Curriculum, Caring, and Crack Vials: A City Principal's Perspective
During their visit to Crossroads School, Education World editors Diane Weaver Dunne and Ellen R. Delisio sit down for a chat with principal Ann Weiner. She offers her views about how structure, staff, and knowledge about every child can help disadvantaged students overcome challenges.
It's Tuesday morning, and the main office of Crossroads School bustles with activity. Students, teachers, and parent volunteers stream in and out. Phones ring and the copy machine hums as a teacher meets with a parent in the corner of the room. Another parent rushes in to meet with his son for a few minutes. A mother and some eighth-grade students help carry in plates of cookies for the school's "museum" opening that afternoon.
Amid the fray, a student offers principal Ann Wiener a hug. It is striking how students generally greet her, tenderly touching her arm; she responds with a smile.
Crossroads is not a typical urban middle school, and Ann Wiener is not a typical principal. She has collected crack vials littering school property and climbed onto the roof to inspect repairs. It is also evident that most students at the school connect with Wiener in a way many have never connected with a school principal. She knows each child by name, and she doesn't hide the fact that each student holds a place in her heart.
At the same time, Wiener sets a tone for her school. Students and staff respect one another. There are ground rules for behavior, and students are accountable for their academic performance. Students lead parent-teacher conferences; they offer self-evaluations of their progress alongside their teachers' evaluations. There are no excuses for tardiness, disrespectful behavior, or late homework.
Course syllabi at Crossroads read like a college curriculum: War, Media and the Enemy; The Ever-Changing History of New York City; and Ecosystems, Climate and Human Impact. Students admit that the school is tough, but they also know they are safe.
The sounds of children playing basketball in the gymnasium filter into the main office as Wiener talks with Education World news editors Diane Weaver Dunne and Ellen R. Delisio.
Ann Wiener: There is a code of conduct in the student handbook, and we restate that code a lot. We cover character building all the time because the adolescents' curriculum is "What can I get away with?"
EW: That student, Ranale [a sixth grader], also told us there are no excuses for not doing homework. Does setting such high expectations get results both academically and behaviorally?
Wiener: The expectations are clear. We started our new semester yesterday, and each teacher talked about the expectations for the class. Kids do their own self-evaluations too. We are trying to get them to be realistic about how they're doing and how other people see them.
EW: Ranale said he is sometimes late for school because he must bring his six-year-old sister to school if his father cannot. Is that typical of the students who attend Crossroads?
Wiener: A lot of kids [have family obligations]. That makes it hard when we take trips because some kids have to come back to pick up younger brothers and sisters. Because we have a good relationship with the [elementary] school downstairs and because we have graduates who live in the neighborhood, we can arrange to have other people pick up the students' brothers and sisters.
EW: Your students and staff go on a three-day camping retreat each fall. What other kinds of trips do the students take?
Wiener: They recently went to the Museum of the Moving Image, the African Burial Grounds, the Museum of Natural History, and hiking. We go places they've never been. We went ice-skating one afternoon. If kids take chances when they get on the ice or on roller blades [for the first time], then they'll take chances in the classroom. They'll get their hands up. You know, they will be curious. Our kids may not be the top scorers, but they know how to work the system and they know they are empowered enough so that they have more of a sense of entitlement. ... They feel entitled to the world -- and many of our families don't.
EW: Some districts lose nearly one-third of their students each school year. What kinds of mobility problems do you have?
Wiener: Those students who leave the school are growing in number because of family instability. A lot of kids move into the district during the year. We opened [in September] with 160 kids and went up to 175. ... When a new child comes into the school, I spend at least an hour talking with the parents and the child, talking with the teachers who [will have the child] in their classes, and choosing the child's adviser very carefully. We just took a child whose parents have died; the boy was their caretaker. His aunt has become the guardian, so he moved here from Washington, D.C. He is 12. I spent a long time talking with him about what things he likes, what things he doesn't like, what his ambitions are, his interests, what he sees as his weaknesses. I was able to place him with an adviser who could be really supportive.
EW: What are the percentages of Spanish-speaking and African American students?
Wiener: My kids are 42 percent black; 48.5 percent Latino, most of whom are first-generation Americans from the Caribbean; 5 percent white; and 3 percent Asian. Those numbers don't reflect the many mixed-race kids we have.
EW: What are the biggest challenges your students face? Do you think they face different challenges than suburban kids do?
