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What it Takes

Five TC graduates discuss the joys and frustrations of founding or leading innovative schools in New York City
Educational entrepreneurship is thriving in New York City, with some 400 new public schools founded since 2002 and independent schools constantly recreating themselves in a demanding marketplace. • TC stands at the center of that movement, with alumni—and students—creating and leading new schools all over the city. • Starting up a new school is a painstaking endeavor, filled with setbacks, unexpected hurdles and endless hours of planning. To succeed, educators function as instructional leaders, community organizers, fundraisers and negotiators, constantly facing down critics and nay-sayers. • “One of the great American pastimes is having people tell you why your idea isn’t going to work,” says Daniel Kikuji Rubenstein, ’07, co-founder and executive director of Brooklyn Prospect Charter School. “But the great thing about Americans is that we persist anyway. And we come through.” • Here, six TC alumni discuss building new schools and creating innovative programs. Joining Rubenstein are:
Luyen Chou, ’06, co-founder and board chairman, Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, and chief product officer of Schoolnet, Inc. The school opened to sixth graders in 2009, and will add one grade a year until 2015 when it serves grades 6 to 12. The curriculum is based on the International Baccalaureate model. Chou was also the former founding associate head at The School at Columbia University.
Ramon Gonzalez, ’97, founding principal, M.S. 223, Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, in the South Bronx. M.S. 223 serves grades 6 to 8 in a program that focuses on financial literacy and technology.
Jose Maldonado, ’98, founding principal, Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, Manhattan. The school, founded in 2007 with Columbia University, serves academically talented students in grades 6 to 8 and will add one grade a year to grade 12.
Joshua Solomon, a TC doctoral degree candidate for 2010, and founding principal, The Business of Sports School, Manhattan. The high school, founded in 2009, focuses on teaching students both business and academic skills through the business of sports.
Robert Vitalo, ’80, Head of School, The Berkeley Carroll School, Brooklyn. Berkeley Carroll, one of New York City’s oldest independent schools, serves 800 students in grades pre-K–12 in a college preparatory program.
What does it take to create an innovative public school in New York City?
Chou: It starts with dozens and dozens of hours, as you figure out the curriculum, your mission, what kind of teachers you want to recruit, and how to recruit students. Teachers are crucial, and you have to be certain of what you promise them and what your expectations for them are. It can be incredibly exciting, as you recruit passionate people who want to do something different, who want to innovate and build something with you.
Maldonado: Unfortunately, the reality is that you have to sometimes break rules and circumvent a system that resists innovation, a system in which the locus of authority on key aspects of daily operation are with bodies outside of the school. For example, the DOE dictates which chairs you can buy for classrooms. It took an enormous amount of work to say that the aesthetic aspect of a classroom is key to building a positive school environment. I’ve spent time getting exemptions from the DOE on the calendar year, school length, curriculum, what we could buy for the school. Now, we’re in our third year, so we know what we need to do to get things done—how to navigate around the system.
Gonzalez: As community activists, we believed in getting the opinions of the stakeholders that the school would affect. We went to the community to ask the kids what they were interested in, and then we created themes around their interests. I had published an article on “underground economies and urban gangs/street organizations,” and saw how young people were making money in creative ways—selling tapes, bartering, dee-jaying. This natural interest in finance and technology is why we created our theme.
Bob, how has public school development influenced independent school innovation?
Vitalo: The public high schools are getting better, the charters are getting better, and that forces us to differentiate ourselves, so that it’s clear in people’s minds why they should invest in an education like this. They need to know that their children will be exposed to things and be shown they have talents they didn’t think they had.
What kind of teachers were you looking for?
Chou: At The School at Columbia University, we wanted our founding teachers to design the curriculum, so we recruited teachers who believed in the overarching vision and shared our philosophy. We wanted to get as much of it right the first time as we could. It can change over time, but it can be very painful to change.
Gonzalez: I wanted teachers who were passionate about kids. Quality teachers are what will sustain your school over time. I wanted teachers who cared about the kids constantly and reflected on how to get better. Once you bring in great teachers, you will attract great kids.
How has Teachers College helped?
