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Brett Kimmel: Create a 'To-Die-For' Place

Sunday, January 29, 2012 - 11:08 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.

Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School opened in 2006 with only grades 6 and 7. It now has 600 students, grades 6 through 12, and is about to graduate its first class. The school, which received an A on its last progress report, is part of a network of Outward Bound's Expeditionary Learning schools. Known as WHEELS, the school brings the rigor of a private or charter school to its small school setting, and requires that every student apply to college. Its founder and principal, Brett Kimmel, 37, was an assistant principal at Intermediate School 143 Eleanor Roosevelt, with which WHEELS now shares a building on West 182nd Street. He was also a 2010 Cahn Fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University. Mr. Kimmel's salary is $140,000 a year. This interview was edited and condensed.

Q.

You're about to graduate your first group of seniors. Does that say your school has been a success?

A.

When our graduates come back four years later with their college diplomas, then I know we’re successful. So in some ways the hard work is still ahead of us. Opening up a new school and growing it is no easy task. But we’ve done that, and I think we've done that very well. I think now raising the bar academically and in terms of academic rigor, that’s the key for us.

Q.

You're a zoned school, so you essentially have to take in every sixth grader who applies, if you have room after siblings, isn't that right?

A.

Yes. I have kids who just end up here because they live in the neighborhood and I have all the stereotypical things you might find in urban areas. We have kids living in homeless shelters, we have a number of kids living in non-traditional families, so their parents are not their primary caretakers. We have kids who don’t know their parents. We have kids who have gone through a lot of tough and trying circumstances to get to where they are.

That said, our families are tremendous. They’re supportive.

Q.

Instead of parent-teacher conferences, at your school you have student-led conferences. Tell me about those.

A.

We have the kids prepare a portfolio from all their courses. The student has to be prepared to talk about examples of their work in the conference, which lasts 20 minutes, and we do them three times a year.

It takes place with the student, their crew (group) leader and a family representative. Often times it's mom and dad, but sometimes it’s not, it's grandma and grandpa, an aunt, an uncle. We’ve had neighbors come in and do the conferences, we’ve had older siblings, but the student basically talks through their successes and their challenges, by using their work as evidence. It culminates with students making an action plan. He or she might say, 'These are the areas in which I’m really strong and I’m going to continue doing these things. Here are the areas where I really need improvement, and these are the things I’m going to do, whether it’s signing up for extra help, or turning in my homework on time.'

Q.

You got interested in teaching in college but you didn't study to become a teacher, did you?

A.

At the University of Michigan, I was a political science major. I was in an honors program and for my thesis I focused on the Milwaukee school parental choice program. It was the first voucher program in the country -- this was in the mid-90s. I really got interested in it through a political lens. How is bureaucracy created or not created? I decided that's what I want to do -- I want to do education reform, and then I realized very quickly, first of all, what is education reform, and how do you get into it?

It became very clear that the way to do that is to become a teacher. I didn't have an education degree, but at the time there was this relatively new and still unknown program called Teach for America that came to our campus. I ended up working for them in a school in Houston. I taught fifth grade. It was in a really tough neighborhood, lots of gangs and lots of poverty, but the school was a shining light. It was in a brand new building, and had good leaders and good teachers, some of whom I still count as very close friends.

Q.

What made you want to start your own school?

A.

I loved teaching and loved the impact you can have with kids and families, but I thought if I surround myself with good people and open my own school I can potentially have a greater impact. It's kind of going back to that education reform thing.

Q.

What does that mean to you now?

A.

I think it means creating a place that has more of that systemic impact, that changes the life trajectory of a number of kids and that’s going to be a, quote-unquote, to die for place for teachers and to be the kind of place that everybody wants to be associated with. I thought, if I surround myself with good people, we can do this.

And then that Frank Sinatra song rings in my head, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.'' We're in New York City. We're in the New York City Department of Education. We're not a charter school, not an independent school with a huge fund-raising arm behind us. We’re not in the suburbs where everything’s handed to us on a silver platter, as the stereotype goes.

If we can do something here in Washington Heights, in New York where we're bound by the U.F.T. contract just like any other school, then we can potentially have some systemic impact and we can say, 'we’re doing this so why can’t you do it,' and maybe there’s some lessons learned in what we're doing.

Q.

Do you think a lot of success in schools is personality driven? Could somebody else have done this here?

A.

I could be the best principal in the world, which I’m not, but if I don’t have good teachers, it doesn’t matter. I could be the worst principal in the world, which I don’t think I am either, and I could have great teachers, and they would make me look darn good, so I think it’s a combination of having exceptional leadership and having tremendous teachers. But in addition to that, we’ve been able to engage our community, our families, our kids and get them on board as well.

Q.

What do you say to the claim many reformers make that you can educate any child no matter what their socioeconomic standing in life?

A.

I think its absolutely true. We’re a living, breathing example of that.
Our sixth graders come in on average about two years below grade level in reading and math. Yet every one of our seniors just applied to college, every single one of them.

So what do you do in between? You work tirelessly and you set very high expectations. You have that no-excuses approach and mentality to say, it is our job over the course of seven years to work with our kids and families to get them there. If we don’t do it, then we fail.

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