by Alia Fite
Seven-year-old Alexis runs into the Principal’s office and thrusts her wrist back and forth, simultaneously smiling and whining in pain. Alexis requests a Band-Aid for her finger, but her finger is unscathed.
She begins to give an animated recap of jamming her finger into the office door, but Ismael Colon simply grins, steadies Alexis’s wrist, and explains that Band-Aids don’t fix bruises. “She’s my little friend. She comes in all the time,” Colon says. This nonchalant demeanor comes from the man who, just an hour earlier, showed a second grader how to remove strawberry yogurt from his pant leg.
Ismael Colon, or Izzy—as he asks every non-student to call him—is the principal of Future Leaders Institute in Harlem, a charter school that serves students from Kindergarten through eighth grade. Colon has only been at FLI—affectionately pronounced fly—since the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, but he has grand plans in mind for the currently struggling school.
Colon, with short, textured charcoal hair, deeply tan skin and the rehearsed grin of a presidential hopeful, wears a dark grey suit and a tightly tucked green dress shirt with a silk striped tie. He is at once both undeniably no-nonsense and mildly silly.
“A lot needs to change here. But this is my life story,” he says, and a split second later he’s quietly chuckling, gesturing towards a student’s story about her fictional love life. “The First Kiss” is scribbled across the booklet in magenta marker, and Colon flips through the pages. “Look, I love all of this,” he says with his signature grin, tugging at his suit jacket as if the woolen fabric irritates him.
FLI is a major change for Colon, who was previously employed at Shoreham-Wading River High School in Long Island, New York. Colon resigned from the school for “personal reasons.” “I really needed to reevaluate what I was doing professionally,” Colon says. The differences between Shoreham-Wading and FLI exist on a number of different dimensions. “For high school kids, the social and emotional aspects are so different, and the way you articulate with them is just light years away,” he says. “And their wants and their needs are too, and so is the parent interaction.”
The suburban high school is located in an affluent neighborhood; FLI, surrounded by Harlem’s bustling boulevards, is mostly comprised of students from struggling households. The FLI website proclaims that the school “works with children and families in Harlem who face the largest inadequacies and inequalities within the public education system.”
Colon is particularly proud of FLI’s core values, a sort of abridged mission statement for the students: leadership, compassion, respect, responsibility, effort, truth. He points at the list of values posted on the bulletin board, adjusting his now slightly wrinkled shirt while flashing a wide grin. The twinkle in his eye is almost out of a comic book.
Located on the second and third floors of the Hans Christian Andersen complex, FLI has the fixings of a typical charter school, including its adherence to both a mission statement and the state curriculum: “FLI’s mission is to expand opportunities for students who historically have had limited access to rigorous academic instruction, and to empower them to make informed, deliberate decisions so that they may lead socially responsible, productive lives,” the website says.
The history of FLI and Colon’s background indicate a promising future for the school. Both of FLI’s founders are Teach For America alumni and in addition to Colon’s ten years as a high school assistant principal, Colon notes that it runs in the family; his sister is an award-winning elementary school principal.
Colon isn’t a newcomer to charter schools, either. Colon previously served as the Director of School Leadership, Development and Operations at the New York City Charter School Center. “It literally got to a point where I missed being with kids,” he says, so he left the position. But even with Colon’s often overpowering professional zeal, things don’t come as easily to what he calls an “underfunded” charter.
The school receives funding from the public and from private sponsors, including “Donors Choose,” an organization that provides grants for teachers trying to implement specific projects; a plan for indoor recess is in the works. Since the summer of 2010, FLI teachers have been awarded $18,000 in grants. These schools must renew their charter every three to five years, and it’s especially difficult for FLI because they don’t have a constant flow of funds.
Colon swiftly turns the corners of the scuffed, narrow hallways lined with blue and orange lacquered lockers and details his experience with the charter. “It’s a struggle. You lose a lot of sleep doing work in education.” But Colon seems inspired by the constant bustle of everyone from kindergarteners to pre-teens, casually shouting someone’s name or telling a middle-schooler that he’s “the man.” Colon is more than eager to draw attention to posters of famous quotes on the doors of classrooms. Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” spans the entirety of a door leading to a class full of first graders who, Colon confesses, don’t yet know who Gandhi is.
Colon is most excited when he sees samples of students’ writing on school bulletin boards next to the quote posters. “That’s the most important value we have here: literacy,” he says. “We used to just put up student work at random until I realized it’s not about math problems; literacy is the true focus.” Colon tugs on his tie and barely notices the shrill bell in the hall. “Oh, that, that’s not even a passing period bell and I don’t know why it rings.” His smirk has a trace of embarrassment. “We need to get things like that fixed.”
To apply to FLI, students complete a form—offered in both English and Spanish—that includes basic student and family information like addresses and phone numbers. The form also asks students to answer questions about their personal lives; one question asks students whether their families have lived in a shelter in the past six months. Once the application process is complete, students congregate at the school’s auditorium for the lottery. Applications are selected at random and are not given priority based on merit, which can exclude well-qualified students simply by chance.
