Happy Holidays! We have a lot going on at Harlem Link, and we are proud to share it with you in The Harlem Link ink, our small bimonthly newsletter. Please pass it along to those who might be interested.
Founded in 2005, Harlem Link is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, public school. Students are admitted by lottery, we collaborate with the New York City Department of Education on a number of issues and policies, and the demographics of our student population closely resemble the district public schools in our neighborhood.
With the calendar turning over to 2010, renewal of a different sort is on our mind. In the next issue we will announce the results of our charter renewal process, which is soon to be completed. The State University of New York will play its noteworthy accountability role in deciding whether Harlem Link will offer an excellent education for at least another charter term.
For now, please enjoy our short stories in this edition about some of the innovative and exciting things that are happening at our school. I hope you'll see that the ways in which we have exercised the freedom allowed to us by the charter law are making a significantly positive difference in the lives of the children and families we serve.
Margaret Ryan and Steven Evangelista
|On Link Street|
West 112th Street is approximately a mile long, from Fifth Avenue in the middle of Upper Manhattan to Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River. Given all the traffic lately between two institutions at either end of the street that mile should be renamed Link Street!
Bank Street College - and its affiliated School for Children - is one of the nation's preeminent schools of education, with a nearly 100-year history of cutting-edge research and effective practice. It was recently cited as one of only seven exemplary teacher education programs in the country by a study of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. Teacher education programs have come under fire from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for their lagging role in education reform - but not Bank Street, where a high ranking member of Duncan's team recently visited on Bank Street's graduates' high retention in the field, and praise for innovation and excellence from research groups such as the North Carolina based Center for Teaching Quality, and private non-partisan organizations such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Now Harlem Link is providing opportunities for Bank Street faculty, students, and graduates to demonstrate that its approach can provide measurable gains for traditionally under-served students. Harlem Link has always been steeped in the values and educational philosophy of Bank Street - such as the notions that children learn best when they are actively exploring while guided by a skilled, purposeful adult and that learning continues throughout life - but the interaction between the two institutions is at an all-time high.
Reflecting on the Bank Street's long record of innovation and while also looking ahead, the college's dean, Jon Snyder, says, "Making sure that our work remains relevant in the schools of today and tomorrow is a goal that we have and it's a way that we can work to mutual benefit with Harlem Link."
Dr. Susan Goetz-Haver (pictured above at left discussing book choices with a third grade Linkster) served as a board member on Harlem Link's founding team, and has been the school's literacy staff developer, working on a contract through Bank Street, for the past four years. Several Harlem Link faculty members and administrators are Bank Street alumni or are pursuing graduate degrees there now, including third grade teacher Mike Cassaro, who is in the Bank Street Math Leadership program. Harlem Link also has had at any given time as many as six student teachers from Bank Street working in its classrooms. Finally, Harlem Link founding teacher Janine Blunt (shown at right working on collages with first graders) has made three visits to the School for Children this academic year as part of her professional development. She has observed best practices in visual arts, drama, music and movement.
With Bank Street pointing the way forward in teacher training, and providing its preeminent expertise on child development, our school is truly fortunate to be living on Link Street. Dean Snyder adds, "And Bank Street is equally as fortunate!"
|Harlem Link's Content Groups|
"Teacher quality" is a hot buzz phrase on the national education reform scene. But what does it mean? And how does a school make sure that it has quality teachers?
Talk to a charter school leader and you are likely to hear, "Search far and wide, hire the best and retain the best." At Harlem Link, we have an additional answer to the question: Provide a high level of professional support in ways that are significant for both students and teachers.
This idea was behind the creation of Harlem Link's Content Groups, first proposed by teachers helping to create our school's 2009 strategic plan, the Link Improvement Plan (LIP). Content Groups are based on the Japanese lesson study, a structure that has achieved semi-legendary status in some education circles for its intense and sustained focus on microscopic details of pedagogy and student learning. In Harlem Link's version, all the teachers working with a certain grade spend an hour or more discussing a lesson before watching a pair of the teachers execute the lesson. Then the teachers immediately reassemble to analyze what occurred and look at student work together. A consultant specializing in either math or literacy is on hand to guide discussion throughout the process. The lesson may be repeated later in the week by the other teachers in the grade. The school has made available time for each grade to undertake a Content Group lesson study every month, alternating between Math and Literacy/Social Studies.
