I mentioned that I had some experience in a new school in the last blog and I thought it might be interesting for you to know a little more about that experience, lest you think I am just making all this "positive change" stuff up. I am sending this out as a love letter to the families considering the "new program" in Park Slope, PS 705 and New American Academy in District 17, PS 414 in Williamsburg and the myriad of new charter programs that are popping up in many districts, including BUGS Middle School that I hope will find a home in fall of 2013. My kids attended a local, diverse, strong and established elementary - our new school experience came at middle school. If you think that this doesn't apply to your situation - let me say that it I think it is a lot easier to "pioneer" at elementary when the kids are little and mostly under the influence of their parents.
In the olden days, when we were looking at middle school choice, there was only one school that our neighborhood families would consider. For a number of personal reasons, my kids didn't want to list it highly on their app. A new school had just opened and even though there were no test scores, student stats or attendance rates - we toured. I liked the new principal. She was authentic and had vision. She had a lot of experience as an educator, and while not as a principal, I knew that she understood the ins and outs of dealing with the DoE and she really "got" the teachers' dilemmas as well. My litmus test is considering if I would like to work for that principal. If I think she would be a good boss, I figured strong teachers will feel that way too. The nice thing about touring a small school is that you can meet EVERY current teacher (if it is a brand new program, you should make every effort to learn about the new hires), because there aren't that many. I spent significant time talking to each one and I liked them all. We signed up without seeing any of the students. My kids were both offered seats at NEST+M in 6th grade (this tidbit for all my BBPOT friends who are told they are screwed in the school search because they have twins, it was not a sibling thing either, because middle placement is different from K). We didn't take those seats because we liked the prospect of this new school better. Needless to say, ALL our friends, neighbors and relations thought we were insane. It just felt right for us and the other schools didn't.
This new school didn't draw from a small catchment area, it drew from the whole district and the student body turned out to be very diverse. It was 25% white. It was so long ago that I don't remember the free lunch eligible numbers, but I am sure that it was high. I called our new little school "the island of misfit toys". They were a rag tag band of kids who were willing to take a chance and their parents, for lack of a better word, had cojones. My kids loved middle school (imagine that). They made friends for life. 8th grade was their best year in school. They found a passion for science. They grew as sensitive and tolerant young adults directly because of their middle school experience.
And for me: the first week of school, the Parent Coordinator stopped me in the hall and told me a sweet little story about my girls on the playground. She not only knew the difference between my identical twins (something that I occasionally have trouble with) but she told me who they were playing with and what they were doing. This was huge for me and it was the way this lovely "family" operated for all our years there.
This school had a world of challenges in those first years - some that many of you will never have to face; a relocation, a renaming, an outside co-location of a third school in the building and significant resources being stolen during the move. Some families left when there were challenges, but most stayed and became fiercely active and devoted to our little home. I found my passion. I had been a minimally active parent in my kids' elementary. I made the occasional poster and staffed the annual stoop sale. In middle school, they needed me. I was a full time working parent, but my second job was supporting our school, researching grants, designing and leading the tours, managing the meager recycling program. My 11 year olds saw that I was happily obsessed with their school and they followed my lead. If you want your child to be engaged and involved in their own education, you MUST lead by example. They will succeed if you expect it of them and you show them that you really care about supporting their education. Writing a check for the tutor is one way, driving to Bensonhurst to pick up dry ice for their class' experiment is another. It turns out that when they graduated I couldn't stop talking about schools. I used to paint scenery for Broadway and feature films. When my kids entered high school, I hung out my shingle to help families navigate the school search.
Many, many schools will not succeed - problematic principal, spotty staff, in-fighting among the teachers or PTA, low attendance, poor follow through, no momentum or involvement. You need to do your research and trust your gut. If you have a talented administrator, who will be a good boss, who can collect her staff from scratch with an eye for talent and collegiality and have a critical mass of active parents who are fiercely passionate about their community - personally, I don't know how you can go wrong.
Oh yeah, out of that "island of misfit toys" - 75 kids who began in the school's second year - 4 high school valedictorians/salutatorians: Stuyvesant, ER Murrow, Eleanor Roosevelt, International Studies. That Principal has gone on to found Brooklyn Millennium, a local high school that you will all be coveting in a couple years.