As the Bloomberg era comes to a close and we prepare to welcome a new mayor, New Yorkers are all rushing to define Michael Bloomberg's legacy.
Much of that conversation is focused on the mayor's education record. That's due in no small part to the mayor's own urging: when he took office, Bloomberg asked to be judged by his record on schools.
But as the debate continues about whether schools are better today than they were 12 years ago, there is one part of Mayor Bloomberg's education legacy that will prove to be an enduring achievement:
Mayor Bloomberg put our schools front and center, cultivating public awareness of, interest in, and support of this City's 1.1 million students. He also encouraged the key notions that, (1) although there are problems that affect our public school system, those problems are fixable, and (2) that it is everyone's responsibility to care about and get involved in our school system to maintain a vibrant, thriving city.
In the early days of his administration Bloomberg wrestled for Mayoral control of the schools, and then moved the Department of Education's headquarters from Downtown Brooklyn to the newly renovated Tweed Courthouse, placing it in the heart of municipal government and signaling its literal centrality to the rest of the city. And since those early days, we've seen example after example of how the city has followed his lead in recognizing the importance of, and rallying to support, our public schools:
• The Fund for Public Schools -- the fundraising, nonprofit Partner to the Department of Education -- brought in a record $47 million for our schools and students last year.
• The "NYC Jobs Blueprint" released by the Partnership for New York City -- New York's most influential business association -- prioritizes better-educated and skilled workers whose public school education and experience prepare them to work in a complex, technology-based economy.
• CUNY and IBM partnered with Brooklyn's Pathways in Technology Early College High School, a new school that provides students with an Associate's Degree in technical fields and helps them get their foot in the door at a Fortune 500 Company. Based on its success, the school is being replicated far and wide: President Obama -- who referenced the school in his State of the Union address -- set aside $300 million for similar schools nationwide.
• This fall, the DOE will launch the Software Engineering Pilot program, which will provide around 1,000 middle and high school students with computer science and software engineering curriculum -- an important step in making New York City the next Silicon Valley.
• Two separate websites -- GothamSchools.Org and SchoolBook.Org -- began providing year-round coverage of NYC's schools.
This citywide interest in schools that Mayor Bloomberg cultivated has affected the very candidates vying to succeed him: every candidate for mayor and public advocate has made education one of their top issues. That's both smart policy and smart politics: poll after poll has revealed that for a majority of voters, the only issue that surpasses education is "jobs and the economy". Not surprising given the interconnectedness of education and employment.
By continuing to make schools a citywide priority -- and by tying them to the future of this City -- Bloomberg inspired everyone from private citizens to small business owners to Fortune 500 CEO's to realize that they can and must do something to help.
And it's absolutely critical that New Yorkers continue to have and act upon that realization. Because no one mayor, principal, or teacher can transform our schools alone.
At the end of the summer, Mayor Bloomberg announced a major new initiative
to address the chronic and blatant disparities between thousands of African American and Latino young men and their peers in New York City. A New York City-commissioned study that drove recommendations for the initiative found that across the five boroughs, African American and Latino men ages 18 to 24 have a poverty rate that is 50 percent higher than white and Asian young men, and an unemployment rate that is 60 percent higher.
Obviously, this is a worthy effort -- especially during these turbulent economic times when the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted only about 25 percent of all teens ages 16 to 19 would be able to find a job this summer -- the lowest rate since the government began tracking the statistics in the 1940s.
We know that many of these young men attended, or attend, urban public schools. And in recent years, there has been much debate about what our schools should be doing to reduce the racial achievement gap in education. Yet, as the Mayor's initiative demonstrates, schools are just one critical key to success.
At PENCIL, we've been working to expand employment opportunities for underserved young people through the Fellows Program
, our summer internship program designed solely for NYC public high school students. A sizable percentage of the students in the Fellows program are African American and Latino young men. What we've discovered is that many of the challenges confronting African American and Latino young men are not unique to them but are also experienced by the vast majority of urban public school students. Through the Fellows Program, we've placed nearly 500 students in paid internships over the past four years, but without the relationships we have with their host companies, only a handful would have gotten the opportunity. Why?