What's so great about Content Groups? For one, they give teachers an opportunity to learn from each other, guided by a skilled facilitator. Peers are often a remarkably effective but untapped resource for professional development in schools. Second, the Content Group focuses squarely on students and their work. For example, in a recent second grade pre-lesson meeting, the following highly detailed discussion of how to introduce an activity could be heard: "I think that prompt is going to be confusing for some of the kids. It's going to take the focus off of the concept of symmetry [the focus of that lesson]. How can we introduce it in a way that is going to meet every student's need?" The teachers modified the prompt and, more important, had a chance to see the modified approach together and debate its effectiveness after the fact. Like the witnesses in the classic Kurosawa film, Rashoman, teachers often find that observers with different vantage points can have vastly different perspectives on what happens in a classroom. Content Groups take advantage of that diversity, which is otherwise lost when teachers don't have a structured opportunity to talk about their views.
Harlem Link founding teacher, Kate Pappas, piloted the Content Group structure through her work with the Math in the City professional development program. She says, "It's the most powerful form of professional development that I have received in my eight years of teaching as it has actually made a huge impact on the way I plan, teach, and reflect on my teaching and my students' learning." Three Tuesdays a month, Harlem Link's Content Groups are leading the way to a better, more impactful form of professional development.
|Student Support Spotlight|
One of the aspects of Harlem Link that has won widespread praise is our service to students who are the most socially or academically at risk. The school devotes many resources to what we call our Student Support Team, led by Director of Student Support and Acting Vice Principal Michael Rosenblith. This work is a vital part of our school design; as Dr. Pedro Noguera, new chair of the State University of New York Charter Schools committee, put it at an October conference on culturally responsive education, "The measure of schools is not, 'How good are we with the kids who need the least help? The measure has got to be, How good are we with the kids who need more help?'"
At Harlem Link's November Community Outreach Group (COG) meeting, our three Academic Intervention Services (AIS) teachers were honored for their work as part of the Student Support Team. The role of the AIS teachers is to provide assistance to students in mathematics or literacy whose needs that cannot be entirely met in the classroom. The Child Study Team determines which students receive assistance from AIS teachers as well as other interventions. The team meets twice a week to discuss individual students, their needs and their progress toward specific goals.
What makes the work of the AIS teachers, including Christine Murray and school founding teachers Robin Barnes (pictured at right) and Sweta Kapadia, so effective is not only their understanding of children's needs and literacy and math development, but their collaboration with the rest of the Student Support Team and the classroom teachers. In keeping with the school's focus on consistency and coherence, the AIS teachers do much of their work "pushing in" to classrooms - that is, supporting the work already being done in the classroom rather than teaching a separate curriculum. The difference may sound small, but it's the difference between a school day that makes sense to a child who may already experience confusion at school and one in which the student encounters the difficulty of going from one activity to the next, with no clear relationship between the two.
Through the interventions of the Student Support Team, which also includes two full-time social workers and speech and occupational therapists, Harlem Link has been able to counter the trend of over-referral to special education that is prevalent in Harlem.
Meeting the needs of at-risk students and pushing them to high levels of achievement is one of the signature challenges facing educators today. At Harlem Link we are leading the way in this area with the right team, and the right plan, in place.
|Fifth Graders Venture West|
By Marianne Kinney, Fifth Grade Teacher
Our founding 5th grade seniors at Harlem Link can relate to Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, the early 19th century American explorers they are now studying. Both were the first of their kind to boldly venture into new territory. Both worked hard at getting along with new people. Both were energized by their inquisitive natures.
In the midst of our U.S. History Social Studies unit, our scholars have explored through both reading and writing young America's quest for land. They discovered the problems the expedition faced from Missouri to the Pacific and took note of the solutions. They made inferences about the reaction of the Sioux to receiving American flags as a gift from the explorers. They created their own illustrations of the wildlife Lewis and Clark first documented.
They are journaling from the explorers' point of view, as well as that of Sacajawea's, the Shoshone woman who was perhaps the expedition's most important explorer. It may take some research to imagine what the vast Western wilderness looked like, but our students can write from the heart when explaining the rigors and joys of exploration.
|Donors Choose Spotlight|
|Harlem Link's curriculum is so ambitious, and our goals are so high, that our sometimes teachers find that not even the considerable resources we put into curriculum and classroom materials are enough to meet the standards. To close the funding gap between the per-pupil state money New York City charter school students receive and the much higher funding levels in wealthy suburban districts, Harlem Link teachers often propose projects through the popular website, donorschoose.org. |
This newsletter's spotlight is on the project, Smile 1st Grade! You're on Candid Camera! Ms. Douglas and Ms. da Costa, first grade co-teachers both in their second year at Harlem Link, are preparing for the late winter Social Studies School Study unit, in which each class of first grade students will be preparing a video of the school.
