“The Crazy Team for the Crazy Kids”: A New Charter School Thrives on Staten Island

People said we were crazy when we applied to start John W. Lavelle Prep Charter in Staten Island.   It was a college prep middle school that would cater to students with emerging mental health challenges.  There were no other models to look at in New York, and these kids often faced immense challenges.  This is what charter schools were designed for.

They said we were crazy, literally, the “crazy team for the crazy kids.”  Lavelle was one of my Charter Incubator’s first clients.  I use “client” loosely” because these teams usually have no money, so we worked for free in the hope that at some point we could get paid.  My authorizer friend called us the St. Jude of non-profits—reserving our efforts for hopeless cases.  But we saw hope here.

The team had hit roadblocks in getting approved, several unsuccessful rounds, with opaque reasons for not being approved.  We did have a few political cards to play and got a meeting with the State official who was resistant.  He told us they would never approve a charter with such a high percentage of special education students because, “the normal kids would not have role models.”

I was biting my tongue to stop from biting this person’s head off, it was hard but I made it.  We went with an open lottery and got approved, did affirmative outreach, and got our special ed percentage to 33%.  But as I tell our teams, that’s then the real work starts, the chartering is the easy part.

It has not been easy.  It’s never easy.

There were no big funders knocking at the door (although we had some great local support) but while we showed outstanding student progress, our overall proficiency numbers are lower than Staten Island’s.  Our kids are demographically very different: much higher special ed numbers, higher free and reduced lunch, and many more African-American kids.  And we had kids being hospitalized, holding their spots until they came back.

This past June was our first graduation, twelve students graduating with Regents Diplomas, everyone (100%) with a college acceptance, and I turned my paying gig into a volunteer opportunity, joining the Board.  We received a second charter for an over-aged under-credited school  that re-engages students through careers.  We are working on a residential portion for our most challenged students, an autism inclusion program, a sober and sobriety supportive component, a culinary arts program that will target English learners, and a range of other niches to meet the needs that are going unmet.  Yeah, we are crazy.

Sometimes I  hear frauds, or at least tainted heroes (in my opinion) expounding their successes, in yarns that tell only half the story, with kids often paraded as props.

While those real heroes, those doing the day-to-day hard work with the children that others (charters and district schools) would rather pass down the line, toil to make things better for children.

So as tassels turned on Staten Island this past summer, I unapologetically raised my glass to the amazing work that the staff, board and community do to make a crazy dream into a supportive reality for children who may have been lost.  And I look forward to more craziness.


(This post was originally published at Great School Voices.)

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