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Why I’m Starting a School: The Personal Answer

I get asked frequently why I’m helping to start a school. I have three different answers to the question, depending on the audience. All are true, and I’m not sure they’re contradictory. I gave the first answer, the particular one about why Harvest Collegiate High School now, in a post last month. The second answer is more personal.

I hated high school. Like many adolescents, I thought I knew better than my teachers and the school. To take one example of my frequent critiques, as a senior I wrote an op-ed in the school newspaper, of which I was the editor-in-chief, criticizing the staff of the school for being distant from their students, only focusing on their content and not the human beings in front of them.

I made the radical suggestion that teachers who so choose should be able to go by their first name to signal to students that they were interested in a two-way relationship rather than to simply deliver information to them. My then-English teacher, in whom to this day I find a model of how not to teach, wrote a letter to the editor calling my views “naïve and didactic.” (In hindsight, she might have been right on the latter point.)

Two years later, I took a philosophy of education course during my sophomore year at Brown University. There, we read Ted Sizer’s “Horace’s Compromise,” in which Sizer argued that American high schools and their students had entered into a tacit agreement to let students get away with not thinking as long as they behaved. Reading about the composite Franklin High School and its English teacher Horace felt familiar. For me, Franklin was my high school, and Horace my favorite teacher there (it would turn out that teacher was a huge fan of Sizer’s work, and tried, but failed, to bring it to my high school because it was blocked by my hated senior English teacher). Sizer captured everything that I saw wrong, and more. And he imagined something better, which his Coalition of Essential Schools helped to bring into fruition in many cases.

Here I was, a 20-year-old smartass who finds that not only were my views potentially not naïve and didactic, but that the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education agreed with him and had a solution. I was in.

And luckily for me, I happened to be at the university where Sizer did his initial work and could walk into the teaching program he helped create to work with his hand-picked successor, the man who co-founded The Parker School with him. I left Brown ready to be an apostle for the coalition, also envisioning a Coalition of Essential Teachers for those, like me, who would not be in Coalition Schools. I saw myself teaching for 10 years before starting a school of mine.

A lot has changed in the 10 years since I first read Sizer’s work. I no longer want to be a principal; I love teaching too much and am much better at it. From my time at Bronx Lab School, I know just how hard it is to build and maintain a new school, and I know political, economic, and geographical conditions likely matter more to success than the school’s mission and vision. When I left Bronx Lab a year ago, I swore I would not be part of opening or growing a school again.

Then in October I found out that the Academy for Young Writers, my new school, was moving too far from me, and in January a friend introduced me to someone who was opening a new Coalition for Essential Schools school in New York City. There I could be a partner in its planning and development and then support the teaching there. I have to be honest, it was not a hard decision to be a part of it.

At Harvest, so many of my selves get the opportunity for fulfillment. The 18-year-old me gets to prove his English teacher wrong; the 20-year-old me gets to be a Sizer apostle; the 22-year-old me gets to focus on teaching. The teacher gets to create the environment in which he teaches. The school designer gets to apply the lessons he learned from Bronx Lab. The professional developer gets to support teaching and learning. The advocate gets a platform to show, among other things, how a school that focuses on essential skills and understandings better serves all students than test prep factories. The writer will have plenty to share. I, all of us, get the biggest challenge of my life.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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