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Ed. Magazine

Construction 101

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Starting your own school isn't easy. Beyond having a good idea, you need ingenuity, nimbleness, patience, tolerance for risk-taking, flexibility, and courage. Oh, and a bit of chutzpah helps, too.

A look at a few Ed School graduates who have tried to start their own.

A year into planning for the school he wanted to establish, David Silver, Ed.M.'01, was despondent. Two teachers he'd lined up had quit. He still didn't have a building, and he had discovered, to his dismay, how much he needed to learn about managing people.

Quite frankly, Silver wanted to give up. He was ready to call it quits on creating an elementary school in an impoverished Oakland, Calif., neighborhood called Fruitvale, where 70 percent of the students were English language learners and more than 90 percent came from lowincome families.

But Silver, then 29, persevered, determined to create an elementary school with strong family involvement and collaboration between teachers and community, all united around the vision that every student would one day go to college. The Think College Now Elementary School opened to great acclaim in the fall of 2003, yet by the end of its first year, just 8 percent of his students were proficient in English language arts, 23 percent in math. Achievement was slow to rise, despite Silver's best intentions. Then he engineered a major shift in the school's approach, and by 2008, proficiency had risen to 54 percent in English, and more than 63 percent in math. Silver is expecting increased achievement in 2009.

"When I started the school, I thought that the kids would do well if everybody was working together and passionate with a common vision," recalls Silver, now 36 and the school's principal. "But we realized we needed to get our assessments aligned with California standards and use data from those tests to inform our instruction. We were focused on process and details instead of people and outcomes. Now we are getting results."

For Silver, those results validate his decision in the late 1990s to look beyond the strictures of traditional American classrooms and dream boldly about what could be done to reach low-income minority children struggling to make the grade. He quickly realized that starting a new school took much more than a good idea. He also needed ingenuity, nimbleness, patience, tolerance for risk-taking, flexibility, courage, and a healthy dollop of stubbornness. Those qualities -- and more -- were needed to develop curriculum, find a building, drum up community support, and convince policymakers that his vision deserved support.

Silver opened his school at a time in the history of American education when innovators could get traction for their dreams, with support from private foundations, state governments, local boards of education, and graduate programs like those at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Many of these new schools are focused on solving one of our society's most intractable problems: how to close the achievement gap between low-income minority students in our nation's inner cities and their white middle- and upper-class contemporaries in the suburbs.

Silver has plenty of company among alumni from the Ed School who have established new schools from California to New York City, creating charter schools outside the purview of local school boards, innovative schools within municipal school districts, or independent schools with a new twist.

Some, like Silver, are young and idealistic. Many launched their careers in poor communities, where they grew frustrated with the traditional public school system's resistance to change. They came to Harvard, where their ideas incubated in the scholarly community, and then blossomed in new schools that got planted upon graduation or soon thereafter.

"I was young, optimistic, and a little arrogant," says Xanthe Jory, Ed.M.'00, founder and executive director of the Bronx Charter School for the Arts. "I was 27 then and had taught in a public school with a culture of failure that prevented any positive change from taking place. I thought I could do better."

Others, like Paula Evans, M.A.T.'67, and Regina Rodriguez- Mitchell, Ed.M.'74, are veteran educators who have long worked within the system and now want to use what they have learned over decades.

Rodriguez-Mitchell, cofounder of the National Collegiate Prep Public Charter High School in Washington, D.C., says she wanted to use her quarter-century of experience in urban education to create a school where inner-city teens could thrive. Her school, which opened in the fall of 2009, will be among 59 charter schools in the District of Columbia that serve 36 percent of the city's public-school enrollment.

"It takes some chutzpah to think you can do it," says Rodriguez- Mitchell. "Over 25 years, I've seen how schools have worked and how they haven't worked. I have such passion for kids. I'd like to see if I can get it right."

The 21st century has proved a heady time for educational entrepreneurs. The emergence of charter schools in the 1990s provided manifold possibilities for educators to create new schools outside the purview of local school boards, where innovation and experimentation were encouraged. The smallschools movement has created opportunities within school districts, as sprawling comprehensive high schools are split up, and smaller entities are created to offer more personalized instruction.

