Today, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, our schools are flourishing.
Master Sekito said, “How will you step forward from the top of a hundred-foot pole?”
Another eminent master of old said, “Even though one who is sitting on the top of a hundred-foot pole has entered realization, it is not yet real. He must step forward from the top of the pole and manifest his whole body throughout the world in ten directions.”
Gateless Gate, Case 46, translated with commentary by Koum Yamada (Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1979,
April 1, 2020. It is twenty years since I stepped from the 100-foot pole; retiring from the State Office of Mental Health to see where the Peacemaker Pathway led. Not the first time or the last time that I stepped from a 100-foot pole. But a very conscious step.
When the early retirement option became available, I flew to California to visit Roshi Bernie in La Honda, in a house so shaded by Redwoods that it seemed the sun never shined (way too dunkel for me) to ask Bernie what he thought of the early retirement option. I don’t remember what he said. I know he didn’t give me advice, but on the way home on the plane, I knew I was going to take the step.
The early retirement didn’t take effect until April 1st, so I spent the next three months wrapping up a two-year assignment and a twenty-year career which had been a roller coaster and was ending abruptly.
The Path of the Peacemaker
What is the path of the Peacemaker? What is my path? I had no idea. I had no plan. Dharma brother Paco (Francisco Lugovina) helped me think about it. Hanging post-it notes on the walls of his Bronx office, he helped me visualize a treatment program for youth living with mental illnesses — the sorts of kids that my wife Diane and I had worked within the State (and that she was still working with.) The kids who needed a different kind of educational opportunity than any then available either in the schools or in the mental health system; needed an opportunity to use their strengths and to manage their challenges so that they could go on to college and a productive life.
And Paco and I also began talking about getting into the consulting business together. Over a long weekend in Boulder, Colorado, we got ourselves trained in the Leonardo Process — a wonderful, creative planning process with a very Zen feel. I spent a day at Borough Hall registering to do business as New Line Consulting. I opened a business bank account.
I think I had one client at the time, a mental health clinic in Brooklyn where I was training staff in group therapy. Paco was getting us some gigs to do creative planning sessions, sometimes one-shot affairs, some a little more ongoing, with small businesses and not-for-profits.
About a year into my retirement, I was invited back to South Beach, the psych center where I had worked many years, to see if could teach the current crop of Chiefs of Service to create structures and processes to bring in funding that state-operated programs couldn’t access, something which I had done when I was working there. I used the Leonardo Process with the Chiefs to develop a plan to address this challenge.
The effort was a dismal failure. No one emerged from the process with any desire or energy for the challenge. Much to my surprise, South Beach then asked me if I would do it myself. As we worked on this project, South Beach became my anchor client.
The Verrazano Foundation
We created The Verrazano Foundation as a vehicle for doing the work. I recruited three South Beach colleagues, one current administrator and two who had also retired, to serve as founding board members. I was the President and the entire staff.
Incorporated in 2002, we quickly provided structure and transparency for several soda vending operations which made soda available to patients at off-hours and also provided transitional employment opportunities for people in recovery. We discovered our mission — combatting stigma and discrimination against people living with mental illnesses. Meeting with folks in recovery, we found our first new program initiative. We called it the Arts of Recovery. We managed to get enough small grants from businesses and foundations to hire local professional artists to work with artists in recovery on collaborative projects over several weekends in the Spring and to purchase the supplies needed for the project. Snug Harbor Cultural Center wonderfully provided space for the workshops, and their Newhouse gallery offered a venue in which the work produced could be professionally exhibited. We had wine and cheese at the opening and received coverage in local media. The Arts of Recovery was not only providing a wonderful opportunity for artistic expression, it was a mechanism for creating positive community awareness of mental illness and recovery.
Over the next few years, we successfully repeated the Arts of Recovery, each year engaging different local artists to take the lead in projects. In subsequent years, the Snug Harbor exhibit was followed by an exhibition in the halls of the South Beach administrative building where the work could be more readily viewed by patients and staff. We also initiated a series of workshops, which provided access for career guidance to the recovery community.
Paco, who by then had become a Verrazano Foundation board member, came to a 2005 meeting with a suggestion. Paco was simultaneously serving on the board of a charter school in the Bronx, and he suggested that we consider opening a charter school as a way of advancing our mission.
I really wasn’t that interested, but Paco said he thought we might be able to get a $50,000 planning grant.
That piqued my interest.
At that time, even $5,000 was a sizable grant for The Verrazano Foundation. So, we could apply for the planning grant, I thought, and at the end of the grant period report that we had determined that a charter school that would help to level the playing field for students living with emotional challenges was not feasible. Meanwhile, The Verrazano Foundation would enjoy a terrific infusion of funds.
