The other day, I found two boys hanging out in a small alcove in front of our school health clinic. I can always relate when I see kids hanging out and not wanting to be bothered– as a teenager, this was all I wanted. But now is now, and I have a job to do. “Hi gentlemen, nice to see you both. I’ll need you to go back to your classes now.”
“We have passes,” they said politely. Each handed me an official pass to the health clinic, waiting for me to profusely apologize to them and allow them to keep hanging out.
“Great, thanks,” I said. “The health clinic doesn’t open for 10 minutes. You can come wait in my office while I work so you’re not in the hallway.”
There was an awkward silence. “Oh, OK. Thanks.” I had taken away their privacy.
In a diverse high school like ours, students’ clothing can fall at two ends of the spectrum: revealing, or very conservative. Students from Dominican Republic might see a crop top as normal school wear, while a student from Yemen might see a female’s bare arms or hair as taboo. It’s an interesting balance.
When I founded our school in 2011, our students wore a uniform, but enforcing it became too much of a full-time job. Instead of saying, “Why aren’t you wearing your uniform?” I wanted to just say, “Hi!” Parents and kids said they wanted the uniform but so few wore it that we abandoned it. Now, students can mostly wear what they want.
At our school this year, we do a “grab and go ” lunch in which students can grab a packaged hot lunch and take it home, or eat it in a classroom. We did this to avoid using the cafeteria due to COVID. To make sure students don’t get hungry earlier in the day, we give them a mid-day snack.
We discovered early on that some lunches were more popular than others: chicken nuggets and french fries? There would be a frenzy of students and not a single meal would be left over. Fish and green beans? We’d end up with 50 leftovers. (Unfortunately the healthier the lunch, the less popular it is. Luckily we had a teacher who took the leftovers to a food pantry where they were much appreciated.)
To get our lunch quantities right, I assigned myself the job of visiting the cafeteria kitchen every morning. I chat with the staff, learn what they’re serving, and then together, we make a lunch estimate so there’s minimal waste.
Our high school is made up almost entirely of newcomer immigrant English Language Learners. Every May we give students a required test that measures English proficiency.
The test includes a a 15 minute speaking portion, which is delivered 1:1 by a teacher. The speaking test starts with a simple Warm Up: “A. What is your favorite animal? B. What do you like to do at school? C. Tell me about your favorite foods.” The teacher then asks the student a longer series of questions from a booklet. Topics range from doctors to telescopes.
In our school, we enlist all teachers to administer the speaking test: physical education teachers, art teachers, math teachers, everyone. Continue reading →
Our students are passionate about food. This past week, I was reminded of how that passion can actually support learning.
Our school is participating in NYC’s innovative Participatory Budgeting Program for students, in which the student body is given $2000 to spend on the school, using a democratic process to propose ideas and vote on them. The first thing the students came up with was “better food.” Given that our students are from cultures all over the world, this was not a huge surprise. Through the program, the students learned that spending the money on food would not be a sustainable project; it would result in perhaps one to two meals for the entire school, and then the money would be gone. They quickly moved on to other ideas.
Each year, one of the most exciting things we do is interview and hire new teachers. Now, in our school’s 8th year of existence, I realized a new possibility: we can hire our former students as teachers.
Since our school’s first year in 2011,* we have had students serving as tutors to other students. It started out as tutoring each other over the summer: kids who had passed state exams in math tutored those who had failed. The tutors earned a small stipend. That summer, many students passed the math exam.
Over the years, we’ve shifted the tutoring opportunities. Now, we give seniors who are on-track to graduate the opportunity to tutor their 12th-grade peers who need support or to serve as teacher assistants in 9th and 10th-grade classrooms. Continue reading →
Trees on Pelham Parkway that greet our new students and families.
One of my favorite TV shows is “Undercover Boss.” In the show, the CEO or president of a large company is given a disguise and goes undercover as an entry-level employee in their own company for several days. From that vantage point, the CEOs are able to see the inner-workings of their company from the ground-up: the good, the bad, the perplexing.
I often create what I call “undercover boss” moments in my work. Of course, I don’t wear a disguise, but when opportunities appear where I can quickly do a task that I normally wouldn’t do, or briefly fill in for an employee, I take it. I gain invaluable insights into my school and a deeper appreciation of the work my staff does on a daily basis. Continue reading →
I founded the High School of Language and Innovation in 2011 with eight teachers teaching 90 students. We have now grown to 28 teachers and 350 students and have interviewed hundreds of candidates over the past seven years. In our interviews with teachers, we ask questions about topics like teamwork, teaching, taking responsibility for student results. But there is one question that tells us volumes about the candidate.
The question is, “Tell us about a time you received a piece of critical feedback. What was the feedback and how did implement it?”
We had a visit of 11 first-year teachers from other high schools, part of a new teacher support initiative in the Bronx. My school was one of 15 schools chosen for the visit with a focus on teaching methods for English Language Learners, as the majority of our students are newcomer immigrants who are learning English.
I told my leadership consultants, Ariel and Shya Kane, about the visit. “First-year teachers? They’re going to compare themselves if they feel insecure,” said Ariel. “Set them up to not compare, and look at your school with a beginner’s mind so they can learn.” Continue reading →
I remember my school having a Career Day when I was in 10th grade. I eagerly signed up for journalism, picturing an exciting, glamorous session around undercover reporting. At the end of the day, I was clear that I didn’t want to be a journalist. Getting clearer on what I didn’t love got me interested in other careers. The experience was invaluable.
This past Friday, my school held its first-ever Career Day.
I walked into the auto mechanic presentation. Joe, a friend of mine, had brought a huge bag of tools from his auto shop and laid them out on a table. A student, Yonas, who immigrated from Eritrea last year, looked fascinated. * Continue reading →