Rubenstein: I drew up a rough draft of the charter school as an assignment for Professor Pearl Rock Kane in her class, “School Choice and Privatization,” at the Klingenstein Center for Independent School Education. She didn’t like it at first, and made me rewrite it. Candace Olson, who founded iVillage, was also in the class, and she gave a talk about how to create an organization. The next day, I went in to tell my boss at the Collegiate School that I was quitting at the end of the year to start on this charter school. Luyen Chou was also in Pearl’s class, and he said he’d join me.
Chou: Dan and I were the two guys from Brooklyn in the Klingenstein program. We’d carpool each day and talk about education and philosophy and what we could do. We were talking about how to build a charter school, using the best thinking of public and private schools, to create an institution that goes beyond the basics. I saw it as an intellectual exercise, but Dan internalized it. In his final presentation to the class, he presented his plan for a new school with several of us from the program in the organizational chart, including Professor Kane and Candace. He said, “This isn’t an intellectual exercise, and I’m going to do it.” He had me as board chairman. I agreed to do it. Candace and Professor Kane are on the board, too.
How have you partnered with corporations and nonprofits?
Vitalo: We’re now partnering with the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music so we can bring in expert string and wind instrument teachers. It keeps their teachers busy and gives them students who may want to pursue their music studies there. We’ve started a similar relationship with the Mark Morris Dance Company. Their faculty uses our space and exposes our students to world-class choreography.
Solomon: We have an advisory board of top people from sports organizations that connects us to sports—Gary Hoenig, the editor of ESPN Magazine, Harvey Schiller, former president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Tony Ponturo, Vice President of Global Media and Sports Marketing at Anheuser-Busch. We had speakers come in from NBC Sports to talk about the Olympics, from Fox to talk about the World Series and from ESPN to talk about college basketball and March Madness. We have others from the sports industry come in to talk about career opportunities.
Why start a school?
Solomon: I was inspired by a report from the Mayor’s Task Force on Career and Technical Education, which urged a greater focus on vocational education. So we decided to create a school focused on the business of sports, which would engage students in such a large industry in New York and keep them engaged in learning, in preparing for college or a career. We wanted to teach skills needed in the workplace—communication skills, such as how to speak, write and make presentations; collaboration skills, for working in teams; and critical thinking skills—how to solve open-ended problems.
Gonzalez: I was a staff developer for the district and was then recruited to become assistant principal at another school with a technology theme. It was the district’s top school. I wanted them to become more inclusive. The school was somewhat segregated based on student ability level. It needed to change, but the existing staff wasn’t ready. With a new school, you recruit your staff, and there’s change, year to year.
As the school develops, its focus becomes clearer. At first, the top issue was school safety. Then it was getting our students proficient in math and English Language Arts. Now the parents want extracurriculars, so we’ve developed an arts program and an after-school sports program with a group called Young Athletes, Inc. It’s that holistic piece that gets lost in the drive for test scores.
Finding space is tough. How did you do it?
Gonzalez: When we started our school in a shared facility, we planned to be there all year. But our kids were challenged physically every day. We had a couple of incidents, with our kids getting hurt. So we moved out on Christmas Day, in a huge rainstorm, carrying computers up to the third floor of M.S. 149, where we shared the third floor with an adult education program. By the second year, I’d convinced the superintendent to move the adult program. It seemed odd to have adults and middle-school students on the same floor.
Rubenstein: We’re a charter school, and space is the biggest challenge. We’re now getting free space in the Sunset Park High School through the 2010–2011 school year. We want to stay within District 15, but it probably won’t be in Sunset Park. We have good people working on it and should have it resolved in a couple of months.
Solomon: We share a building with the High School of Graphic Communications Arts, and while the other school is gracious about sharing space, it’s still a challenge to create your own culture within a large school building. We’re on a wing of the fifth floor. We share the library, cafeteria and gym, and we’ve had to figure out how to create our own schedule and rules. The school has metal detectors, and that was a bit of a culture shock to our students.
What’s innovative about your curriculum?
