Week One In Baltimore:The Scene Is Set

In many ways, this past week has been far more challenging than any of my weeks of Institute. While I have had the opportunity to sleep 7-8 hours a night, which is fantastic, my days have become much more intense. Because I didn’t know I was going to be teaching this week, I haven’t had the chance to do any daily planning, much less any of the critical reflection about how I was going to reinvent myself as a teacher based on lessons learned at Institute. I teach 3 1/2 hours each day, and the lion’s share of that time is completely improvised. On top of that, I’m trying vainly to settle in at my house, attending 4 1/2 hour TFA workshops some nights, and working on the coursework for on of my Johns Hopkins grad school classes for teaching. But the main challenges are at school. Did I mention, we don’t have AC?

Our school is completely chaotic at the moment. Our staff is working it’s butt off to iron out major details that must be in place by the time school starts: things as fundamental as the daily schedule, the curriculum, and the rulebook. As a result, I have to operate for the summer with none of these structures in place. I am tempted to think that all this should have been ironed out months ago, but honestly, I have no idea what it’s like to be an administrator of a brand new school (other than the fact that it looks unimaginable difficult), so I am in no position to blame anyone for anything. My job is to take lemons and make lemonade.

At FAST, we have an incredible opportunity to establish something special and an incredible responsibility. All charter schools are accountable to making significant progress, as compared to the traditional public schools, but Friendship has interesting challenges of its own. Our school opens with a considerable amount of controversy and scrutiny. We occupy the building that up until this year was Canton Middle School, a rough school right in the middle of one of Baltimore’s up-and-coming neighborhoods. Residents had long complained about the unruliness and outright violence of students from the school, and had almost succeeded in having the building closed down and destroyed. But when our current CEO of schools came on last year, he reversed those plans, deciding to locate our charter school in the building, to the outrage of many of the residents. But he stood his ground, refusing to destroy an old, but still-operable school building. The whole saga was city-wide news for a while. Needless to say, a lot of eyes are focused on how well this thing flies. My principal has told us not to be surprised to see the mayor or councilpeople drop in on our classes.

I will be under additional pressure permanently. The reputation of schools in this district is defined by test scores. Our school is composed only of 6th, 8th, and 9th grade classes. All of the 9th graders will be taking the state algebra test at the end of the year, which is the only test 9th graders take. So to a large extent, my school’s academic reputation hinges on how well I can get these kids to perform on this test.

The news isn’t all so dire. Although our staff is small, my impression of them so far is that they are extremely capable, dedicated and diverse. People have gone out of their way to look out for me, and it has really paid off for me this week. But the thing I’m most excited about is the school culture we are building. Our administration is adamant about making Friendship a school with a culture focused on achievement. I find that I have rethink my idea of how a high school operates. There’s a part of me that looks at our expectations and thinks, “things were much more free at Naperville North, and we achieved at extremely high levels.” But this definitely isn’t Naperville, and it’s going to require a completely different method to get the same results in Baltimore.

For most of the students, the behavioral and academic expectations we are working to institute will be way beyond what they have experienced. Right now, they are extremely resistant, but with time and pressure they will conform. Eventually, they will take pride in their school culture, once they realize that the structure allows them academic growth beyond what many of them have ever experienced. But put quite simply, right now, most of my students simply don’t know how to behave properly, and don’t view school as a formal setting. They are going to need a lot of structure, and a lot of aggressive intervention to fix that. I’m looking forward to the day when instead of cracking jokes and goofing off, my students are having intellectual conversations and conducting themselves like the young men and women I know they are capable of being–the day when their internal expectations match the ones we have for them. Only once we reach that point, we might be able to talk about running the place in a less authoritarian fashion.

I have spent this week winging it, and making impromptu speeches on behavior, expectations, and all sorts of cultural issues. For the most part, things haven’t been sinking in. The assistant principal delivered one of the most vicious tongue lashing I’ve ever witnessed, and pretty much promised to suspend a kid on the first day of school, and still they acted like children during my math class. But starting Monday, the hammer falls. I imagine it will take sending a couple kids to the office, or maybe even several, to catch major ass-whuppings from the administration, but they will learn that it’s time for business. And when they do learn, the kids I have now will be a nucleus for the culture we envision when real school starts in a couple weeks.


On a totally unrelated note, I’m really sad to hear about the death of Bernie Mac today. I had never laughed so hard that I cried until I saw his stuttering bus driver bit on Original Kings of Comedy. What a bummer.

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