“I Negotiate with the Taliban,” and Other Secrets to Effective School Leadership

Superimpose on a map of New York City maps of poverty by zip code and School Progress Report scores – low and behold the highest poverty zip codes include the largest number of closed and low Progress Report schools. A closer look and there are a few outliers – school are moving against the grain, the first glance is discouraging, the higher achieving schools are screened schools – they pick their students; however, a few schools are surviving, and have been for years.

Some further investigation, promises of anonymity, and a discussion.

To the school leader: “To what do you attribute your success?”

School leader: “The ‘official’ answer, we use our Inquiry Team data to drive our Common Planning Time work, each team posts detailed minutes on a website which I review regularly, cycles of brief observations with meaningful feedback and one-on-one student conferences.”

Me: (impressed): “Really.”

School Leader: (smiling) “I have all the paperwork.”

Me: “What do you actually do that other schools don’t?”

School leader: “The key to my success – I negotiate with the Taliban.”

Me: (Quizzically) “What?”

The principal explained that the neighborhood around the school is ruled by gangs, not the Bloods, the Crips and the Latin Kings, small gangs, clans, affinity groups, clustered in one building of a project or a few blocks of tenements. The gang members are young, social media savvy and violent, the “issues” are not turf and drugs, the “issues” are she-said/she-said, a perceived insult, a video clip from a cell phone posted on a Facebook page which leads to threats, a fight, escalating into someone “flashing iron,” showing off a gun. The allegiance of the kid is not to his parents or to his religion, s/he “belongs” to their gang,

“I know all the gang leaders in my school, we talk regularly, and I tell them the school is like a church, no fighting and no threatening in the building.”

Me: “Do they listen to you?”

School leader: “Usually, school provides free breakfast and lunch, and they enjoy the adulation of the other kids and my acknowledgement is important to them.”

Me: “Do they actually go to class and do schoolwork?”

School leader: “Depends on the kid – some of the gang kids are smart and if they apply themselves would do well – others struggle and have spotty attendance, we do have a safe environment in the building, if a kid crosses the line you see one of the “Taliban” pointing his finger – a very effective impediment and students can concentrate in a safe environment.”

Me: “That can’t be the only secret?”

After a sly smile the principal explained how he pushed out kids, “The charter schools could have learned from me – I convince a parent their kid is better off getting away from the neighborhood – moving down south, back to DR, call it ‘addition by subtraction,’ we’re a good school trying to survive in an unfair and cruel world,”

Yes, an unfair cruel world, a world in which the poorest are deprived of school funding dollars and the richest are awash in education dollars,

America’s average standing in global education rankings has tumbled not because everyone is falling, but because of the country’s deep, still-widening achievement gap between socioeconomic groups. And while America does spend plenty on education, it funnels a disproportionate share into educating wealthier students, worsening that gap. The majority of other advanced countries do things differently, at least at the K-12 level, tilting resources in favor of poorer students.

America underperforms most on two measures — preschool enrollment and college on-time completion. Nearly all 4-year-olds in Japan, France, Britain and Germany are enrolled in preschool, compared with 69 percent in the United States. And although the United States is relatively good at getting high school graduates into college, it is horrible at getting them to graduate on time with a college degree. With more than half of those who start college failing to earn a degree, the United States has the highest college dropout rate in the developed world. (Read full article here)

The funding gap between high income and low income districts in New York State is among the widest in the nation and increasing as the Cuomo imposed property tax gap punishes the poorest districts.

In some schools in New York City the parents association buy teachers the latest technology, in others school leaders and teachers scrounge for warm coats for kids.

In spite of the malodorous impact of poverty, in spite of gangs and unemployment and deteriorating neighborhoods kids survive and prosper, usually a coach, a teacher, a counselor, a principal, a caring adult makes the difference. The kid may struggle early and it may take a few extra years to get through college, they make it.

I was walking down a hallway with a new school leader, two kids were engaged in an escalating verbal confrontation, the principal intervened, chastised the kids and said, “promise me this won’t happen again,” as we walked away I glanced back, the kids were mocking the principal and laughing. Unfortunately the principal was clueless.

An experienced music teacher walked to the center of the stage – the audience was kindergarten and first graders. She just stood on the stage, she didn’t say a word – the first graders told the kindergarteners to sit down and be quiet. The hundred or so kids sat attentively as the teacher thanked them and started the lesson.

A new teacher standing at the back of the auditorium wondered aloud, “How does she do that?” A colleague standing next to her chuckled, “She’s a teacher.”


2 responses to ““I Negotiate with the Taliban,” and Other Secrets to Effective School Leadership

  1. Mark Twain made a wonderful point in his unique way. He quoted a young man who said”When I was 17 my parents were very stupid. When I was 21 It’s amazing how much my parents have learned in 4 years!”. The dirty little secret of eduction by zip code is that it is not a secret. Supervisors and teachers have known about it for years- hence the U.F.T. Transfer Plan. Our leaders, both educational and political, have know about it for years. It reflects the tremendous cleavage between the “haves” and the “have nots” that society allows. The trend today has the potential of unraveling the threads that bind us as a country. Over 20 years ago a principal transferred from an elementary school in an unfavorable zip code to an elementary school in a favorable zip code. When the reading scores were published the following year that school was number 1 in the city. He was interviewed by the Times. He indicated that it was amazing how much he had learned in a year. Until we as a society consistently insistently and persistently demand from all our leaders that we address this growing disparity we will continue to have “Plus le change, Plus le meme chose”.


  2. Marc Korashan

    “I know all the gang leaders in my school, we talk regularly, and I tell them the school is like a church, no fighting and no threatening in the building.”

    What strikes me about this statement is that it was once the norm across the city. Think about the dance in West Side Story. I don’t know when it changed, but students now bring the street into the school. Successful schools don’t allow this with one tactic or another. Negotiating with the Taliban is a start, but so are setting (and enforcing) certain standards; no hats or hoodies on in class, no shorts or bare midriffs, no gang colors or flags.

    These things take work and a willingness to confront students who want to declare their independence and identity by being defiant. In the current climate, governed as we are by non-educators who feel they have to defend the students from the teachers instead of setting standards for the students to meet, I understand where administrators and teachers are reluctant to confront.

    In an environment where teachers are “guilty until proven innocent,” no one should risk a career by confronting a volatile student who will make a story about the teacher (and get three friends to agree to it) in order to get even. But those kind of confrontations are what it takes to get students to move forward into a world with standards that will enable them to be “career (and potentially college) ready.”

    The incident with the Principal who walked away form the teachable moment (and was mocked by the students) is just another demonstration of where the system is failing. Students getting into an “escalating incident” need to be taken aside and counseled. Why didn’t they go to the Dean or to a staff or student mediator to work out the problem. This was a lost opportunity to teach students to do something positive with their emotions.

    Too many lost moments and a school begins to slide down.



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