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. Earlier this month, Maria Velez-Clarke of the Children's Workshop School talked about working to raise the school's progress report card grade. All of the posts in the series can be found here. Know of principals with exemplary experience and insights? Send names to SchoolBook.
Answering questions this week are Allison Keil and Sara Stone, co-directors of Community Roots Charter School, which they founded six years ago in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The school, which prides itself on a diverse student body, has 300 students, grades K through 5, and every classroom has two teachers, one of them certified in special education.
Last spring, school officials backed down from plans to expand into a middle school after they were met with vigorous opposition from some people in the community because they would have taken up more space in the building they share on Saint Edwards Street with two other schools, Public School 67 Charles A. Dorsey and P.S. K369 Coy L. Cox School, a special education school.
Ms. Stone, 34, and Ms. Keil, 38, make $128,000 apiece. This interview was edited and condensed.
How did you two meet?
Ms. Keil: We met in graduate school. We were in a small school design class at Bank Street, and we were just randomly put on the same team. Our assignment was to design a skeleton of a small school. And then through that work together I think we realized that we had not only a really aligned vision of what a public school could be, but also we balanced each other really well with our expertise.
We’re both really committed to co-direction. Sara comes from a third-through-fifth-grade teaching background (Midtown West, Manhattan, and consultant teacher in upper elementary grades for children with special needs). I come from a K-2 teaching background (Saint Ann's, Beginning With Children and P.S. 30 in Harlem with Teach for America). Sara comes with special education expertise and training, and I come from a general education perspective. Together we felt like we made a really complete leadership team. From that graduate school class we started establishing a planning team and a founding board and worked on developing a charter with those two groups of people.
And then another important part is that I was pregnant at the time with my first child and living in Fort Greene and feeling like I wanted a different educational opportunity in my own community than what was present in the public schools. A big part of our mission is both to be inclusive and to be diverse. I think both of those things are really rare.
Do you have a long waiting list for your school?
Ms. Keil: We had 800 for this year.
How many were admitted?
Ms. Keil: We had 50 spots ... for all the grades.
How do you choose your students and maintain a diverse student body population?
Our demographic has changed over time because we just have a flat lottery, and there are no preferences besides a district preference, so we want to make sure that we protect the diversity and give equal access to children.
About 20 percent of your children are classified as special education. How do you make that happen?
Ms. Stone: We put a lot of effort into outreach. That includes reaching out to schools that serve children with special needs, that includes reaching out to certain agencies that work with children who have a specific need like occupational therapy or speech and language therapy.
I think the other huge part that shows that we’re an option for families is our school tours. When families come and visit the school they get to see all the services that are available within our building and also get to ask personal questions about the supports we have in place.
Ms. Keil: The other thing is, we’re one of very few charter schools where all the classrooms are collaborative team teaching, so that just presents a huge opportunity for families.
How did you decide to do that?
Ms. Stone: I would say the vision probably came for me out of my undergraduate work in inclusive education at Syracuse University. I learned a lot about the philosophy and purpose behind having an inclusive school, and co-teaching is just one way to manage that.
You’ll have one teacher with a general education certification and one teacher with a special education certification in every classroom. I think what’s unique about our school and what we’re seeing more and more in other schools, is that you cannot determine who has which certification when you walk into any of our classrooms.
Isn’t it more expensive to have two teachers in every classroom?
Ms. Keil: It wasn’t something we could fund when we opened. So we had a salary structure that had an assistant teacher, but we very quickly found that those teachers were doing the exact same job as the others. So as soon as we grew enough where we could afford it, we equalized our salaries and created co-teaching.
Ms. Stone: The way that we sort of approach it is that we promised people that we were partnering one person with more experience with someone with less experience, but when we opened the school we approached both teachers with, 'these are your sets of responsibilities together. Together it is your classroom. Together you will work with the students and the families in that room.' So it wasn’t ever a traditional breakdown in practice for a head and an assistant teacher.
What about the argument a lot of people make that charter schools are taking resources away from public schools?
Ms. Keil: It's a difficult argument for me to understand, to be honest. We’re a public school, so we are taking funds — to educate those public school children that we’re actually educating. To us it’s about school choice and giving families public school options, and I think families deserve public school options and we consider ourselves to be a public school option.
Do you still want to expand?
Ms. Keil: I think it is important to understand that our expansion was not what was opposed, but instead our expansion in this particular building. I think we learned that this site could not house the middle school we had envisioned, and that we would never want our program to negatively impact another school’s program. So if the Department of Education is able to find us a facility, then we would go forward.
Are the families of your students pressuring you to expand to middle school?
Ms. Keil: One hundred percent. Yes. District 13 is desperate for middle schools. I think everyone knows that; I think that’s something that everyone agrees on.
Lessons you’ve learned? Things you would change?
Ms. Keil: One of the big things that I always believed, and that I’ve learned very strongly here, is that schools are about relationships, and that deep relationships with students and families and with teachers is essential. That everyone being on the same page in terms of an educational mission and philosophy is also essential. That teachers are the backbone of any good school, and without high quality teaching you’re sort of nowhere.
I think we’ve learned that diversity is our strength and also something that really needs to be worked on.
Why do you say diversity has to be worked on?
Ms. Keil: You don’t just bring people together from lots of different places and then take a picture and say, "Look how beautiful this is." That is beautiful. But then if all people don’t feel heard, then you have a problem. Children are not necessarily better off because you put them in the same classroom. There has to be an ongoing discussion about learning about each other, about communication. That’s really essential.