Video cameras are at a premium at Harlem Link; though the school owns a few, it can seem that they are in constant use, with classroom projects and teachers being videotaped by administrators and peers to hone their practice. Our Flip cameras are so busy, last year the first grade teachers brought their own cameras to school to create the School Tour videos.
While the total project costs $410, even a gift of $25 would make a big difference in the first grade team making meangiful progress toward their goal. Please check out the project and consider setting up an account and making a gift.
|City National Bank Sponsors B&N Drive|
|This December, City National Bank chose Harlem Link as one of two nonprofit organizations in the New York City metropolitan area as a recipient of donated books through the Barnes and Noble at 160 E 54th Street in Manhattan. City National has supported Harlem Link in a variety of ways over the years, donating books as well as funding for curriculum materials, and organizing volunteers for cleanups. Thanks to the bank for this latest gift!|
More information is available at the Reading Is The Way Up website.
|Follow Us on Twitter|
Harlem Link has joined the online, instant-communication, social revolution represented by Twitter. Dozens of followers have already signed on, hearing: exciting occasional updates of goings-on at the school; incisive commentary on public policy issues such as school funding debates and state and national standards; a glimpse into the school life through the Harlem Link Quote of the Day, which appears at the top of our internal staff memo called Day-at-a-Glance; and, beginning in the spring, a semi-weekly capsule profile of one of our graduating fifth graders. Join us!
|Support Our Cause|
You can join our list of supporters. As a charter school, we are our own, single-school public school district. Because of the charter funding formula (and the mind-boggling recent decision by the state legislature to freeze charter funding while increasing overall public school aid), we depend on private donations to supplement our state tuition allocation. In the coming years we anticipate raising as much as 25% of our budget in our Annual Fund. Tax-deductible donations - and now, appreciated securities - can be made to our fund by clicking here
As we turn the page to a new year, we are looking back on successes and looking forward to a big year to come. In 2010, Harlem Link will graduate its first class of fifth graders and begin our second charter period. We will continue to work hard to meet our mission of graduating articulate scholars and active citizens, and to do it in a way that both celebrates the dignity and legacy of our very special neighborhood and meets the needs of its most fragile and at-risk members. All the while, our school is building a national model for school success.
We hope you enjoyed a few stories about our school and would consider coming by to visit this winter.
|Director's Blog: |
The Most Important Things
|The holidays have always made me think about the most important things in life - no, not shopping, the weather and religious conflict. I have on my short list health, family and principle. (If you'd like to start a good argument, ask someone you love to rank those in order of importance.) It has occurred to me this year that my list plays out at our school as well.|
Health's cousin, safety, is our No. 1 concern at Harlem Link. And it should be; while the new state education commissioner recently lamented that he inherited more than 300 staffers to regulate school kitchens and only one to study science curriculum, I don't think he would be happy if a child lost his or her life because of food poisoning. The recent norovirus outbreak in a Staten Island public school and the unwarranted (or perhaps preventative) panic over the H1N1 virus illustrate the possible danger of keeping 30 people in a small room, all day, five days a week.
When Margaret Ryan and I did research in preparation for the founding of Harlem Link, we found that safety was also the No. 1 concern of parents who attended our focus groups. In Harlem in the late 1990s, physical altercations were common in public schools and protecting oneself by fighting back was de rigueur for kids. (Though I think the situation has improved, fighting is still the default mode for settling disputes in those schools that have not been able to engender a culture of professionalism and learning.) At Harlem Link, we have zero tolerance for violence, and we put into practice the ideas behind the broken windows theory, which posits that fixing or preventing small environmental problems prevents bigger ones from developing or being encouraged.
Recently we had a case of offensive graffiti in the boys' bathroom. Although no one was physically hurt, the serious penalties for the students involved were imposed because these students endangered the safety of their schoolmates - by threatening the protective web that the school staff and parents have created for our children.