There are also educators like recent graduate Will Yeiser, Ed.M.'09, who opened an all-male independent middle school this fall in Asheville, N.C. His new school, called the French Broad River Academy, has no more than 12 students per class and uses the river and the surrounding watershed as the basis of study. The program includes outdoor and experiential education as well as global understanding through international travel and study.

Yeiser became disillusioned with traditional schools after teaching Spanish for three years in the Asheville City Schools. He brought his idea for a new school to Harvard, where he fine-tuned his concept, learned about financial management, and took courses to develop his skills as a leader. Now he's learning to handle financial risk. During the first year, he'll rely on tuition and most likely take out a loan. He needs a minimum of 12 students to start the school; he's hoping for 16 and would love to attract 24.

"It's a scary economic time to do be doing this, but if you believe in something, I think you have to make the leap," he says. "You have to believe that the safety net will appear or you may not even need it."

Professor Patricia Albjerg Graham, former dean of the Ed School, notes that the past 100 years in U.S. education have seen at least two waves of new schools that swept across the education landscape when dissatisfaction mounted challenges to the status quo. At the start of the 20th century, many Roman Catholic parishes established parochial schools to make sure that their parishioners' children were raised both American and Catholic. Decades later, dissatisfaction with excessively regimented schools led innovators to create "progressive" schools that emphasized the arts and distinctive modes of instruction.

"All of these efforts were supposed to improve the learning of students, though it has never been absolutely clear what will do that," says Graham.

The current wave of innovation in charter schools differs from earlier reforms by focusing on governance, with charter schools freeing educators from oversight by elec
ted school boards. The charters can also operate outside of rigid work rules and tenure protection enjoyed by unionized teachers across the nation.

That was one of the motivating factors that inspired Evans to found the Community Charter School of Cambridge in 2005 in the city's Kendall Square neighborhood. Evans, who worked for 15 years at Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform, returned to Cambridge in 1999 to serve as principal of Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, the city's main public high school. She left after three years, making the choice to start a charter, which has a board of directors but does not report to a board of education.

"I was asked to come in to Rindge and Latin to make the school more equitable and raise the standards," says Evans. "It was good work, but it was difficult work. The politics got in the way."

With her charter school, there's no tenure protection. Her 27 teachers -- eight of whom are Ed School graduates -- work on one-year contracts, which Evans decides whether to renew. "If you can't dismiss someone who clearly is not doing the job, it does a real disservice to the kids," she says. "If a kid in a suburban district like Wellesley or Newton has one bad teacher, it's not going to matter that much. But if one of my kids has an incompetent teacher, that's a huge hole that isn't going to get filled at home. This is urgent work we are doing."

Adjunct Lecturer Linda Nathan, Ed.D.'95, teaches a class at the Ed School called Building Democratic Schools. She has more than 20 years experience starting up new schools and was also instrumental in setting up the Boston's first performing arts middle school -- an experience she shares in her class, which is for students thinking about becoming educational entrepreneurs.

"You have to be able to balance many spinning plates at the same time," she says. "You have to suddenly be as good at teaching and instruction as you are at figuring out what to do with the window sills in your building."

Peter Turnamian, Ed.M.'99, who interned with Nathan in 1999 during the Boston Arts School's first year of operation as part of his educational leadership program at Harvard, was hired in May 2000 to serve as the founding director of the Greater Newark Charter School in New Jersey. The school has had its charter renewed three times, and Turnamian is now looking to expand the school, which serves grades 5-8, to include grades K-4 by August 2010.

While he has won a $250,000 grant from the Newark Charter School Fund to finance the expansion, he still needs a building to rent for the younger grades because his current school doesn't have room. (The state of New Jersey does not provide capital funds to construct schools.) Turnamian doesn't want to replicate the experience his current school had over its first three years. For two years, it operated at a church. The next year the school rented three doublewide classroom trailers that he parked behind the YMCA, which let him use its gymnasium for physical education class. The school finally found a home in a parochial school that had been closed by the Archdiocese of Newark. In 2008, Turnamian signed a 10- year lease.

