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Two efforts to improve a school, with two different sets of tools

I have a story in this week’s Village Voice about the fight over how to improve struggling public schools. Should the schools be rescued from the inside or replaced?

I focus on P.S. 194 in Harlem, which school officials favor replacing with the fledgling Harlem Success Academy 2. Both the principal at HSA 2, Jim Manly, and the principal at P.S. 194, Charyn Koppelson Cleary, are trying to give Harlem’s children a radically different experience of school. Yet they have very different tools to work with.

Cleary’s world:

Before the school year began, staffers recall, she gathered her whole faculty, from the teachers to the security officer to the secretary, in what she called a circle of change. Each person talked about what needed changing at the school. The good news, Cleary told them, according to people who were there, is that 94 or 95 percent of the stuff you guys are talking about, we can change. In some ways, Cleary was constrained in her efforts. She could not hire a staff of her own, since the bulk of the teachers were inherited from the school’s previous years. She could not ask the custodian to repaint the entire building, since his contract only permitted a certain percentage. But she did the best she could, asking for the neediest rooms to get fresh paint and finagling a handful of other educators she trusted onto the payroll.

She also only had last three months to prepare for her turnaround: She began the job last July.

Now, here’s Manly’s world:

A lifelong educator, Jim Manly was a leader at a charter school in Teaneck, New Jersey, for seven years before returning to New York City, where his teaching career began. Unlike Cleary, he had an entire year to prepare before his school opened. He spent the year nestled at Harlem Success Academy 1, the first branch of the network, where he planned, hired a staff, and soaked in the burgeoning school culture. All Harlem Success schools draw inspiration from the Dr. Seuss book, On Beyond Zebra, beloved by Moskowitz for its urging that children think beyond the letter Z; the words Beyond Z are stamped on posters around the school. Manly also benefited from the supports that Moskowitz and her central office staff have built to handle the non-education-related challenges of running a school, the kinds of things that the DOE handles for traditional public schools. The system’s strength was on display that day, when Moskowitz strolled into a kindergarten classroom and realized that lightbulbs had burst in one of the ceiling’s window fixtures. I see a light is out here, she said quietly, and then pulled her BlackBerry out of the holster that seems permanently attached to her belt. She composed an e-mail and typed, Light is out in ms. althoff’s. Pl. fix. Thanks.

By the end of my visit, less than an hour later, an operations manager had checked in with Moskowitz vowing to have the bulb replaced by morning.