1. Networking: Too many urban public school students lack access to the professional networks that are necessary to find jobs. One major company with whom we work said 30 percent of new employees are found through referrals, which puts students without these references at a distinct disadvantage. Most of our Fellows aren't born into a professional network, don't have access to one, and don't yet understand the importance of networking. So as part of their training, we teach that whether one is unemployed, seeking a new job or promotion, or building a reputation at a company, networking is one of the most important weapons in their arsenal. We then teach our Fellows some basic skills behind networking effectively.
2. Professional Brand: If a student is fortunate to land a coveted interview, do they know what to do with it? Do they know how to answer the question, "Tell me about yourself. Why should we hire you?" Do they know how to present themselves, to arrive well before the scheduled meeting time, to dress appropriately for the place of business, to give a firm handshake, to make eye contact, and speak with confidence? Too often the answer to these questions is no--and so often, the interview ended before it began.
Developing a "professional brand" begins with a personal statement -- an elevator pitch, if you will -- summarizing an individual's education, professional experience, skills, interests, and best qualities. And our Fellows learn that it's not just what they say, but how they say it -- with confidence, with sincerity, and with a professional presentation -- that will land them the job.
3. Attitude: An internship is an audition. We teach our Fellows that simply "punching the clock" is a road to failure. Rather, show an eagerness to learn, a desire to work hard, and a willingness to step up during times of crisis. And we remind our students that there are parts of the job they will love, and parts they could do without. But they are all worth learning about, and must all be done with equal dedication.
Here's the great news: given the chance, all of the students in our Fellows Program learn -- and shine. The vast majority of participants report the Program has a significant impact on their lives, improving their feelings of self-efficacy and influencing their future career plans. And, even better, they are outstanding employees.
Since we launched the Program, companies that were once reluctant to hire high school students have come back, year after year; many have taken on more student interns each year; and dozens of Fellows have been asked to stay on as part-time employees after their internships have ended. Already this summer, at least three Fellows have turned their internships into ongoing jobs.
Many more students can do that, too, given the chance. So as the Mayor launches this laudable effort, we know he can't do it alone; we'll need the business community to do its part, as well. First step: open your doors to an unorthodox candidate, and give them the chance to shine by being part of a program like PENCIL Fellows. And then invest in the students while you have them. It may take some work to bring them up to speed on workplace skills and rules, but it's an investment worth making.
There is a call going out around the country for volunteers to help our public schools. During Education Week, President Obama called upon Americans to get involved in their local public schools. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg recently launched Alumni for Public Schools to enable the city's graduates to give back to today's students. And on the heels of NBC's Education Nation this past fall, David Gregory called for more volunteers in public schools on Meet the Press, adding on Twitter that "education reform is the new patriotism."
It appears America is heeding the call -- in 2009, there were 1.6 million more volunteers than in 2008, and schools are increasingly the focus of that support.
This, of course, should send tongues (and Tweets) wagging for all of us who are involved in supporting public schools. Yet, we must be careful of what we wish for. We have an educational system that is, in every sense of the word, overwhelmed, and it is not clear if schools can handle an influx of volunteers.
Despite good intentions, volunteers can actually steer our schools off track.
At a recent gathering of New York City-based organizations committed to improving our public schools, we joined the call for more volunteers in our schools, but with one important caveat: we must do a better job of creating structures and systems for using volunteers effectively. That's how we stay on track.
Over the past 15 years, we at PENCIL have connected thousands of private sector volunteers with thousands of public schools. We have seen tremendous success stories where volunteers have literally helped transform a school from a case study of failure into a model of success. But, we have also seen volunteers -- despite the best of intentions -- throw their arms up in frustration and walk away from a school that, in their mind, "doesn't appreciate what I'm trying to do."
To ensure more turnaround stories and fewer stories of disappointment, we have developed a comprehensive structure to support our volunteers and the schools with which they work. We have built this structure around some basic, but often overlooked, principles that can help ensure an effective volunteer program that truly increases student achievement.