With regard to family, it has always been obvious to us that, while a school is only as strong as the quality of its teachers and the consistency of its practice, family involvement is an inextricable part of that quality and consistency. When I came into teaching, the standard operating procedure was to compartmentalize a child's day into three segments: "home time," during which what happened and what the child was learning was a vast, perhaps hurtful but certainly not worth investigating mystery; "school time," during which all learning occurred and which was the only time that was expected to matter when it came to a child's education; and "after-school time," which was another discombobulated part of life that had no relation to what was going on in school time or home time. (You could also throw in "recess time," which was some combination of home time and school time in the sense that it occurred in school but no learning took place. Exactly what went on at recess time was a big mystery and, it was thought, probably dangerous.)
That compartmentalization made about as much sense to me as the signs that I still see in some public schools saying, "PARENTS STOP HERE" or "PARENTS ARE NOT ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT." A principal once explained to me that "since some parents are crazy, and if we allow one parent in the school then we have to allow them all in, allowing parents in will mean that we will have to let the crazy parents in." It didn't take me long as a teacher to learn that there are no crazy parents - only crazy disagreements, miscommunication and value clashes, the kind that can only be resolved, perhaps ironically, if they are addressed by adults sitting at the same table to discuss their shared goal of helping a child in need.
I'm proud to say that at Harlem Link we have had a significant boost in our family participation this year. Our Friends and Family Fridays, in which students and family members from across different grades enroll in creative courses such as cooking and clay modeling, are now part of the school routine. In the spring we plan to launch a partnership with Iridescent, a nonprofit organization that brings scientists to schools to work with kids and families to develop fun, age-appropriate courses on physics. Our Community Outreach Group (COG) meetings, now held on Friday evenings, have drawn a record average attendance so far this year, and in February, at least 55 parents and school staffers will take a bus to Albany to talk to legislators about Harlem Link and charter schools. That group will be led by our COG president, Ms. Valerie Babb, who was chosen as the Director of the New York City Charter Parent Advocacy Network. Harlem Link's chief parent is now the face of New York City charter school parents! Most important, through our open door policy for families, regular written and phone communication and highly attended family-teacher conferences, our staff continues to work hard to communicate with all families on a regular basis about the education of their children.
We are steadfast in our belief that - especially at the elementary level -students cannot succeed without serious parent involvement and a strong relationship between home and school.
And principle? It plays out at Harlem Link all the way from the state government level to the student level. The choices to support, govern, run and teach in a charter school - even the choice to enroll one's child in a charter school-are all principled actions taken in the belief that things can be better than the way they have been. We in the charter community think that public resources should be used efficiently and that it's unacceptable for a system of schools to be so big and unwieldy that thousands of never opened books should be deposited in the trash because they are now outdated, as recently happened in one of the buildings we used to inhabit. It's unacceptable for schools to be set up, as the schools chancellor can frequently be heard saying, primarily for the convenience of and the benefit of the adults who work there, as opposed to the success and benefit of the children and families they serve.
Make no mistake: everyone at Harlem Link has made a sacrifice of some sort to be a part of our school, and these sacrifices were based on principle. Teachers and administrators have left the job protections, pensions, etc., that a larger school system promises. They did that in order to participate in a forward-thinking, coherent learning community. Parents have risked the scorn and rankling of their peers and even family members by leaving a public school system that has been part of Harlem for generations. For Harlem Link's founding parents, some of whom will see their children graduate from the school this June after five years of growth, there was the risk in 2005 of sending the most precious part of their lives to an untested, unknown quantity that, for all they knew, wouldn't even exist in five years.
On the staff and student level, our steadfast belief in the power of principle plays out as adherence to our organizational core values. We believe that these values - courage, integrity, kindness, patience, responsibility and wonder - are universal across cultures and epochs. These values inform everything we do, every conversation we have. They are the source of rich discussion in the classroom and with families in good times and in bad. When children do inappropriate things, we don't give a knee-jerk response or rigidly follow our code of conduct like a chef adding the next ingredient to a dish. The code itself leaves room for addressing individual needs and making individual responses to behavior, fostering reflection and understanding of why it's so important to demonstrate, in the school and in life, the values we espouse.
It's not easy to live by principle at our school; the temptation to take the easy way out, the shortcut, is always there. At times the administrative team has had to devote hours and even days of attention to one family, one child, to sustain a strained relationship and set firm but appropriate boundaries to enforce the school's core values. And we know - like the time spent choosing the perfect gift for the holidays for a loved one - that this time is an investment that pays off in the long run.
We have seen the results of taking shortcuts in educating the young people of Harlem, and with our belief in health, family and principle, this holiday season we remain as steadfast as ever in our new, dynamic approach.