Wiener: When you are poor, you've got more problems because you don't have the insulation of money. I consistently give kids money to get to school. If they've lost their Metro pass, their parents can't pay the $3 to get them to school. I've got a letter that [explains to Metro officials that] this child has lost his Metro card, which he is entitled to, please allow him to ride until he gets a new one. That works a good deal of time. But I say to kids, you've got to get to school. You can't stay home because of no money. Come to see me. We did an inter-session break last week. We went all over the city, and we went roller-skating. Some kids couldn't pay anything. So again, it came out of my pocket, but no kid was excluded because of money.
EW: How do you help your students face challenges so they can achieve academic success?
Wiener: You have to reconceptualize learning or redefine learning. Learning is how to get along with people who are different from you. Learning is learning how to talk through issues and feelings. It's learning what is appropriate behavior with the other sex. It's learning how to deal with your frustrations. Of course, it must also be learning how to read and write, how to do math, how to think critically.
We don't teach from textbooks most of the time. Teachers write their own syllabi -- based on New York City and state requirements. We go deeper into things rather than cover [many topics]. For instance, in the course about religions and world belief systems, it helps kids to look at what they believe, share their beliefs and their family's beliefs with other kids in the school, and then study a religion that is different from theirs. One of the boys wanted to study Judaism because he is Muslim and he is very concerned about the things going on in the Middle East -- as he should be!
EW: How is Crossroads able to offer in-depth courses and not devote a lot of time to test preparation?
Wiener: We don't do a lot of standardized test practice. How do we get away with it? It is increasingly difficult because more and more, tests are seen as the one gauge of a child's knowledge and ability. I'll give you a copy of our student report card. We document the time lines of the projects the kids worked on over the session. We have lots of examples of kids' work that they keep in their work portfolios.
EW: Are students held back if they don't achieve a passing score on the state assessment exams?
Wiener: No. There are three criteria for promotion. [Students must meet standards related to two of the three criteria: test results, attendance, and coursework]. We keep close track of attendance because ... if they are doing all right in their class work and their attendance is good, they can pass. Otherwise many, many kids would not pass. We have kids who probably will never get up to standard because they have severe learning disabilities. Standardized tests do not test the way they think. We have second-language learners against whom the test discriminates.
EW: A few weeks ago, a New York judge issued a ruling about the inequity of the education-funding system. Does funding inequity pose another challenge?
Wiener: Yes. Yes. We need more money. There is a real strong push to get kids into reading recovery programs in the early grades, before the third grade. Of course, I support that, but it means fewer resources for the older grades. One thing we do well, but not as well as we should, is teach remedial reading. A lot of kids don't read as fluently as they should. We made a decision, affirmed as a staff, that we want kids to read for the love of it, so we have book groups that are all about reading -- enjoying it and discussing it. Plus [we have] some targeted reading groups. We should do a lot more, though. We should have a reading specialist on staff. There is still the myth that by the time kids get to the middle school, they know how to read. Not true.
EW: As an administrator, what is your biggest challenge?
Wiener: Time. I guess that is the biggest.
EW: I imagine you have very long days.
Wiener: Very long. I'm here from about 7:20 in the morning until about 6:45 at night. I spend a good ten hours each weekend doing paperwork. You can't do it for less -- and you can't do paperwork in school because then you're not with the kids.
EW: Do you have a turnover problem with your teaching staff?
Wiener: We have very little turnover, particularly given the fact that this is a hard job. It's an extraordinarily time consuming job too. Bill Kennedy coaches basketball in addition to being a teacher. Lisa Wong is also a coach. We find if we do our own after-school programs with our own people who know the kids, the programs are much more valuable.
EW: Crossroads has existed 11 years. Why are you so successful?
Wiener: I think we empower kids. We do that in a lot of ways. We look at the child as a full person, and we look at the year as a whole-year program. We do a lot with summer programs. We have kids who go off through the Fresh Air Fund. We have kids who go to private camps or to the Math/Science Institute, which is for bright kids. This year, we are working with Summer Bridge, a tutoring program for low-income kids, to strengthen students academically in every way. We're applying for a summer day-camping program. If we don't find these programs, many of our kids will sit at home watching TV in hot apartments because the streets are dangerous or there is nothing to do.
EW: How do you measure your success?
Wiener: Many of our kids are the first [in their families] to graduate from high school. A lot are the first in their families to go to college. How do we know? They come back and they tell us. They come back when they are applying for recommendations. They come back for advice. A few were here last week. [The students do well because] we do very careful high school placement and counseling. Last year, 50 kids graduated. They went to 23 different high schools. We put them where they can be most successful. As far as I know, only seven of our kids have had babies [in high school], even though many of our children come from families in which mothers had children very young. It's amazing! We try to give them senses of other things, other options that they have.
Article by Diane Weaver Dunne
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