leadership prep

In quest for better leaders, charter sector program looks inward

Niomi Plotkin, center, talks to John Harrison and other charter school leaders during the ELF orientation.

For the city’s charter sector, the task of building better leaders begins with self-reflection.

The project of understanding what makes a good leader — particularly for charter schools, which have some of the highest principal turnover rates — is what consumes the 20-odd educators who gathered at the New York City Charter School Center this week to kick off the sixth year of its leadership training program.

When they return to their schools later this month, the educators will face diverse challenges. One pair comes from a school that has nearly doubled in size faster than expected due to make up a budget shortfall. Another is from a rare standalone school serving kindergarten through 12th graders, which will be preparing its first cohort of students to graduate and apply to college next year.

But on a recent morning, all of the participants were focused on the same question as Heidi Brooks, a professor from the Yale University School of Management, talked them through a platitude-heavy presentation about identifying leadership qualities.

“How would you describe yourself as a leader? How do you describe a great leader?” Brooks asked the group, then began taking down their answers until ink filled a sheet of poster paper.

“Positive,” “self-aware,” and “systems-aware” topped the list of traits.

Finding talented school leaders, and convincing them to stay at a school year after year, has been an ongoing challenge for city charter schools — and a problem that James Merriman, the charter center’s head, lamented at a recent state education reform commission meeting. The center is trying to chip away at this problem for a handful of independent charter schools that need well-trained, effective administrators at the helm as they grow to their full size, but don’t have the same recruiting resources as the large charter networks.

This year, the center has invited seven schools, including the New York Center for Autism Charter School in East Harlem and VOICE Charter School in Long Island City, to send one or two school leaders and teachers through its year-long leadership training program, called the Emerging Leaders Fellowship, with the goal of preparing the participants to become administrators at their schools.

ELF is designed for people who are already working in schools and want to stay there, said its director, Niomi Plotkin. She said those people are already familiar with their school’s cultural norms and can be more committed to its mission.

“It’s a different kind of sweat equity, because you’re already invested,” Plotkin said. “We find that makes for better leaders.”

Past fellows have gone on to create an online summer school and a data analysis system for tracking performance at their individual schools, and about 80 percent of fellows have become principals or administrators.

But the first lessons built into the program had little to do with school management. Instead, they focused on fostering conversations between participants and their mentors (most of whom are also their school supervisors) about leadership styles and the importance of self-reflection.

Plotkin said these questions will lay the groundwork for participants to consider what it means to be a leader as they move into more intensive lessons on how to foster strong school culture, recruit a top-notch staff, and manage student conflicts.

Liz Springer, the middle school director for Hunts Point’s Hyde Leadership Charter School, said she joined ELF program out of a desire to puzzle through those subjects within a network of other charter school administrators, which Hyde lacked. She applied to join the second cohort of the program in 2008, after she and colleagues realized they could use more help at the school, which has been expanding to span all grades. Since then, a half-dozen more Hyde teachers have completed the program, and Springer has returned to mentor more teachers in the program this summer.

“The job of being a principal is hard. We get a lot of awesome, type A, overachieving people in the charter sector, but even with that you can’t do it by yourself,” Springer said. “With autonomy comes responsibility. We have the chance to be completely innovative, but there’s a lot to think about.”

The list of a school leader’s concerns is long, she said, ranging from school culture and finance and budgeting to accountability and community engagement. ELF will cover each of these subjects in Wednesday evening sessions over the next several months. In between, the teachers have reams of photocopied lessons to read about character-building, effective team-coaching and conflict resolution.

Most of the educators who joined in the weeklong orientation said they wanted to grow professionally without leaving their schools.

John Harrison, the director of English and language arts programming at Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School, said his principal encouraged him to join the program to gain skills he would need to run a high school once Inwood Academy expands beyond its middle school. But first he wants to learn how to define the role of school leader so it isn’t overwhelming.

“I think for me the primary issue for the high turnover rate of charter school leaders and burnout comes from the fact that roles are more loosely defined in our schools because they’re so new,” Harrison said. “We have a lot of freedom, but it’s kind of a blessing and a curse. You sign on to a particular role and you don’t always know what you’re expected to do.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.