Aligning School Needs with Volunteer Skills
Too often, a volunteer has an idea of what they want to do -- but it's not necessarily in line with what a school needs. Principals bite their tongue, as they don't want to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. But if the volunteer experience is truly about helping the school, then the process must begin with identifying what the school needs. Raising money for a new playground is great, but not if what the school really needs is a new science lab. Starting a drama club might be nice, but not if what the principal really wants is a reading club because the students are reading below grade level.
And schools must not be afraid to turn away volunteers who don't meet their needs while seeking out volunteers whose skills are in line with what they are trying to achieve. If a principal's number one priority is helping students improve their math skills, then that principal should look for volunteers who can help the students with math.
When volunteers' skills are in line with the school's core needs, it creates both a more productive relationship for the school and a more rewarding experience for the volunteers.
Setting Clear and Realistic Goals
It's ambitious to say "I want to help ensure that every single child in this school graduates." Well, if only 50 percent of the students are currently graduating, that's not realistic -- and it sets the relationship up for failure. Set realistic goals, such as: "We are going to increase the number of students reading at grade level by 25 percent." Or, "We are going to double the number of parents attending parent-teacher conferences."
Similarly, principals shouldn't expect -- and volunteers shouldn't promise -- more than they can offer. Most volunteers haven't been in a school for a very long time and when they encounter the students for the first time, they want to promise the world. Then they go back home or to the office and say, "What did I commit to? I can't do that." So don't promise to be at the school every day to mentor students, raise lots of money from your friends, and organize a school trip to the local museum. Commit to what you really can do -- not what you wish you could do.
Realistic goals make everyone feel successful, keep everyone engaged and motivated, and, over time, lead to those dramatic, inspiring results everyone is hoping for.
When setting goals, think about how you will know if you've been successful. Will we track attendance rates? Or staff turnover rates? Or how many parents come to back to school night? Which leads us to...
In our work life, we all evaluate our productivity. Are we selling as much as we'd like to? Are we providing the level of service our customers demand? And schools evaluate themselves as well -- are our students learning? Are they on track to graduate? Yet, for some reason when volunteers and schools come together, evaluation often goes out the window. This is an enormous mistake. What's the point of donating our time and expertise if it's not having an impact on the school? And why divert principals' and teachers' attentions to volunteer programs if they aren't having an impact?
Rigorous evaluation has another benefit -- we know that if we can show volunteers a tangible impact of their efforts, they are more likely to stay engaged and motivated. And if we're not having the desired impact, we can recalibrate our efforts. The best relationships adapt to changes and evolve over time.
Ongoing and Open Communication
When volunteers join a school community, it's the creation of a relationship. And just like any relationship, communication is a key to success. Both parties need to commit to maintaining regular and honest communication with each other, whether by email, phone, or in person. And communication isn't just talking, but listening and assessing, too. If a particular program isn't having impact, the school and volunteers must be open to hearing the truth and be open to figuring out what changes can be made to achieve the desired impact.
Developing a strategic volunteer program that is in line with the schools' goals and objectives is not always easy. But time and again, we have found that it's well worth the effort. In fact, we have found that a structured, strategic, and streamlined approach ultimately reduces the burden on volunteers: A volunteer can have a dramatic impact on a school by donating the equivalent of only one work week of time across the entire school year. And we at PENCIL can proudly say that because we follow these basic guidelines, 95 percent of our volunteers are having a meaningful impact on the schools that they are supporting.
Over the summer, the Wallace Foundation released a new study about the importance of school leadership.
"In developing a starting point for this six-year study, we claimed, based on a preliminary review of research, that leadership is second only to classroom instruction as an influence on student learning," the authors write. "After six additional years of research, we are even more confident about this claim. To date we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership."
Not surprisingly, schools are no different than any other organization: Strong leadership is critical to the organization's success.
