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Donna Nevel Headshot

Inspiring, Student-Centered Educational Communities

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I am a great admirer of two educational communities in New York City -- the Bloomingdale Family Program and the Julia Richman Education Complex (JREC). The former is a Head Start Center in the Manhattan Valley neighborhood of the upper west side of Manhattan; the latter, an educational complex of six schools, located on the east side of Manhattan -- four high schools, an elementary/middle school, and a school for children with autism. Walking through these buildings and visiting the classrooms is always inspiring. My children had the great fortune of being part of these two communities.

While one is a federally funded pre-school and the other a part of the NYC public school system, I began thinking about what characteristics they share with one another that I have found so compelling and even exhilarating. These are some of the characteristics that immediately came to mind:

  1. The needs and well-being of students are at the center of everything they do. No other considerations, political or otherwise, come before that.
  2. They value and have tremendous respect for their students and families. Each community not only embraces their students, but their extended families as well. That is, students are most definitely not a mere number.
  3. Both institutions believe in, and do what they can to support the ability of all children -- particularly those most often under-served by our system, such as low income and children of color, children with special needs, English language learners -- to develop intellectually and emotionally to their fullest potential.
  4. They have an unwavering commitment to creating an environment where students develop a love of, and passion for, learning and an appreciation for the many strengths and abilities they bring with them.
  5. Understanding that high-stakes testing and teaching to the test do not create critical and creative thinkers, they develop curricula and a learning community that provide a framework and foundation for life-long learning.
  6. Those in leadership positions value and have a genuine respect for their teachers, and do everything they can to support the teaching staff and to enable them to flourish as educators. No measuring teachers by their test scores in these institutions.
  7. When you walk into each of these buildings, everyone immediately feels welcome and at home. You don't feel as if you're a criminal who needs policing.
  8. At the heart of both JREC and Bloomingdale is their emphasis on community and on devoting the time to building and nurturing their communities.
  9. In both environments, the collaborative spirit is contagious. Parents, students, teachers, administrators, social service staff, security, and all other school staff interact with, and support one another throughout each day.

While I was a parent within these educational institutions (and I still am connected to each of them), I often saw the administration interacting with teachers and parents and students, and I got to see firsthand how every child and family and member of the school community mattered. I had the privilege of hearing the educators discuss their approaches to education, but far more compelling than that, I got to see it all in action. I sat in on classes that were magical; from pre-school to high school, I saw students excited about where they were and what they were learning.

According to current educational "reform" dogma, the education system needs to be revamped. Yet, if those setting educational policy were paying attention to, and concerned about schools that truly serve our children, they would recognize that we have these wonderful models to draw from, with a track record of students who are engaged learners.

Particularly at a time when testing and test prep trump all else; when we have a Mayor and Department of Education that value business and top-down corporate models that are not centered on the needs of our children and that exclude parents, educators, students, and community members from any decision-making; when students of color and low income students are too often marginalized and not getting the education they deserve; and when we are witnessing increased privatization of our school system, including a proliferation of charters, we need to make sure that public institutions like JREC and Bloomingdale are able to flourish.

We need to demand a school system that supports these institutions and others like them where creativity and imagination and meaningful learning and a commitment to all our children are part of the fabric of its everyday life. As part of that, we need to insist that schools are able to develop genuine ways to assess and evaluate school success, unlike the system we now have where "accountability" grows out of bureaucracies and not classrooms.

With the recent resignation of the NYC Chancellor, I began to imagine what our school system would be like if we had educators like those at JREC and Bloomingdale at the helm. How lucky our children and all of us would be. And of course they would be doing it all collaboratively with the entire education community as partners in our children's education! Our children deserve no less.