"If you don't have a stable facility, it can undermine everything else," he says. "It was a real victory for our school to have the stability provided by the archdiocese. It was a good deal for us, and the archdiocese has a permanent tenant."

Juliana McIntyre, Ed.M.'64 knows the importance of that all too well. Every Friday for 15 years after founding the Princeton (N.J.) Junior School in the basement of a church in 1983, McIntyre and her four teachers would pack the school's materials in her car trunk to make way for church programs, and then unload them each Monday. (They'd also need alternative classroom space on days that weddings or funerals were held.) Her patience paid off: Today, the school, which serves grades preK-5, is housed in a spacious building constructed in 1998 in Lawrenceville, N.J.

"It was very improvisational at the beginning," says McIntyre. Which is why keeping in touch with others going through the same struggles can help. Over the years, as Turnamian's charter school came together, he kept in touch with Nathan, to get her advice and share the travails in the trenches. Amanda Gardner, Ed.M.'04, the founding principal at Boston Preparatory Public Charter School in Hyde Park, Mass., says she continues to tap into the Ed School network that was formed during her year in the School Leadership Program. Many still live in the greater Boston area, and they meet monthly at Charlie's Kitchen in Harvard Square to talk about the new schools they are building. They also keep in touch with an email listserv for those in their program who live elsewhere.

"It has been a great support network," she says.

Winning permission from local and state education authorities for one's dream school can be an arduous process, testing an educator's patience and ability to please a broad range of constituent groups.

Dean Leeper, Ed.M.'03, is in the final stages of winning approval to open the Kindezi School in Atlanta, a K-8 school with just six students per class. It has been a long journey for Leeper, who grew up in Atlanta and now has his fourth application for his school before state authorities.

"I'm thinking the fourth time's a charm," he says.

Leeper, 32, began his education career teaching second grade in 2001. He came to Harvard a year later, then taught fifth grade in a Washington, D.C., charter school. While there, he became frustrated teaching a classroom with 24 students. He saw so many students who didn't thrive in such a large group, and he felt the traditional public school system precluded him from giving his students the attention many of them needed.

"I had one student having problems who would come in early, and in those moments in the morning, in the small situation, he'd be getting the attention he wanted," recalls Leeper. "I started thinking about a school with small classes. It was a crude vision, and I've been working towards it ever since."

After a dispiriting experience at the D.C. charter school, he moved back home in 2004, and that summer ran a summer program for children at his local food cooperative, telling parents that if they liked his approach, he'd homeschool them for free in the fall to test out his model. They agreed, and that September he welcomed six students from fourth through seventh grade. It was a labor of love, with Leeper doubling as teacher and his homeschool's bus driver.

He was going deeper in debt, but by 2005 felt the model worked and began the process of starting up a charter school in southwest Atlanta, one of the city's poorest areas. His first board, however, included members who often became embroiled in shouting matches at community meetings. That wasn't helping to build community support, so he dissolved that board, recruited new directors, and finally applied to the Atlanta Public Schools in 2007, hoping to open in 2008.

The proposal was kicked back for revisions, submitted again in 2008 so school could open in 2009. The school board approved the plan, which triggered a $250,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation to support the start-up and early years.

But then the Georgia State Board of Education balked, unwilling to back Leeper's school governance experiment, in which the teachers would be organized like attorneys in a law office's partnership, and have the power to hire and fire teachers as well as the principal.

Leeper was in a bind. He already added two more employees to the staff, and he'd selected 14 of 16 teachers selected for the school, which would open as a K-3 and add an additional grade over the next five years.

So he had to retrench, telling the teachers they wouldn't be needed in the fall. He became the school's lone employee again. He presented the revisions to the state board of education
in May and as an educational entrepreneur, remains optimistic that he'll be approved in December.

Besides, the extra year will give him more time to make sure his school is ready when it's time to open. "There's a huge learning curve to starting a school," says Leeper. "And it's such a rollercoaster. The highs are really great, and the lows can be crushing. But I'm patient. I'm confident my school is going to open."

-- David McKay Wilson is a New York-based freelance journalist. His last piece for Ed. looked at the pros and cons of families being involved in school.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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