussion, Taj had the penultimate word, and it was up to me to close the conversation and get on with the day.

But I was stunned and stung by his words. I did not know how to answer.

So I told Taj and his classmates: “That’s a really complicated question. I’m not going to answer it right now. As you grow older and learn more about the world and about history in middle school and high school and college, I hope we can keep talking about it together, because it is a really important question.”

I decided I was not going to lie and say that the world is a fundamentally peaceful place. I could have provided lots of platitudes. I could argue convincingly that humans are good, and that meanness and evil are aberrations. I know that these thoughts are partially true.  I also know that the whole truth is far more complex. I don’t know if a fifth grader can understand the full picture, not as it might be drawn in a quick end-of-meeting comment.

When Taj is older, I hope he reads Thomas Hobbes and thinks about the idea of the social contract.

I hope he comes to agree with me that, yes, we all have the capacity and sometimes the will to hurt each other, but one thing that makes us human is our capacity to choose a different course.

I hope Taj studies enough history to know that war and violence seem always to be with us and that the violence he has already witnessed in his own life is only a harbinger of the lives of others that have been altered by aggressive, hurtful behavior, and nothing more than that.

I hope he comes to appreciate how damaging it is to a local community—and to the entire human family—when one person hurts another.

I hope he decides that, while violence seems always to be with us, the choice is always there, and it is clear.

“Each one of us can be a hero,” I continued. “We can summon tremendous patience, as did Nelson Mandela, to stand up to bullies and refuse to be intimidated by them. We can find within us courage, like that of Dr. Martin Luther King, to speak up when we see bullying happen and help people who feel they have no voice.”

I’m fearful that our graduating fifth graders will go out into the world and be hit with relentless evidence that the answer to Taj’s question is a simple, “Yes, of course.”

So this conversation only strengthened my resolve to keep our school dutifully involved with the lives and education of our alumni. How long will it take for Taj’s middle school to discover that he is wrestling with this choice? That he is dealing with this one particular flavor of that universal adolescent conflict, “Who am I?” And how can we help?

What would you tell him?

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“No gadget is going to fix it.”

That’s the closing statement in an article summarizing a new study debunking the claim that giving out computers to poor families will somehow improve their educational and economic status.  Researchers set out to determine whether providing free computers would close the wealth gap between rich and poor families.  Surprise!  It didn’t.

As I said in a blog post a year ago, I’m not opposed to new technology in schools.  And I do think that it’s unfair that one child growing up in a wealthy community has the latest gadgets, but another child in poverty doesn’t.  But when it comes to education, I am strongly opposed to seeing technology as a panacea, rather than as a tool toward higher goals and in the service of a clear and compelling mission.

Let’s fix the basic aspects of school environments–the ones we have always known are the most important for children’s development and learning–and then worry about the gadgets.

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