New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has been saying just this for years. And he has backed up his words with actions -- he has empowered principals to lead their schools and held them accountable for the results. Dozens of principals who have not exercised the leadership necessary to transform their school have been relieved of their duties.
However, there is another side of the equation. Critics of the Chancellor often counter that, although principals are now told they are the "CEOs" of their schools, they do not receive the support and training they need to be successful. Let's remember that the vast majority of school principals begin their careers as teachers and then move into administration and leadership positions, becoming assistant principals and, then, principals. In a nutshell, they are trained as educators, not as leaders.
It's ironic, isn't it? Does any successful private sector company appoint a CEO who hasn't been groomed for the job? And once there, don't CEOs receive ongoing professional development and support?
School leaders are no different: They must be trained to be successful leaders. How to set a vision and strategic plan for their school. How to build morale among teachers, students, parents, and administrative staff in their school communities. How to empower and inspire every employee to perform to the best of his or her ability. This requires up-front training as well as ongoing professional development and coaching.
Increasingly, volunteers from the private sector are providing principals with this type of training and support -- and with great success. There's Jayun Kim, a former investment banker-turned-consultant who has helped principal Talana Bradley develop a seven-year strategic plan for her school -- a plan that is helping realize Bradley's goal of graduating 100 percent of the students in her all-girls school and sending them to college. There's Dave Barger, CEO of JetBlue, who helped his principal Monica George create a "culture of success" at her school. As a result, teacher attrition fell from 25 percent to 3 percent and academic performance skyrocketed. And there's Joe Profeta of EMC, who has invited Principal Mark Ossenheimer of the Urban Assembly School of Wildlife Conservation to his organization's management training lectures. Joe also coaches Mark on topics such as how to deliver bad news to staff and how to have difficult conversations.
Schools need great leadership. Businesses have great leaders. Bringing the two together benefits our students.
I was recently talking with an accomplished business executive in our network about the state of the economy and, in particular, the fate of some of the country's most well-known companies. I asked his opinion of why some businesses within the same industry are failing while others are flourishing. They're operating in the same economic environment, so what differentiates them?
Of course, he said, it's a complex answer, but he believes there is one overarching factor -- strong leadership. We talked about typical components of strong leadership -- charisma, the ability to set a vision, to move a team towards accomplishing the vision. But he focused on another component of leadership that often gets overlooked: the willingness to make costly investments in an organization. Even at times when it may be more popular to save money or increase salaries and dividends, strong leaders know that investing in their company is the key to long-term growth.
Our conversation got me thinking about the work we do at PENCIL. Our programs are based on the belief that strong leadership is key to the success of a school community. And, in fact, we're seeing that play out year after year. Partnerships like the one between Dave Barger and Monica George resulted in a complete transformation of P.S. 153. Principal Israel Soto was awarded the New York Post Liberty Medal this year for his work transforming P.S. 57, an accomplishment he said would not have been possible without the leadership guidance he received from his PENCIL Partner, Bob Silver. The Blackstone Charitable Foundation is working with their Partner, Principal Rashad Meade, to set a fundraising and technology strategy for the Eagle Academy for Young Men at Ocean Hill. And Principal Talana Bradley is working with her Partner to create a strategic plan to guide The Young Women's Leadership School of Brooklyn as it grows.
These Partnerships are, in fact, an investment in our schools -- arguably the most important institutions in our country. But leadership development for principals is just one of the ways that our private sector partners are making a long-term investment in our schools and our students. As everyone from President Obama on down is talking about "jobs, jobs, jobs" and the critical need for workforce development, partnerships like the one between Glocap and Frederick Douglass Academy VII are providing students with the skills they need to identify, and prepare for, meaningful careers. Those between Scholastic and schools in Queens and Brooklyn are fostering students' love of reading and writing with the opportunity to publish their own books. And over the past two years, our PENCIL Fellows program has placed 250 students in paid summer internships so that they can get the training and experience they need for a successful future career.
While the private sector is working through PENCIL to invest in hundreds of schools and thousands of students, there is still much more to do -- and now is the time to do it. #