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It’s All About the People

Finding Your Passion is a three part installment. Check out Part 1 and 2 in previous posts.

People create the opportunities for us. They provide the energy. They invent the solutions.

There may actually be entrepreneurs who figure it all out for themselves, come up with this brilliant idea and plan it all out and then go out and hire the people they need to assist with the implementation. But it was never that way for us. Even from the beginning.

Paco (Francisco Lugovina) came to a meeting of The Verrazano Foundation board and said that he thought we could advance our mission of leveling th

e playing field for people living with mental illnesses by opening a charter school. Would this fly on Staten Island?

I called Dick Kuhn, a Staten Island attorney, who had been very supportive of The Verrazano Foundation. With Dick’s help, we got a group of about 20 Staten Islanders together for a meeting in his office, both leaders in mental health services and advocacy and in education.

Going in, I was totally prepared to hear that this idea for a charter school on Staten Island, — at the time, there were no charter schools on Staten Island, — had no legs.

Much to my pleasant surprise, the idea was greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm. Over a period of months we continued to meet, a varied group of community folks, as we tried to sort our way through the key design questions: instructional goals, grades to be served, mix of students with emotional challenges and others.

As the cast of participants changed, questions continued to be re-posed until Shelly Blackman urged that we move toward closure. Finally, we decided.

Services were most plentiful through the regular public schools for the students with special needs who had the most severe challenges and for the youngest students. What was desperately needed were programs for students with the potential to succeed in college and for older students. What these students needed most to prepare for college success was rigorous instruction within a fully integrated environment.

The College Prep Design

We would design a college prep high school which fully integrated students living with emotional challenges. Until we met with the folks at the Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental Health at Columbia University. They were very enthusiastic about what we were proposing to do, but they worried.

“The success of an integrated school is too important to the children’s mental movement to fail. If you start with high school kids, they may be too far behind to become college ready,” they said. Start with middle school, they urged.

Ok. We would design a 6 to 12 college prep program.

We needed more help. I emailed John Strand, a college classmate who I knew was a pretty senior public educator, having served as school superintendent at districts throughout the country. John and I had been neighbors in our freshman dorm but our paths had crossed only once in 25 years.

“Can you help me write a charter proposal for a school which will level the playing field for kids with emotional challenges?”

It turned out John was living in Connecticut, and finishing up a consulting gig, and would love to meet for lunch. He agreed to help.

Nelly Tournaki, a professor of special education at the College of Staten Island who had been a member of planning team from the first meeting in Dick Kuhn’s office, agreed to help.

We were trying to get a planning grant from the New York City Charter Center. Not as easy as Paco had predicted. We had meetings, but we were getting nowhere.

We were advised that our application would be greatly strengthened if we had an experienced principle designee on board. Evelyn Finn, a retired DOE principal and part-time CSI faculty member, had been also part of our planning process since the meeting in Dick’s office. I would have breakfast with her. Would she be our founding principal?

She thought about it. She would agree to put her name down as founding principal. She would go to meetings with the DOE and the Charter Center and act and talk like a founding principal. But she wasn’t ready to commit to actually coming out of semi-retirement to do the job. Baby steps. She wouldn’t actually commit to the plunge until a couple of years later when she began to recruit and plan with the founding faculty.

And then, Dirk Tillotson arrived at the Center from Oakland. Initially serving as Deputy Director and then as Acting Director, Dirk understood what we were trying to do. Under his stewardship, we received our planning grant. When he left the charter center to start a charter school incubator, we became one of his first clients. He became a key member of our planning team.

That was our team that wrote the charter. While I pulled it all together and provided the unifying style, I depended on their technical knowledge and experience throughout. I also depended on their encouragement and support to just keep going. It took years and for the most of that time, until we got the planning grant, it was basically a sweat equity project. It was all about the people.

Even with this team, it was hard. We couldn’t even get a meeting with the City to discuss our proposal. Evelyn and I were traveling the Island, meeting with elected officials. There was a lot of enthusiasm. Pretty much everyone told us to “be sure to let me know if there was anything I can do.”

Then City Councilman, now Boro President, James “Jimmy” Oddo did more. Initially, he said the same thing. And then he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, lost in thought. When he opened his eyes, he told us, “I think you need help.”

We did.

What we needed was a letter signed by the Staten Island elected officials to the Deputy Mayor­­ requesting a meeting for us with­­ DOE. Jimmy wrote the letter, organized the signatories. We started out at the top, with a meeting with the Deputy Chancellor. Jimmy’s counsel accompanied us (we walked together from City Hall to the Tweed Court House) to the meeting. That broke the ice.

It’s all about the people.

It’s still all about the people.

We opened Lavelle Prep (our first school) with a commitment to continuing arts education at a time when most NYC schools were jettisoning the arts in favor of increased reading and math time. Instead, we would extend the school day and do both. We would ensure that all middle school students received substantial introductions to Music, Drama, Dance, and Visual Arts, and that they would then choose an area of concentration for their high school years.

And then something magical happened. But not right away.

In our opening year, we began with Music in 6th grade. We found a great musician. But not a real teacher. Not for our school, or our kids. We didn’t try music again until our 3rd year.

And Then We Struck Gold

A terrific musician and a natural teacher, Kyle Fackrell, he subsequently went on to earn his Master’s Degree in Music Education. As we grew, Kyle needed help to cover all the high school music sections. Fortunately, another fantastic musician on the faculty was waiting to step up. Steve DiSalvo had joined us a few years earlier as a member of our English faculty. Steve is a professional rock guitarist and singer on the weekends. Taking on a section of Music Production only made his dream job even better.

And then in midst of our first year of elementary expansion, Jessica Bruschi appeared, her children growing up, ready to go back to full-time teaching. An amazing Music teacher, we grabbed her up. Within months, Jessica had established the Lower Division chorus.

And then the question came up, how do we keep these kids singing when they get to middle school?

Jessica Carnavas, science teacher and 8th grade leader spoke up. “You know, that would be my dream job.”

I had forgotten. When Jess came to us, she was actually looking for a job as a Music teacher. We didn’t have a job for a Music Teacher. She could teach science. Great.

Jess joined us a science teacher, subsequently earned her Master’s in Biology, and went on to become the 8th grade leader. This year, she also earned an advanced certificate in School and Building Leadership. She would take on the upper school chorus.

Four terrific Music teachers in one small school.

Today, as we begin construction of our new facility, we are building a real music school space with ensemble rooms and small practice rooms. We are planning for expanded opportunities for our students and looking at the possibility of opening opportunities in evenings and weekends beyond our student body.

It’s all about the people. People create the programs. People create the possibilities. The Zen Way is to be open and responsive to these opportunities as the Universe presents them.

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