Well now that the first marking period is over, the students are settling in after Sandy, things are moving along, it’s time to take stock in exactly what is happening in the school, with the students collectively, and most importantly, with ourselves!
This is HARD WORK!!
Each week that passes it seems that the load of rocks we carry behind us gets larger and larger. Executive Director Sara Asmussen put together a holiday party for all of the new schools we incubated with at the New York City Charter School Center. It was such a great night for many reasons, mainly because it gave us all a chance to come out of our caves and see if we were experiencing the same problems with school culture. Thankfully, it seemed that all of us were getting our footing and that we had indeed experienced similar missteps, and that vast expanse of “what we thought it would be like” to what it “was actually like”. That is a significant difference, and for this blog, attention must be paid to The Great Perception Gap (GPG).
Now we’re all optimists, we’re educators! We look at our charters, review our mission statements, marry our cause and tally ho! Everything looks great on paper now, doesn’t it? Sara led the grand design of New Dawn in homage to our sister school, JVL Wildcat Academy, which has been operating for TWENTY YEARS. We know what we’re doing, what could go wrong? Well, let me tell you. This isn’t as easy as it looks.
Over the summer, our brand new staff came in wide eyed and bushy tailed, fully sporting the rose colored glasses. We all were. We created rules that we would establish for each of the classrooms, we would create this college atmosphere that gave students freedom to be responsible for themselves and the school community. It was a great planning time, and we all hoped that there would be a smooth transition to the new school year because we had planned ahead.
Then reality hit. After a small honeymoon phase, the behaviors began. And the frustration and re-evaluation began of our carefully laid out policies and procedures. For starters, particularly with our target group of students, presenting a college like atmosphere was too much freedom too soon. Classroom management 101 tells us that we need to start off like Attila the Hun and end like Theodore Roosevelt. Why shouldn’t the whole building be this way? A hard lesson learned.
Cell phone/iPod collection is another toughy. We made the assumption that when we told students to put their electronics away, that they would actually put it away. Several weeks later, and finally, we formally began cell phone collection with security and a wand that would scan each student coming in for their electronics. While the number of actual cell phones collected has declined, the actual usage of the phones in class has declined.
Curriculum mapping is another one. We are exclusively using Common Core Standards for our curriculum mapping system, however, there is still much to be done on so many levels. I think the biggest hurdle for me right now is getting the train moving at a faster pace. I want to be fully mapped and rated on the Tri-State rubric. This is hard to do when we aren’t finished with our maps for the year. As a first year school, we have to put the brakes on analysis fully, so we have the space to plan and evaluate how effective the plans were for our students. The desire to move forward, at lightening pace, is countered with the reality that the entire staff is brand new to using curriculum mapping software, and that they are still getting used to the format and how it figures into their planning and teams. When we first started thinking about curriculum, school wide units were a big idea we wanted to implement immediately. The reality is that our staff, while so great in collaborating and troubleshooting together, is still finding their own footing in the classroom. This is totally natural for the first four months of operation.
Ultimately, our big ideas will happen, but all in good time. The reality once again is that we as a school have to grow up as well. Sara keeps making a point to me when I lament about my own effectiveness as a principal- if you look at small businesses, the data shows that businesses that go from a ZERO dollar budget to a 3 MILLION dollar budget overnight most likely fail. And here we are, like our other newbie charters doing just that- going from a budget of zero with zero staff to a budget of 3 million with fifteen staff members that have individual needs to be successful. The odds of being successful are stacked against us. I am so thankful that we have a staff and I have boss/mentor that allows us to grow and iron out these kinks as they happen.
Is this harder than it looks? You betcha. The important thing is to be aware of the GPG and work the reality into the presuppositions to make things work. It’s also important to realize that it’s not too late to make changes. We got off to a rough start with our footing in the GPG, but we were able to overcome those challenges because as a unit we problem solved and recognized that we made mistakes. I’m pretty sure I said this before, but to err is human. We made mistakes and we were brave enough to say, “we made a mistake, let’s fix it.” This kind of process builds trust and community among the staff, knowing that they have the freedom to contribute to the fixes and build processes that will work for the future. It’s hard. But it’s good work, and with a group willing to row against the tide with you, good things will follow. Hang in there, it does get better!
The views expressed in Charter Notebook blogs represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association or the U.S. Department of Education.