Monthly Archives: December 2009

The Most Important Things in Life

The holidays have always made me think about the most important things in life – no, not shopping, the weather and religious conflict. I have on my short list health, family and principle. (If you’d like to start a good argument, ask someone you love to rank those in order of importance.) It has occurred to me this year that my list plays out at our school as well.
 
Health’s cousin, safety, is our No. 1 concern at Harlem Link. And it should be; while the new state education commissioner recently lamented that he inherited more than 300 staffers to regulate school kitchens and only one to study science curriculum, I don’t think he would be happy if a child lost his or her life because of food poisoning. The recent norovirus outbreak in a Staten Island public school and the unwarranted (or perhaps preventative) panic over the H1N1 virus illustrate the possible danger of keeping 30 people in a small room, all day, five days a week.
 
When Margaret Ryan and I did research in preparation for the founding of Harlem Link, we found that safety was also the No. 1 concern of parents who attended our focus groups. In Harlem in the late 1990s, physical altercations were common in public schools and protecting oneself by fighting back was de rigueur for kids. (Though I think the situation has improved, fighting is still the default mode for settling disputes in those schools that have not been able to engender a culture of professionalism and learning.) At Harlem Link, we have zero tolerance for violence, and we put into practice the ideas behind the broken windows theory, which posits that fixing or preventing small environmental problems prevents bigger ones from developing or being encouraged.

Recently we had a case of offensive graffiti in the boys’ bathroom. Although no one was physically hurt, the serious penalties for the students involved were imposed because these students endangered the safety of their schoolmates – by threatening the protective web that the school staff and parents have created for our children.
 
With regard to family, it has always been obvious to us that, while a school is only as strong as the quality of its teachers and the consistency of its practice, family involvement is an inextricable part of that quality and consistency. When I came into teaching, the standard operating procedure was to compartmentalize a child’s day into three segments: “home time,” during which what happened and what the child was learning was a vast, perhaps hurtful but certainly not worth investigating mystery; “school time,” during which all learning occurred and which was the only time that was expected to matter when it came to a child’s education; and “after-school time,” which was another discombobulated part of life that had no relation to what was going on in school time or home time. (You could also throw in “recess time,” which was some combination of home time and school time in the sense that it occurred in school but no learning took place. Exactly what went on at recess time was a big mystery and, it was thought, probably dangerous.)
 
That compartmentalization made about as much sense to me as the signs that I still see in some public schools saying, “PARENTS STOP HERE” or “PARENTS ARE NOT ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT.” A principal once explained to me that “since some parents are crazy, and if we allow one parent in the school then we have to allow them all in, allowing parents in will mean that we will have to let the crazy parents in.” It didn’t take me long as a teacher to learn that there are no crazy parents – only crazy disagreements, miscommunication and value clashes, the kind that can only be resolved, perhaps ironically, if they are addressed by adults sitting at the same table to discuss their shared goal of helping a child in need.
 
I’m proud to say that at Harlem Link we have had a significant boost in our family participation this year. Our Friends and Family Fridays, in which students and family members from across different grades enroll in creative courses such as cooking and clay modeling, are now part of the school routine. In the spring we plan to launch a partnership with Iridescent, a nonprofit organization that brings scientists to schools to work with kids and families to develop fun, age-appropriate courses on physics. Our Community Outreach Group (COG) meetings, now held on Friday evenings, have drawn a record average attendance so far this year, and in February, at least 55 parents and school staffers will take a bus to Albany to talk to legislators about Harlem Link and charter schools. That group will be led by our COG president, Ms. Valerie Babb, who was chosen as the Director of the New York City Charter Parent Advocacy Network. Harlem Link’s chief parent is now the face of New York City charter school parents! Most important, through our open door policy for families, regular written and phone communication and highly attended family-teacher conferences, our staff continues to work hard to communicate with all families on a regular basis about the education of their children.
 
We are steadfast in our belief that – especially at the elementary level -students cannot succeed without serious parent involvement and a strong relationship between home and school.
 
And principle? It plays out at Harlem Link all the way from the state government level to the student level. The choices to support, govern, run and teach in a charter school – even the choice to enroll one’s child in a charter school-are all principled actions taken in the belief that things can be better than the way they have been. We in the charter community think that public resources should be used efficiently and that it’s unacceptable for a system of schools to be so big and unwieldy that thousands of never opened books should be deposited in the trash because they are now outdated, as recently happened in one of the buildings we used to inhabit. It’s unacceptable for schools to be set up, as the schools chancellor can frequently be heard saying, primarily for the convenience of and the benefit of the adults who work there, as opposed to the success and benefit of the children and families they serve.
 
Make no mistake: everyone at Harlem Link has made a sacrifice of some sort to be a part of our school, and these sacrifices were based on principle. Teachers and administrators have left the job protections, pensions, etc., that a larger school system promises. They did that in order to participate in a forward-thinking, coherent learning community. Parents have risked the scorn and rankling of their peers and even family members by leaving a public school system that has been part of Harlem for generations. For Harlem Link’s founding parents, some of whom will see their children graduate from the school this June after five years of growth, there was the risk in 2005 of sending the most precious part of their lives to an untested, unknown quantity that, for all they knew, wouldn’t even exist in five years.
 
On the staff and student level, our steadfast belief in the power of principle plays out as adherence to our organizational core values. We believe that these values – courage, integrity, kindness, patience, responsibility and wonder – are universal across cultures and epochs. These values inform everything we do, every conversation we have. They are the source of rich discussion in the classroom and with families in good times and in bad. When children do inappropriate things, we don’t give a knee-jerk response or rigidly follow our code of conduct like a chef adding the next ingredient to a dish. The code itself leaves room for addressing individual needs and making individual responses to behavior, fostering reflection and understanding of why it’s so important to demonstrate, in the school and in life, the values we espouse.
 
It’s not easy to live by principle at our school; the temptation to take the easy way out, the shortcut, is always there. At times the administrative team has had to devote hours and even days of attention to one family, one child, to sustain a strained relationship and set firm but appropriate boundaries to enforce the school’s core values. And we know – like the time spent choosing the perfect gift for the holidays for a loved one – that this time is an investment that pays off in the long run.
 
We have seen the results of taking shortcuts in educating the young people of Harlem, and with our belief in health, family and principle, this holiday season we remain as steadfast as ever in our new, dynamic approach.

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