Colon enters the door to the same classroom with the Gandhi quote on the door, and the eight present students fall silent. He points to the teacher, who has both thumbs raised. “It’s the thumb rule,” Colon says. “We have these little gestures that let the kids know when they should be quiet. It works like clockwork.” The “clap rule” is another one of these gestures. A frustrated substitute teacher claps five times, the students clap back in the same pattern, and they know to be quiet. The silence seems to stem more from Colon’s presence than the clap rule.
One way to make students more involved is by having them take part in establishing classroom rules. Colon says, “In the beginning there were a lot of behavioral issues. Then we asked kids what they thought was important for the classroom, and they all signed the contract.” This student participation creates “more buy-in, more accountability,” says Colon.
This behavioral contract is a set of rules, all of which were suggested by students at the beginning of the school year. “I will not tease my classmates.” “I will pay attention in class.” The list of promises, about ten lines long, is written in dark blue crayon on construction paper and hangs at the entryway of each class. Below the list are scribbled signatures of students in the class.
Colon briskly walks to his office and leans back into a chair, noting that this particular room always has an open-door policy. He applies this openness to school proceedings. “I want people to say, ‘he’s making changes that are transparent,’ so I know there’s nothing covert about what we’re doing here. And with transparency comes discomfort because we’re dealing with things in a real way,” he says. He is—for a short while—not afraid to be frank: “we’re not performing the way we need to be.” Shortly after, two eighth grade girls hide behind the doorframe of Colon’s office and playfully peek around the edge to see if he’s inside. Colon invites them in and congratulates them both for getting into their top choice high schools.
In between friendly interactions with the students Colon says he often calculates how much more he’d like to transform the school. “Another thing I’d like to change is the dress code,” he says. “Just a plain white shirt with a logo, khaki pants. It would create a sense of belonging.”
“There are some people who say I’d be destroying the individuality of the child. But you’re in a community together, it’s cheaper for the parents,” he says. He seems to genuinely believe that changing the uniforms will galvanize the school’s reform. “Not that I’m a branding freak, but if you’re an organization, you should be branding yourself as such,” Colon says.
Colon spots a student wearing a skull and cross bones shirt with the FLI logo embroidered on the sleeve. He notes that many students take their own clothing, go to the local seamstress, and embroider the logo somewhere on the shirt. “That’s enough. Can’t we just brand ourselves as one thing? Based on what students are doing, I can take that shirt you have on and I can embroider it,” he says.
The uniforms would certainly help parents, many of whom are struggling to raise their kids, Colon says. The enrichment program FLI mandates for students also helps to cover for parents who work long days and have no way of picking up their children until late in the day. “It’s not an after-school program,” Colon says, “It’s enrichment like art, music, physical education.” The program goes until 5 pm each day, and students have a say in choosing which enrichment classes they take.
Throughout the day Colon extracts an iPhone from is suit pocket, each time apologizing and explaining that it’s a fellow faculty member asking about the whereabouts of her students. “I don’t use my work BlackBerry,” he says, “because I want people to have my personal phone number. They don’t need to use the work phone.”
Colon thinks that creating a sense of community is paramount in changing the school. He is among the oldest at the school; at 43, one of the first things he notes is that the staff is “quite young.” The teachers, predominately female, look as if they’re fresh out of college. To bring faculty closer, he uses newer, less traditional forms of communication.
The teacher finally locates Colon and gestures for Colon to step outside his office. “Where are all the kids?” she asks. Colon isn’t sure. The teacher explains that several of her students are missing and asks Colon to alert her if he hears anything of them. “Okay, yes, I’ll let you know,” he says, smiling. Roaming students are a problem at FLI, but “it’s Friday,” Colon says, and he doesn’t seem too concerned.
Colon leads the way to the school’s playgrounds. The two concrete play areas separate elementary school students from middle school students for safety concerns. On the side of the building is a mural of beaming children running through neighborhoods in Harlem. Kids playing sports and natural landscapes are swirled together in what appears to be an amateur imitation of van Gogh’s Starry Night. “The community’s great. It’s very gentrified here. A very exciting and up and coming area of the city. In regards to safety, being realistic, we’re in a much safer area than most charters in say, the South Bronx,” he says.
The community is a major source of inspiration for teachers and their students. On the walls of the linoleum hallways teachers post student artwork depicting the row of brownstones across the street, biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. mention the neighborhood’s boulevard of the same name and older students write essays focused on the Harlem Renaissance. “Some of our classes go to the local vendor, the cupcake shop. The kids can all sit around and he shows them how they make cupcakes,” Colon says. “It teaches them a little bit about what it takes to create a business.” Third grader Alyssa greets Colon as he steps into her classroom, and she explains that the class is going over a test. In the back corner of the classroom is a reading area with plush couches and a bookcase positioned to create a nook. Alyssa remains quiet, waiting to be dismissed. In this particular class, Colon says, about half of the students receive special education. They, too, experience the teaching methods and curriculum that Colon believes makes FLI unique.
