Life is What You Make It: The Life and Death of Innovate Manhattan Charter School 2011-2015

September 13, 2015.dpenberg.0 Likes.0 Comments

Published in the fall, 2016 edition of Independent School

Most articles about schools and what goes on inside of them address issues of currency: instructional core, evaluation, standards, teacher development, leadership, or opening a new school. But what about the closing of one? This too, is part of the life span and reality of schools.

I ran a charter school in New York. Its narrative is a case study of what should never happen to a young school. Three Heads in three years, parental flight, teacher turnover, and young adolescents left to their own wiles to fill in the vacuum of dysfunction. It was a train wreck—a school without a center of gravity or sense of the cardinal points (trust, continuity, belonging, mission). It was a school profoundly in trouble.

In December of 2013, without recipes, or silver bullets, my Associate Head and myself came on. It was us against toxicity (there was in fact a noxious odor emanating out of the back of the school), lack of structures, and an absence of boundaries. It was a school culture crippled with distrust. One and a half years later it resonated with a democratic sense of coherency and belonging. There was inquiry, joy, and the mercurial energy of young adolescents. It was no longer a toxic place.

But we came too late. With under enrollment, and the shadow of poor test results (this was to be our first year under our leadership), the state made it clear we would need a miracle to have our charter renewed even for the minimum of two years. Our parent company from Sweden, who had generously invested in the school decided, despite the turnaround and the palpable culture shift, to call it quits. On January 2015, The Board announced their decision to officially shut down Innovate Manhattan. June 26th was to be our last and final day. Over the next three weeks the Board was present with pizza for all to meet with disheartened, shocked and clueless parents.

It was a brief period of grieving. Upon receiving the news, I went through the cycle of emotions: shock, anger, grief, loss and eventually acceptance. We are expected as leaders to be Atlas and bear the world on our shoulders. But mine ached from disappointment, and the sense of being abandoned. As leaders, we are constantly tested. By things we can control and things which are beyond our control. Our emotional intelligence lies in how we acknowledge crisis, recognize our loss, and move ahead. It is when you hold onto these feelings or dissimulate them that the work becomes leaden and bitterness begins to infect our most important quality: idealism.

Everything in the process of closing down is the converse of the normalcy of running a school. No more recruitment. No more open houses. No more tours. No more reports to the Board or weekly memos to parents. No replacing teachers. No summer workshops to plan. Like a yard sale, everything must go. The furniture. The technology. The kitchen equipment. We are ‘going out of business.’ Except, this was not a restaurant and the lives of 150 kids has no depreciation value. Instead of ribbon cutting ceremonies and welcoming new families, a sense of disbelief hovered over our school like a blimp. “This can’t be true.” “The school turned a corner.” Kids and parents refused to understand why. Existentially, neither did I.

A school leader for more than 30 years, I have taken over schools in transition, schools seeking to expand, schools looking to reinvent themselves. I have spent a career envisioning, building and co-constructing school cultures. Never taking them apart. Never making preparations for them to end. As advocates and emissaries of the school mission, what occurs the moment that thread is broken? As a school head you are faced with a very different kind of task. How do you keep the community unified, not as victims but as this living ecosystem of hopes and expectations? Because it is not merely a school that is closing, it is the perceived loss of hope and the ending of personal relationships between kids and teachers that is the greatest threat.

Innovate did not fail as a school. It failed as a sustainable investment. It died prematurely not because it lost touch. It’s mission never lost its potency and compelling message. “Life is what you make it” never lost its cogency. It did not fail because of leadership transitions. No doubt the revolving door of three heads in 2.5 years did nothing to maintain confidence and prevent the flight of families. But its last two years restored a sense of trust and purpose. Even the mysterious noxious odor that hovered in the back of the school had disappeared. Families and students could experience it palpably. Teacher’s solidarity was not us versus them (the administration). It was around a common set of purposes and objectives. Whatever ‘turned a corner’ means, Innovate had done that. There was a burgeoning after school program, a solid core of caring and learning teachers, a plan with priorities and everything was suffused with what could be possible. It was a school, finally, turned around. It was finances that dealt the mortal blow. Under enrollment cost us over $600,000 dollars. It placed a strain on our parent company in Sweden, who had already invested over 2 million dollars in the renovation of the space. Dollars and cents did us in.

After the state tests, everything changed, first subtly and than incontrovertibly. Over the next few months following the announcement the ‘New School” who would occupy our space, would send minions of architects and operations people to measure and take photographs. It felt like an autopsy before a death certificate had been signed. In house suspensions increased. Lunchtime detentions were packed. Teacher absences increased. Are there best practices for closing schools? Once the state exams were over, the cat was out of the hat and Innovate was no longer about inquiry. It was about control. We let something slip through are fingers that we worked so diligently to obtain. Are there best practices for closing schools? I don’t think so. But only close a school when it is toxic to learning and inimical to growth and development. Close it down when there is no intention of guidance or support for kids and adults to becoming good human beings. Otherwise, let them weather the stages and life cycle of a school. Don’t dismantle what is not broken. Its only when hope and a collective sense of expectation disappears, that there is no turning around.

On June 30th, 2015 Innovate Manhattan Charter School closed its doors for the last time. When the results for the State scores on the standardized tests came out, there was a small vindication. We not only showed marked improvement in math and ELA but also had a 100% passing rate on the Regents exams, which we introduced to our 8th graders.

Two months later, the window shades that proudly announced Innovate Manhattan, have come down. The brief, tumultuous but ultimately triumphant story that was Innovate, has ended. We all move on. But what about those 150 lives? The ultimate irony is that a few weeks after we closed, I discovered wedged in a small pouch of my brief case, the school keys. The unintentional is not always what it appears to be. Perhaps I held onto them for a reason, knowing I would need to use them again, somewhere. Everywhere.



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