Schools to Celebrate- Fostering Wellness 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 NY, 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 can 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 that was resistant.  They 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 sped 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, 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 sped numbers, higher free and reduced, and many more African American kids.  And we had kids being hospitalized, holding their spots until they came back.

This year is our first graduation, 12 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.

National Charter week is always an ambivalent time for me.  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, doing the day to day work—and the 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 turn on Staten Island this summer, I can unapologetically raise my glass to the amazing work that the staff, board and community have done to make a crazy dream into a supportive reality for children who may have been lost.  And I look forward to more craziness.

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