How I Lead

This Colorado principal thinks educators should stop turning to experts — and look inward

PHOTO: John Beard and Jim Dodson, Jefferson Middle School, Oak Ridge Schools

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

As principal of West Grand Elementary and Middle School in the northwestern Colorado town of Kremmling, Jess Buller noticed something alarming a couple years ago: his middle-schoolers were disengaged.

It prompted Buller and his staff to redesign the school schedule. Today, students are happier, more relaxed and doing well academically.

In addition to recounting that experience, Buller told Chalkbeat about his first nerve-wracking call to a parent of a misbehaving student, and why he has little patience for political rhetoric.

Buller is one of five principals and assistant principals selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program aims to get educators involved in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
My first job in education was as a high school German teacher in Gretna, Nebraska. I was fresh out of college and moved right into a position where I was department head and sole teacher of beginner through advanced German. My plans always involved education; I just struggled to narrow down the content area. I danced around English and German as well as music, finally realizing that my true passion was helping students acquire another language.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I _____ Why?
Pray. It takes a lot of strength, courage and wisdom to do this job. Alone I am weak.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
Getting to know students is a very challenging part of the job. Fortunately, I work in a smaller district so getting to know students becomes an inherent piece. When I have the opportunity to speak with students — be it in my office, the hallway or the classroom — I try and dig to get to know them better. I want to gain whatever insight they are willing to offer into their interests and their background in order to find a common bond we can build upon.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
During the 2015-16 school year, we recognized that a need for a change to our middle school schedule was imperative. Students were going through the school day like bricks through a factory and there was no real connection to the content.

As a staff, we spent the year researching effective models and schools of thought regarding a better middle school experience, ultimately coming up with the model we currently operate under — a flexible block schedule. The change provides larger blocks of time for core subjects and aligns subjects strategically to emphasize cross-curricular units. It has proven extremely beneficial to our students as they are happier and more relaxed. Oh yeah, and they are experiencing success in school as well.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
I seek always to view discipline as an educational opportunity. Students exhibit negative behaviors for a variety of reasons. To simply write them off as “habitually disruptive” or (even worse) a “problem child” without making any effort to understand the behavior would simply be setting them up for future problems. We all know there are consequences for our choices, so if I am able to work with students from that level — and perhaps even instill some empathy in the process — I can reduce the probability of repeat offenders.

What is the hardest part of your job?
To be truthful, I don’t handle lip service and political rhetoric very well. “Do what is best for students” has become an overused phrase we toss around in the world of education, but we never really get to the heart of what that means. We can easily hide behind programs and data and attend conferences headlined by “gurus” in the field, but we often do those things at the expense of putting ourselves under the microscope and asking if we truly are doing what is best for kids. Nobody wants to admit where they struggle — or perhaps even fail — but the difficult discussions are what will help us ultimately grow.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
It was the first time I had to contact a parent. I had some behavioral concerns about the child and was hesitant to make that initial phone call. Some of the teachers on staff assured me that the student’s mother would make excuses for the child’s behavior and ultimately end up blaming me. I went ahead and made the call and the response I got was memorable. The child’s mother thanked me for the conversation and let me know that she would speak to her daughter about how things needed to improve. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Parents appreciate proactive educators who have the best interests of their children in mind.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
The children’s books “Skeleton Hiccups” and “I Wish That I Had Duck Feet” (favorites of my 5-year-old son).

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Some day you will get credit for the things you don’t say.”

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.

How I Lead

‘A lot of the first year is just figuring it out’: What it takes to help run a community school

Photo courtesy of Salem Gregory (left)

Salem Gregory spends her days juggling meetings to review attendance data, supervising social workers and guidance counselors, and making sure her students have what they need.

But she’s not a principal. She is a community school director responsible for tearing down the physical health and emotional barriers to learning her students face. And thanks to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expansion of the program, more leaders like her are stepping into schools this year.

Gregory, who technically works for the school’s nonprofit partner, Wediko Children’s Services, acknowledges it’s a big task. “It takes a while to get a system set, and a lot of the first year is just figuring it out,” said Gregory, who has been on the job at M.S. 363 Academy for Personal Leadership and Excellence in the Bronx for two years. But, she added, “it was exciting to start something new in tandem with the school.”

For this edition of “How I Lead,” we asked Gregory about how she became interested in the job, and what she considers the biggest misconceptions about how community schools work.

 

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

I have always been drawn to working with students and families. In high school and college, I was actively involved in a variety of community service and volunteer projects. Spending two summers at the Wediko summer residential program in 2009 and 2010, I received exceptional training in working with students with severe social, emotional and behavioral issues. I was able to meet great people who introduced me to the field of social work, and I was drawn to exploring human behavior within the various environments they inhabit.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I _______.

Greet students in the morning. It helps keep me grounded in the work and sets a positive tone for the day.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Wediko supports students where they are in a variety of ways. One is through our milieu approach. We are often in the hallways during class transitions, in the lunchroom, speaking with students as they arrive and depart, and in the classrooms supporting small group and individual instruction. This enables students to gain trust and build rapport with other adults in the building who are not their teachers, and for the Wediko counselors and clinicians to become seamlessly integrated into daily structures and routines of the school day.

In some key ways, you share the role of leading the school with the principal. How do you split leadership responsibilities?

The principal and I communicate regularly. We have set weekly meeting times, as well as informal check-ins as needed. While I support the academic and instructional pieces and play an integral role in this process, Wediko is the “go to” for anything relating to social/emotional programming, and managing all community partnerships within and outside the building.

What’s the biggest misconception about the community schools program?

It is not a one-size-fits-all program. There are so many community schools across the city with a variety of strengths, assets and areas of development. Oftentimes it is easy to lump schools together within a certain category.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

We’ve had the opportunity to partner with the Bronx Adult Learning Center to support two evening ESL classes for adult learners in the building. It’s been a great opportunity to engage with the surrounding community in a different way, and expand the supports we can offer in the school.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

Running the “Parenting Journey” group for a small group of parents was a very memorable experience for me. While I am not a parent myself, facilitating conversations around parents’ own experiences growing up, their relationships with their own children, and sharing hopes for the future completely changed the way I think about parenting and what it means to be a parent. The women I worked with were incredibly resilient, funny and faithful. I can only hope to have their strength and wisdom if I ever become a parent.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

While this is not directly related to education policy, federal immigration policies have impacted our families. We have continued to develop the school as a safe space for everyone and communicated regularly with families regarding these changing policies and increasingly unfamiliar system.

We have been able to partner with community based organizations specializing in immigration law that allow parents and families to know their rights and seek resources for support.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Stay connected to people. Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best.