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Rashid F. Davis: 'No Such Thing as Too Hard'

Monday, May 21, 2012 - 01:04 PM

In Principal’s Office, a regular feature of SchoolBook, a city school principal is interviewed for insights into school management and the life of a school leader. What do you think makes a good principal? Join the conversation below.

Rashid F. Davis, 41, is principal of Pathways in Technology Early College High School, a new school that opened in Brooklyn with a unique six-year plan that offers students an associate college degree upon graduation. The school began this year with 103 ninth graders and plans to add a grade every year.

Mr. Davis, who began his career as an English teacher on Long Island, spent several years at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, working there as a teacher, a small learning community coordinator and an assistant principal before becoming the principal of Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy. He left there last year to lead P-Tech, as the new school is called.

P-Tech has an emphasis on science and technology, and partnerships with I.B.M. and the City University of New York. Mr. Davis, who has written about his experiences and his ideas on SchoolBook, talked about the challenge of preparing his students for a rigorous science and technology curriculum, and college-level classes, even though many of them came from middle schools that may not have adequately prepared them. This interview was edited and condensed.

Q.

You're almost at the end of your first year. What will you do differently next year?

A.

The first class did not have the opportunity to do a summer bridge. This will be a six-week summer school here on our site, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The students will have the opportunity to take geometry. Since we're adding more students it will be an opportunity for incoming students to bond with the existing students.

Q.

Will it be mandatory?

A.

As much as we can make anything mandatory. Some people are not happy, but the reality of it is, we’re not an academically screened school, so we have to take every opportunity to make our students academically stronger.

Summer learning loss is a huge issue. We can’t just pretend that if a student is already behind that it’s O.K. for them to just have fun in the summer. We’re trying to defy the odds by having students complete an associate's in applied science degree, as well as earn a high school diploma, so we have to use every available resource. We're also starting two college classes for our Year 2 students, speech and electrical mechanical engineering technology.

Q.

What other changes are you planning to make?

A.

We'll definitely do some different things with parents, to help them understand the cost savings that this program with its free associate's degree can mean. It's important for them to see this so they can understand what sacrifices need to be put in place now in order for their children to be successful.

Q.

Where do your students come from?

A.

From all over the city, but 85 percent are from Brooklyn and 35 percent come from District 15. They attended 95 different middle schools.

Q.

What are some of the things that worked right this year?

A.

Our nontraditional calendar. We start at 8:35 a.m., and 10th period ends at 4:06. Enrichments are from 4:10 to 6 o'clock. Having a longer school day allows them to have an opportunity to really strengthen their skills. Every middle school that our students came from has a different academic culture. We're trying to build one culture, to have the students learn new habits.

In Year 2 our students will be expected to take two college courses and before they can, they must take the Regents, and they must score a 75 or higher on the E.L.A. or an 80 or higher on Integrated Algebra. So for us that test is a different beast.

Q.

Do some parents think you're pushing the students too hard?

A.

There’s no such thing as too hard. Many of the students are already surpassing what we’re expecting of them. But I look at the reality of the outcomes, and I think we’re not pushing hard enough. Every single day it’s a new fight. Every single day that they walk out of this building they’re tempted, and unfortunately there are many bad temptations for students. And so we push as hard as we do to counter those negative temptations.

Q.

Your approach sounds like what a lot of charter schools are doing -- the longer school day, the high expectations.

A.

Charter schools have other flexibilities that we don’t have, but I’ve had the opportunity to use different innovative approaches in my two schools -- BETA and here -- especially with the use of time. If I didn't, I wouldn't still be here. For example, we have a nontraditional ninth-grade program where the students are not taking social studies and science. We're paying attention to making sure they have a solid foundation in literacy and math so we can make sure they master them before we move on.

Q.

Can your students graduate from here after four years, and not stay two years to earn a college associate degree?

A.

This is a six-year model. This is not just about high school, but about completing an associate's degree in a six-year time frame. At orientation we are very clear: if you want to graduate in four years, this is not the experience for you.

Studies show that by the time they reach the age of 25, only 30 percent of people in this country have completed a four-year college degree. The numbers are much lower for people of color. So this six-year model may seem like a long time, but if students are tasting success and given an opportunity where they can see themselves working as a professional in an industry, we hope to make a dent in the completion of post-secondary education.

Q.

Tell me about your background. Were you raised in New York?

A.

I was born in New York City but my parents are from South Carolina, so I spent time between the Bronx and South Carolina, in one of the poorest counties there. So I had the duality of poverty growing up.

But even though I was in a poor county in South Carolina, I still had access to Advanced Placement courses in school and I had access to teachers who cared and who told me that education was a life-changer. And that really became my model for teaching, because I had teachers who did not make excuses about my home, who did not care whether or not my parents were involved, who didn't think that that predicted my outcome. They invested time in me. They told me there were great things in store for me.

Q.

Has the Bloomberg administration been good for the city?

A.

It's all I've known as an administrator. Whether we agree with the numbers or not, the graduation rates are higher than they had been prior to Mayor Bloomberg. I still think we need to do more -- absolutely we need to do more. Unfortunately when I was a student entering Morehouse College, the black male was in crisis. And you look at the statistics for young men of color today and they’re still in crisis.

I will say that under mayoral control principals have more autonomy, so I do have opportunities that some of my peers in other parts of the country do not have to be innovative. But that’s what keeps me up at night -- what are those things that I can bring to the table that are going to be game-changers of generations, when one of our graduates, for example, is the first in their family not only to graduate from high school but also college. Or maybe they can have a first job with I.B.M., and we're talking about a change in lifestyle.

Q.

What’s been the hardest thing for you?

A.

Looking forward.

Q.

Why?

A.

This is a six-year model. If we haven’t done enough by Year 3, what will make the students want to stay here three additional years as opposed to going to a school with a traditional experience?

So I’m looking forward because by the end of Year 3 the students not only have to be academically strong enough to get into a college of their choice if they choose not to remain here, but at the same time how do we make this offer of a six-year model so attractive that they do not want to leave?

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