Dick Kuhn, an early supporter of The Verrazano Foundation and a leader in the Staten Island community, agreed to convene a meeting with other local leaders in both mental health and education to test the waters. I was prepared for rejection. Earlier ideas, for a half-way house for perpetrators of domestic violence and for a hospice for people with severe mental illnesses and terminal medical conditions, had not caught much wind.
Surprisingly, though, the group was enthusiastic.
The Planning Team
From there we created a planning team, which met, with the help of Nelly Tournaki in the Education Department Office at the College of Staten Island. Although ideas for the charter changed multiple times in those first few months, we were finally able to arrive at a focus on high school students (the existing public schools provided much better services for younger kids), on students with the capacity to succeed in college if provided effective preparation (the public schools offered more services for students with developmental disabilities which precluded college success) and the integration of students with emotional challenges with their undiagnosed peers, in recognition of the devastation caused by segregation.
(A little later in the planning process, we accepted the recommendation from the folks at the Columbia University Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental Health that we begin with 6th graders rather than 9th graders. They strongly believed that this would greatly increase our chances of success. They were enthusiastic about what we were proposing to do and didn’t want us to fail).
Meanwhile, our first application for a planning grant had been turned down. We tried again and got the consolation prize — a Technical Assistance Grant — which meant that we got to meet with a couple of wise men in Manhattan for advice but got no money (presumably that all the money went to the wise men.)
Meanwhile, Paco was hustling consulting gigs, and I was facilitating Leonardo Process workshops around the city, but not often enough. Fortunately, Dee was bringing in a pretty good salary and I was enjoying my time as a stay-at-home Dad, picking my daughter Jamie up after school, taking her to music, dance lessons, and art classes.
At The Verrazano Foundation, we were keeping the Arts of Recovery going and were beginning to get a Career Mentoring Program for people in recovery off the ground. But it was becoming clear from the support of elected officials and from media coverage as well as from attendance at planning events and community information sessions that the charter school initiative had greater resonance in the community than earlier Verrazano Foundation initiatives. The whole process of working toward the charter had become our most effective vehicle for building awareness of the obstacles faced by people in recovery.
Another charter application was rejected.
“What,” I was asked in early 2008, “would we do if the application was rejected again this year?”
I remembered a mother at one of our information sessions who came up to me after to express her gratitude for what we were trying to do.
“Every time I try to do something for my daughter,” she said, “the Department of Education puts obstacles in my way.”
What would we do if we were rejected again?
I thought of that mother. “We will keep trying.”
Not long later, I was walking out of Tweed following yet another meeting with the Department of Education Charter team with John Strand, my college classmate and retired principal and superintendent whom I had recruited to help write charter applications. John said, “I think we are going to get the charter. I think they have figured out that unless they give you your charter, you are never going to go away.”
In the Fall of 2008, New York City Education Chancellor Joel Klein approved our application, and thus began the unanticipated, torturous process of gaining approval the NYS Education Department. This was supposed to be easy once we had the City approval.
Initially scheduled for a vote at the December meeting of the State Board of Regents, month after month our charter was delayed as State bureaucrats raised new objections. As soon as one set of questions was satisfactorily answered, a whole new set of questions appeared.
We met face-to-face with a State Education Department Deputy Commissioner who told us flat out that she would approve a charter that was 100% special education students or less than 15% but would never approve a charter designed to achieve the level of integration that we proposed (the one which New York City had approved).
“No one with a disability can ever be a role model for a non-disabled student,” she told us.
Biting My Tongue
I wanted to scream, “Could you ask the governor to come in and repeat what you just told us?”
Our Governor at the time was blind. I bit my tongue.
Our friends in the City who continued to support our application told us, “You are in the right. You can appeal to the Feds. You’ll win. But it will delay opening the school for at least two years. Take what you can get, get open, and then apply to amend your charter. It will be easier once you are in operation.”
We opted to drop the tiered lottery which we were going to use to guarantee the integrated student body we proposed to serve. We would go instead with an open lottery. We would do affirmative outreach to families of students with emotional challenges and other disabilities.
Nevertheless, the State delays persisted. The Staten Island Albany delegation got involved, with Assemblyman Mike Cusick as their point person. They helped move the process. I went to Albany to witness the Regents approval of our charter. We were not on the agenda. State education bureaucrats had failed to deliver the paperwork needed by the Regents in preparation for a vote. Our item was postponed. They had forgotten to tell me.
Finally, in April 2009, we were approved to open in September. In September, I was working at a full-time job for the first time in nine and a half years. Lavelle Prep opened with 75 students, 25 with emotional challenges and other disabilities at the societal table, all on a pathway to college.
That was just over ten years ago. Today, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, our schools are flourishing. Three schools in operation, one on the horizon, almost 1,000 students, 350 with special needs, all on a pathway to success with a college option.
We’re a long way from the La Honda Redwoods.
Where will the Peacemaker Pathway lead next?