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Q&A: The arts charter school founder hoping to break the mold

Jamie Davidson wants to open New York City’s next great charter school. But she isn’t interested in duplicating the model that currently dominates the local charter-school landscape.

Davidson wants to open her school, the just-approved New York City Charter School of the Arts, in a private building, instead of seeking to share public space like the city’s largest charter management organizations. She and her co-founders want to provide students with a progressive, arts-based education, without many markers of the “no excuses” method that emphasizes strict discipline and a strict focus on English and math skills.

With plans to open in lower Manhattan, Davidson also hopes to enroll a racially and socioeconomically diverse mix of students from the nearby neighborhoods — in contrast to most of the city’s charter schools, which have opened in places like Harlem, the South Bronx, and East New York to specifically serve poor students, most black or Hispanic.

Many are watching to see whether she succeeds. Just four new charter schools are set to open in the city next year — the fewest in years — and Mayor Bill de Blasio has focused his administration’s priorities on improving, not replacing, low-performing district schools. Meanwhile, some parent leaders and advocates have been pushing back against Davidson’s plans, saying her school is not what the community needs.

In a recent interview, Davidson discussed that tension, the role of the teachers union, and how her school made it from idea to rejection to approval.

On what’s changed about the debate over education reform
Davidson: Everyone loves talking about charter schools and school reform because everyone wants to take a stand one way or the other. It’s an attractive and enticing way to have meaningful conversations about access and equity.

The problem here, I think, is that we’re using the old charter-versus-district debate as an excuse to talk about access and race and class. And whereas 10 years ago we talked about school quality and how that was the civil rights issue of our time, now we’re talking about charter schools being the civil rights issue of our time. And that’s actually not true. There are great charter schools. There are great district schools. There are some failing charter schools and there are some failing district schools. In fact, there are a ton of failing district schools, so we need to keep charter schools around.

Why she’s opening an “arts-based” school
When kids are engaged in something that they feel good about, that they feel successful at, that they feel like practice will result in incremental mastery, they’re engaged in that community in ways that will pay dividends across the board in all the other disciplines. If a kid can’t wait to come to school because they can’t wait for piano first period, they’re also probably going to be killer in math and humanities in second and third period because they’re feeling great about themselves.

The impact of studying music and piano specifically, which is why we have three hours of piano a week for kids, has a very real impact on cognitive development for kids. And there are neuroscience studies that are coming out every day that prove this to be true, particularly around executive functioning, which impacts organizational skills, short-term memory, self regulation.

On the origins of the school
Geoffrey [Kiorpes], Kate [Quarfordt, a former Chalkbeat contributor] and I were working at a school [Bronx Preparatory, which has since been taken over by Democracy Prep Public Schools]. He was in a piano lab and I was the instructional leader overseeing the fifth and sixth grade in charge of turning around their humanities curriculum. And I oversaw math and culture too.

I immediately saw the power of what Geoffrey was doing in that piano lab. I wondered, what can we do to leverage the engagement that we were seeing in that piano lab for academic outcomes in our other classes, and how can we make what’s happening there happen throughout the rest of the school?

By the end of September we started working together. That meant I was giving him vocabulary lists every Friday to start integrating the kids’ vocabulary words into his lesson. They were learning fractions—half notes, quarter notes—in a language that aligned perfectly to the math curriculum.

Kate’s a theater director and puts on these full-length feature length Broadway shows. Honestly, they’re nothing short of spectacular. She has been doing these shows for ten years and saw what Geoffrey and I were doing and said, ‘Oh wow, I want in.’

It was becoming more and more of an uphill battle to do what we were doing in a way that could be scaled across the whole school. No one was saying no, but we wanted to start from a place of yes. We sort of looked at each other and said you know this means we have to start our own school, right?

On getting rejected by the State Education Department and approved through SUNY
It was really sad. We wanted to know where we fell short and it was really hard to get meaningful feedback. We wanted to understand the process better and it didn’t feel like the SED office had the capacity to give us the kind of the feedback and support that we needed.

I learned more about myself in the three weeks that we had to turn around that 750-page application for SUNY than I had doing anything else in my life. Sleep was a luxury we just could not indulge in. We were up for three straight weeks. We needed such a wide array of resources. We had to write our 55-page personnel manual and none of us had ever so much as read the personnel policies at our current places. So people really rallied. But being in the vortex of building that school, having failure not be an option was an incredible thing to experience with my partners.

On the role of teachers unions 
I think it’s really important to understand the rich history of unions and collective bargaining and I think it’s really important to understand their place in education. I don’t think that their mission is being met by some of the practices they’re engaging in now. I don’t think that’s anyone’s fault and I don’t think that we’re ready to have a citywide restructuring. I think that would probably result in chaos.

What I do think is that we all need to engage in more open heartfelt, thoughtful, informed conversations about the role of unions and organized labor in teaching and think about how we can use that as a launch point to talk about re-professionalizing teaching and to harness teacher voice.

On school diversity
We’ve been talking about needing to integrate schools for a long time. I think the reason it’s hot now is that we’re talking about it within the context of school reform. There’s an opportunity to very deliberately contrive integrated communities in the charter school space and there are the policies that will allow us to do that.

Our ultimate goal is to configure something that looks like Community Roots [charter school], which is setting aside large proportions of students who are living in public housing or classified as economically disadvantaged. For charter schools, you’re required to enter a lottery to get in. It’s actually the most fair entrance process that you can have.

How she’s interpreting opposition to her school plans
Their relentless dedication to have high-quality schools in their district is part of why we want to open in lower Manhattan to begin with. Their fervent opposition has reminded us how many parents there are out there who can advocate for their kids and who are working really hard to improve access to high-quality options.

On her next job
My long term goal here is not to be a lifetime principal. My long term plan is to replace myself and get back into the classroom. I wanted to build a school that I actually wanted to teach in.