Bright ‘Future’

Staff at UFT-represented charter in West Harlem bands together to save school

by Robert Callaghan

Two 7th-graders describe their periodic table research project to Chapter Leader and ELA teacher Jennifer Nelson at the Future Leaders Institute’s Winter 2013 Exhibition Day. (Dave Sanders)

The auditorium was abuzz with parents, teachers and students. Sixth-graders set up a display showing how to multiply and divide fractions using a recipe for Rice Krispies Treats. Another exhibit explored race in “The Hobbit.” A line formed to buy treats to support the upcoming 8th-grade trip to Hershey Park. It was Winter 2013 Exhibition Day at the Future Leaders Institute, a UFT-represented K-8 charter school in West Harlem.

Exhibition Day, where the exhibits are aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards, is just one indicator of how this once-struggling school has turned around under the leadership of a new principal who made it his mission to create an atmosphere where teachers could thrive.

Johan Guzman, a parent of a 1st-grader, looks at the Roaring Lions Take You Through the Writing Process exhibit with two 3rd-graders. (Dave Sanders)

“It was really about bringing high-quality teachers in and doing our best to support them,” said Ismael (Izzy) Colon, who was hired in September 2010.

At the start of his first year, with the school’s charter up for renewal, Colon organized a weeklong professional development session for staff.

“After that, it was clear to everyone in our school community — parents, teachers, administration — that we had to band together to save our school,” said Jennifer Nelson, the chapter leader and a 7th-grade English language arts teacher.

Three years ago, 15 teachers — about a third of the teaching staff — quit; last year, only four teachers left. Kindergarten teacher Katja Frazier said that teacher turnover plummeted “once people started to believe. They began to stay at the school and build bonds with one another. It’s hard to do that when you don’t know who you will be working with next year.”

To create cohesion, Frazier said, teachers in similar grades formed professional learning teams. “We thought it was important for the teachers to get together professionally,” she said. “Sometimes we bring student work or units that we’ve written. It’s a chance to collaborate.”

Principal Colon also convenes weekly meetings that bring together class leaders to deal with issues and give them a voice in decision-making. “We begin the dialogue about how to work together — how do we make Exhibition Day a success? What did we do in the past and how can we improve on it?”

The staff has also built relationships with nonprofits to help strengthen their school’s culture. The institute is one of two schools in the city that work with HBO on a project called Young Media Minds. As part of the program, initiated by Nelson and other teachers last year, 7th- and 8th-graders take part in a literacy-based program that includes script writing, video editing and a variety of project-based learning tasks.

New York Cares also runs a weekly mentoring program at the school. “Both my children are in the mentoring program and it’s been awesome,” said Latisha Maxwell, the mother of an 8th-grader and a 6th-grader. “It’s taught my children about socialization and interaction.”

Frazier, the kindergarten teacher, has used the website to help raise money for classroom supplies. She has been so successful that she was identified by DonorsChoose as one of the best-funded teachers in Manhattan. Frazier’s efforts have led more teachers at the school to use the website to raise funds.

The spirit of partnership extends to the charter school’s relationship with PS 242, which shares the same building.

“We have a great relationship with PS 242,” said Colon. “Their teachers come visit our classrooms. I think that kinship comes from the connection through the union.”

PS 242 Chapter Leader Voyka Soto commented on the principal’s excellent relationship with the charter school’s chapter leader and staff. “You can see it when they are together,” Soto said. “He respects them, and they return that respect.”

Nelson and the principal try to carve out time once a week to talk about issues at the school. “I have not found the UFT collective-bargaining agreement to be an impediment to working with teachers to get things to happen at this school,” said Colon.

“My approach to the role of chapter leader is to be solution-oriented,” said Nelson. “We really listen to one another and are able to come up with practical solutions.”

While Future Leaders Institute received a B on its most recent progress report, Nelson says, the true success of a school cannot be measured by a letter.

“A great school requires passionate, caring teachers who are interested in not only the children’s learning but their lives as well,” Nelson said. “We’re all in this together, and we all need to make this a great school for these kids.”