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An Embarrassment of Riches (Or Why Comparisons Fail)

The Harvest Collegiate High School that I helped to open in September is the result of an inspirational plan written by a brilliant principal, deep and thoughtful work and planning by a team of passionate and experienced educators, and the incredible courses imagined by our teachers. Our school can be proud about these accomplishments.

But Harvest is also equipped with a number of advantages, some born of current school politics and others of luck, that will give us a huge leg up on other schools in New York City.

First, we have our founding staff. While immense time and thought was put into recruitment and interviewing, Harvest had something going for it that few schools do: the opportunity to start something new. Our staff shares a wonderful mix of experienced teachers looking to implement the lessons of decades of teaching and school design with novice teachers with unbridled enthusiasm and visions for what is possible. Without exception, every teacher we have is a rock star in the classroom, or well on his or her way to being one. We have expertise in curriculum development, assessment design, and pedagogy in every discipline. We have former department chairs, professional developers, and published authors. We are also incredibly diverse in terms of age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and home background — in fact, we’re the most diverse of any staff I’ve been part of.

We have a second advantage in our students. It takes a special kind of student and parent to take a risk on a new school. Because we are new, our students and their parents bring an enthusiasm and energy that will push the school to be better. The majority of students who chose and were matched with our school had GPAs above 80 and were proficient on middle school exams. Our students’ diversity matches that of our staff’s: 42 percent of students live in Manhattan, and the rest are evenly split among the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Other than a clump in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx, a map of our students’ addresses looks like someone just randomly threw darts at a map of the city. The students come from homes speaking nine different languages, and from countries across North and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Third, we have extra money as a new school. Federal Race to the Top funds that could have been used to support struggling schools instead go to us. This allows us to buy new supplies necessary for a new school, but it also gave us money to hire an extra teacher and new computers.

But perhaps our largest advantage is our space.  Situated on 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan, right by Union Square, the school could have opened in a better spot in the city. We’re accessible from everywhere. Students and teachers can efficiently get to school on a half dozen subway lines from all corners of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. We’re at a place where all of New York City comes together. Because of that, we can recruit teachers from the entire metropolitan area, giving us a huge advantage over schools on the outskirts of outer boroughs.

The school itself is in better physical shape than any school I’ve seen in the city. Set on the fourth and fifth floors of a commercial building, with a gym and party store beneath us, the space is clean, bright, and neat. Everything works. There are lockers in the halls, an uncommon sight in city schools, and central air conditioning. Sure, there’s not a gym and Harvest will sadly mainly be a metaphor rather than a physical reality, but there is nothing more we could ask for in terms of space for the core mission of a school, which is to facilitate students’ learning.

Yet, we are born with original sin. Harvest is entering space only available because Legacy High School is phasing out. Legacy High School, like us, started as a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools. It tried to be the same type of high school we want to be, in many ways. The city decided it failed. Of all the schools sentenced to phase-out status this year, Legacy put up the biggest fight. Its students organized and got attention. They were ignored.

It sounds like Legacy was on the upswing, but I wasn’t there and do not presume to know anything about the particulars.  Looking at the larger picture, though, I know there is something inherently wrong with the Bloomberg administration’s policy of shutting down schools every year, let alone wearing it as a badge of honor. Schools in the city are assessed on norm-referenced criteria, so there will always be a bottom. Our abundance of riches at Harvest is likely to make it much easier for us to reach the top.  Despite the enthusiasm for our successes, which I’ll share, I hope our school will never be used to put others down.

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.