Solomon: At The Business of Sports School, we are developing our own academic culture with hands-on projects that reflect the demands of the industry. In the freshman biology class, students are studying the body system through sports injuries—how the body responds to sports injuries, or reactions to drugs such as steroids. In English class, we mix literature and practical writing. We teach them how to be a sports writer and write profiles, and New York Family Sports has agreed to publish some of the student work.
Vitalo: We’re departing from the AP program in 2010–11. While we respect and understand the validity of AP, we think we can design courses that focus more in-depth and give different learning opportunities for our kids. Once free of the AP and its set curriculum, we want to engage our upper-school students in doing science research over a three-year period. They’ll select a topic, become an expert in it, and spend a summer interning with a researcher, with the ultimate goal of producing a paper that will be published.
Maldonado: In addition to our fall and spring semester, we have a June semester, where each kid is enrolled in an interdisciplinary course—study abroad, such as a marine biology trip to Puerto Rico; city class, which focuses on New York City’s history, architecture or natural surroundings; or sustainability, the most significant challenge to the world.
In sixth grade we look at water: how do you provide water to eight million people. It’s an engineering feat, to transport water to the city from the Catskills. In the seventh grade, we look at energy and what powers the city. In eighth grade, we look at food systems: how do you feed eight million people a day. The students spend a week upstate at a small farm that sells directly to restaurants.
Rubenstein: In our middle school, we follow the pillars of the International Baccalaureate program, which has more emphasis on interdisciplinary courses, a global perspective, and an extended research project.
How do you attract the right students?
Solomon: Our first year, we received approvals in early February, and applications were due by the end of the month, so we only received about 30 applications. Next was a supplementary round for students who didn’t get any of their first 12 choices, and we got 300 applicants. We still weren’t full in September. For September 2010, we’ve held three open houses and presented to eighth-grade counselors citywide. Now we have 1,500 applicants for 108 spaces.
Rubenstein: First we did market research—you don’t go into this without it. It’s one of those questions you know the answer to before you start, like asking your girlfriend to get married. Also, Luyen and I live in the neighborhood, and neither of us would start a school that we wouldn’t be willing to send our own kids to. We had 350 apply for 100 spaces the first year, and we expect 500 this year.
What innovative methods do you use to motivate your students?
Gonzalez: At the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, we give School Bucks to our students. Teachers get two School Bucks for every period, and they are used to reward students for exemplary service, academic achievement or behavior, based on our core values such as compassion or relentlessness. We’ve fine-tuned it, and now the students help in the selection process. The teacher will say, “Based on this lesson, who deserves the School Bucks?” And a student might say, “Omar deserves one because he exhibited relentlessness after coming back from the resource room.” And another kid will say, “Dennis deserves one, too, because he showed Omar compassion when he came back and made sure he knew where we were.” We are using the School Bucks to build financial literacy and make our school a community where positive values are held in high esteem.
Vitalo: We’ve connected with NYU’s Polytechnic Institute to offer college-level engineering courses in the fall of 2010, taught by an NYU professor. It may be one of the best preparations for college: to take an actual college course.
How have you won permission for new programs?
Gonzalez: We had to go through the community board, and it was accepted. We didn’t impose ourselves on the community but grew organically, based on the needs of the community. Our superintendent believed in the model, and that made it fly through the Department of Education. So suddenly, we had four or five months to create the school. We had no space while planning it, so we did a lot of interviewing at Starbucks on 86th Street.
Maldonado: The public school world can be frustrating. The bureaucracy makes things inefficient. Something that might take 15 minutes to accomplish in the private-school world can take hours, or even weeks, in the public schools. You have to know what you want, demonstrate its value, and be creative and persistent in going after it.
Rubenstein: When we first decided to establish the school, there was a cap on charters, and there were none available. So we were working to build the school without knowing when, or if, it would happen. So we were busy developing the idea, building capacity, raising money and recruiting board members, and we didn’t know if the school would ever exist.
We applied through the SUNY Board, and we were denied on the first round. They wanted our board to be filled out because the board of a charter is ultimately responsible for oversight, for financing the academic program and hiring the most senior person at the school. We brought on three additional people who were strong, we fleshed out the academic program, and we received our charter five months later. It happened relatively fast, and then we had 18 months to open the school.

Published Wednesday, May. 19, 2010


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