Being the “right” school

Subway image by julie nariman

In 2005, I started working at a transfer high school for students ages 17-21 who needed to catch up academically. All of the students who attended the school came from regular New York City High Schools and had transferred to the school looking for another opportunity. I fell in love with the population and was inspired by how a new setting could create a second chance at success.

Five years later, I decided to submit a proposal for a transfer school through New York City’s Office of New Schools.

“Actually,” I was told by the office, “We don’t need any more transfer schools. We need regular schools. Why don’t you just open a regular high school that does such a good job, kids don’t need to go to transfer schools?”

This idea resonated with me. Yes, I thought. I’ll be the school that does such a great job, kids never fall behind and never even have to consider a transfer school.

My proposal for a new high school was accepted with an additional idea: the Office of New Schools wanted me to open a high school for newcomer immigrant English Language Learners, as there was an increasing need to address this population. In 2011, the High School of Language and Innovation opened in the Bronx with a class of 9th-grade students from all over the world.

At the start of 2015, Joshua, a 12th grader, was struggling. He had become a class clown and had fallen behind academically. Adding to this, he had arrived at our school fluent in English—while English was his second language, he had come to the country at a much younger age than most of our students, and if we were being honest, a school for second-language learners was probably not the best place for him, and never had been.

I still had the idea that we could make it work with Joshua. We had meetings with his parents, tried out new behavior plans, switched around his schedule—anything to make it work.

But it wasn’t working. I had to be honest with myself. I was trying to be the “right school” for every student, but in a place like New York City where there were dozens of diverse school options for every kid, this was starting to be unreasonable. My school was great for a lot of kids, but not for every kid.

Finally, I suggested a transfer school to Joshua and his parents. They were initially resistant to the idea and expressed how comfortable they were with our school. “You call us whenever there’s a problem,” said his mother. “I like that.” She felt like we were rejecting Joshua.

After a few more conversations, though, Joshua’s mother attended an open house at a transfer school I knew and loved. Joshua was quickly accepted to the school and started a week later.

Joshua’s mother called me a month later: “You were right,” she said. “We love the new school. Joshua is doing great.”

Insisting I could be the “right school” for Joshua was akin to trying to be the “better parent”—when one parent competes to be the more skilled, or the more fun, or the wiser parent, rather than cooperating with the other parent as a team to do whatever is best for the child. I had been competing and proving to myself that I could help any student, rather than looking to see what was appropriate and which schools could be a better fit. Being a great school didn’t mean being the only school or the best school for every kid; in this case, being a great school meant giving a student access to the best school for him.

Joshua came back a few months later, gave me a bear hug, chatted about his new teachers, and said, “Miss, you wouldn’t recognize me. I’m like, a serious student now.”

The name and identity of the student has been changed.

Detail of subway art by Soraya Lacerda, Creative Commons License.

5 thoughts on “Being the “right” school

  1. I really appreciate this post on a number of levels. First, I like the simple acknowledgement that we cannot always be all things to all people. That is a 20th century industrial-era education mindset. Second, I love how you got to the point where you focused on the individual. That takes some courage because our human tendency it to try to make others conform to us as opposed to thinking deeply about what they need. Third, you were willing to point out options to others. Some will tell a student and family that they might not be a good fit, but you took the extra step of pointing them another direction. Kudos for the steps you took with this student!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thank you so much, Drew! This means a lot, as even writing this post, I still wondered, “Should I be writing about a time we couldn’t make it work with a student?” But you’re right in that we focused on the individual, rather than making him conform to us– which would have never worked. I always appreciate your articulate comments.

    Liked by 1 person

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