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Bank Street College:
Leading the Way for Educational Change

By Elisabeth Jakab

“The leadership for educational change program is a particularly inclusive one,” says its Director Gil Schmerler. “We serve people from both public and independent schools in New York City and the tri-state area. The program extends from preschool, to early childhood, through high school, and even into other kinds of educational settings (e.g., after-school programs, district offices, non-profits, and into policy and advocacy work). We are now also offering an important new Leadership in Special Education track.” Typical program applicants are experienced teachers spanning all of the grades from early childhood through twelve, as well as practicing leaders.

“Basically, we help these teachers develop the skills to become leaders, and those who are already leaders to develop more in-depth skills,” says Schmerler. The common denominator is working to make schools more dynamic, humane, and collaborative places—a typical Bank Street orientation. “We focus on teaching our students how to organize the people within the schools, often working from the bottom up. Changing a culture is a very inclusive job, and if you don’t attend to all the areas, the change won’t happen. Helping students acquire the skills to bring the total school community together into a collaborative culture is a major goal,” he says. The students get certification as School Building Leaders. The program is also pursuing an additional certification for School District Leader, which equips students for an even larger role.

Since all school leaders have to understand adults and how they work and relate, the Adult Development course functions as a central part of the program. “We focus primarily on the professional years. For instance, how do you work with faculty in mid-career or late career; people who have been in a very narrow environment; those with a vested interest in stability or job security; or those who have lost the spark,” he says. “Knowing how to work with diverse groups of adults toward goals of equity and community is very important to us.”

Developing instructional leaders is a complex process. “Our students learn to observe teachers, listen to them, model for them, and, most of all, engage in rich, non-judgmental discussions about curriculum and instruction with them. You have teachers watch each other, so you create peer interaction and peer coaching. This is where the greatest growth can take place, when teachers are learning from each other,” says Schmerler. Promotion of teacher leadership is one of the major emphases of the program.

Among the many NYC public school people in the program, “some go on to create small schools, which have become a very important part of the NYC scene. We’ve had a number of small school principals and directors come through our program,” says Schmerler. “These more personalized, collaborative schools have been a growing phenomenon in New York the last twenty years. People can actually start their own schools, and Bank Street is very much in the middle of that. Some of these schools are part of the NYC system, others are outside it.” He adds that a new part of the NYC system, the Empowerment Zone (EZ), headed by Eric Nadelstern, a former instructor in the Leadership program, offers a growing number of small schools freedom from some Department of Education regulations and gives them more autonomy. [See article page 6 by Nadelstern]

Says Schmerler: “It’s not easy being a leader anywhere in education. It takes strength and wisdom. We are sending people to sometimes lonely, isolated learning outposts. At Bank Street, we surround them with people who understand them and help them in their personal journeys toward new roles, skills, and accomplishments; and who give them a feeling of connectedness to other educators with similar ideals and goals. We do this through the advisement process and with support from their teachers and peers. This is why people come to Bank Street. They don’t get that kind of support in most other places.”

“Through Bank Street’s Educational Leadership Program, I found the guidance and mentorship to reach deep within myself and take action in making changes within my school. I have doubled the size of my school and staff, run a Capital Campaign, and moved us into a state-of-the-art space designed to support our special needs population. Now, in collaboration with my school community, we are making a difference for more families and children in need. That is what it is about: making a difference with others, for others. That is success.” —Donna Kennedy, Head of School, The Gillen Brewer School

“Bank Street taught me to slow down, listen, and reflect. Above all, I took from Bank Street a process which profoundly changed the way I think about children, my role as a leader, and the way I see myself.” —Thomas Brunzell, Dean of Students, KIPP Infinity Charter School, Harlem, NYC

“Bank Street has a clear vision of how students learn. From that vision, they developed an Educational Leadership program that pushed me to think about how adults learn and how to create institutions that best support learning for all members of the community. It may seem simple to say that adult learning parallels students’ learning, but it isn’t. It represents a paradigmatic shift in how we think about school and school districts. Bank Street helped me understand that. It is core to the work I am now supporting throughout NYC.”—Josh Thomases, Chief Academic Officer, Office of New Schools, New York City Department of Education.#



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