The “nontraditional curriculum” combined with new teachers and the integration of students receiving special education, says Colon, “can create social and emotional issues for the students.” Colon is referring to CTT, or Collaborative Team Teaching, a method based on combining special needs education with general education. The proportion of special needs students to general education students is about four to six, and there is one special needs teacher and one general education teacher present. The general education teacher teaches the curriculum, and the special needs teacher focuses on individuals specifically, even assisting students who need physical therapy. FLI has dabbled in this method and Colon believes that integrating it further will make the process easier for both teachers and students.
While the emphasis is on English Language Arts (ELA), “the constructivist math program during which students use manipulation to explain math,” says Colon, sets FLI apart from more traditional institutions. What Colon explains is a new wave in teaching students math, in which they use real life examples to solve problems and focus more on reasoning through a problem than memorizing methods.
“It’s not just twelve times twelve is one hundred and forty four like when I was in school,” Colon says. He begins to solve the problem through the constructivist math method, breaking the numbers into smaller numbers and then putting them back together, but he stops part way through and admits that he’s not sure exactly how it works.
The makeup of the school’s schedule also affects the way students learn, but there’s not much to be done about it. A throng of sixth, seventh and eighth graders squeeze through narrow doors and run into each other while pacing through the cramped hallways. “It’s a small hallway for big kids,” Colon says. The school day schedule doesn’t help matters.
While the younger kids stay in their classrooms with the same teachers, sixth through eighth graders move from class to class, each with a different subject and teacher. To deal with the over-crowded hallways, Colon wants to make all students stay in the same classrooms and have teachers move. “It would make sure there is much less movement,” Colon says.
Colon takes pride in the upper years. The sixth, seventh and eighth grade students in particular focus on English Language Arts, splitting the year between reading and writing. He specifically hired a teacher because she focuses on grammar. For the earlier grades, however, the teacher turnover means many new teachers at once. “Fifth grade is the hardest grade,” he says. “We have two new teachers this year, both with minimal experience.”
The difficulty with teacher retention stems from more than the teachers themselves. “What really makes FLI unique,” Colon says, “is that we’re a unionized school.” “That’s not like most charters.” Colon is vague about the implications, but this unionization essentially means more benefits and a higher salary for teachers at FLI than those at other charter schools. Being a unionized school may benefit teachers, says Colon, but when combined with lack of funding, there is a problem for the school. Colon often falls into the trap of vague rhetoric, but when talking about how to change the interaction between teachers and students, he gets unabashedly specific.
In a school in which one teacher began and quit in a single semester, it’s difficult to get students invested. Colon sways back and forth, hands deep in his pant pockets, and refuses to reveal the name of the teacher; yet, he seems to have no reservations expressing his disapproval. The kids were “rowdy,” he says. “And the four teachers who couldn’t handle the kids were fired.” Teacher retention is a major problem at FLI. On the school’s website, a tab reads, “Teachers Needed,” directing prospective FLI teachers to the application.
“The students think, ‘Why should I connect with someone if they’re going to leave me anyway?’” Colon says. This problem is the main target on Colon’s path to a better school. Even though the kids are “tremendously resilient,” according to Colon, he constantly emphasizes that they can only take so much abandonment, both in their home lives and at school. His main solution is a community environment in which teachers feel a connection to the school and are less likely to leave.
Of parents who ask about their students’ school life, Colon is cautious. “Those things that they’re concerned about, we see it. You better see it, and if you’re genuinely not seeing it, you’re not out of your office enough,” he says. This strategy underscores his main goal of strong faculty relationships and enthusiasm. “Here we go,” he says, shifting forward in his chair. “If I can hold onto seventy to eighty percent of staff, I think we’ve made a huge step in changing the culture of the school. We need a team of teachers who can connect and understand that it’s all about changing the culture.” Colon uses ‘culture’ and ‘community’ interchangeably, hoping that the culture will become focused on community. And, he strives for “leading by example,” as he says, hoping that good faculty relations will trickle down and inspire the students.
His plan is to increase the teachers’ support for one another by moving towards a CTT system. This way, there will be more teaching assistants and two teachers to one classroom. “The first step is personally developing relationships. People think the school culture is about the kids, but if you have a staff that believes in a leadership team focused on a system and a philosophy, then you will have people who will do anything and everything to be a part of that,” Colon says. “One-hundred percent there are people who would disagree,” he says. But, his positive attitude proves at least he is convinced. Of the school’s future, Colon says, “I’m a believer.”
He returns to his office for the day and a group of girls approach his assistant Stephanie’s desk. “They decided to be mean girls for the day,” she says to Colon. “We don’t like to suspend students, but we have to hold kids accountable,” Colon explains. The girls teased one of their female classmates and will face possible suspension.
Colon’s grin is slightly more tired, and he begins to close the door since he won’t reprimand the girls in front of others. Colon must keep in mind the school’s overarching problems while simultaneously dealing with daily struggles. “It’s been an interesting year: tremendous gains, and tremendous challenges, and tremendous everything,” he says. “I think we can do this. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we can do this.” He moves aside a bag of cherry tomatoes, extracts a Wheat Thin and offers the cracker to Stephanie. She declines. “Soon, it’ll just become one big family.”