Looking Forward in the Rearview Mirror

My leadership GPS always guides me well, as long as I look forward with the rearview mirror nearby. 

I’m looking forward and positively to 2022. I won’t forget the events, experiences and opportunities 2021 provided. While many moments served as a detriment towards our work, those same moments pushed everyone beyond their growing edge. Each year over the holiday break, I find it healthy and important to positively reflect and connect the moments that made the past a reality and set the stage for the future, while trying passionately to live in the present.

Enjoy these musings, broken-down built-up around 6 components of leadership impact recognized by the NASSP (National Association of Secondary School Principals).

Shaping school culture to foster well-being and safety so each student and adult learns and interacts productively.

The SITHS community fosters the development of kind, intellectual, creative, lifelong learners.  With a collective spirit, our individual scholars come together as passionate, multi-skilled, talented, and resilient global citizens who are supported through rigorous academics, balanced with mental and physical health/wellness practices.  These conditions instill a desire and love for learning beyond grades. Our approach cultivates curiosity, capacity, the courage to try, and the validation of “failure”. We champion a reimagination of student success and achievement, and applaud student efforts as they FAIL (First-Attempt-In-Learning), SAIL (Second-Attempt-in-Learning) and TAIL (Third-Attempt-in-Learning) success.  Students are nurtured towards a gracious knowledge that learning and true development comes from the journey, which was, in fact, always the goal.  This is not only a testament of true, authentic learning, but also critical to prepare students for the challenges of the real world.  

SITHS’s unique culture is shaped and achieved through creating malleable systems of mastery-based learning and assessment practices.  Student voice & choice, multiple-opportunities, and project/work-based learning experiences via our Makerspace and Career & Technical Education STEAM program across all subject areas are pivotal components of student success. These efforts are accomplished in tandem with our Career Development Center, which provides internships and an ongoing career exploration series (bit.ly/NASSPB2B) to connect content & skills to careers. This multi-tiered approach allows us to create learning environments that are truly differentiated, based upon a growth-mindset, and fosters innovation, putting the benefit in favor of the student.  Students in this model are genuinely and authentically motivated to achieve the academic rewards that await in school & life, while also applying relevant skills in home, social and workplace settings.

We model healthy Habits of Success through the development of social-emotional skills, including early exposure to mindfulness, meditation and stress management practices. Sheldon, our comfort dog, and a peer mentorship-femtorship initiative (bit.ly/NASSPTechConnects), help build empathy, tolerance, acceptance, and understanding, alongside soft-skills development via a unique and powerful “oracy” and “talknology” 9th grade curriculum. The nerve center of our learning landscape is a supportive and immersive, kinetic environment made up of  pop-culture, humor, wit and grit.  Our student-centered approach to activities, athletics, hi-low technology practices and the opportunity for the students to see themselves through student-curated musical bell-tones and student-decorated hallways/classrooms, all promote mental and physical fitness.  Each  emphasizes the need to healthfully maintain time for school, work, family, fun, artistic expression, culture and play. (bit.ly/NASSPMindMedComfortDog)

Promoting equity so that each person is known and valued, and receives an individualized, high-quality education to succeed.

Instilling equity within our school landscape is cultivated through our approach to developing, modeling, and empowering the use of student voice and giving students the tools to effectively communicate in all aspects of life. Our powerful 9th-grade “Talknology (Oracy) & Career Development” course teaches students two critical frameworks, HOPE Skills ® & Voice 21’s Oracy Skills. The HOPE Skills ® focus on five key components – First Impression, Interpersonal, Communication, Presentation, & Selling skills – while Voice21 digs deeper by teaching students how to hone-in-on and apply their Physical, Linguistic, Cognitive, Social/Emotional talents. This course empowers students to develop confidence and self-advocacy skills, articulate their personal brand, and engage in inspiring speech, within and beyond our school community. (bit.ly/NASSPOracy

Along with voice, choice is the next element that provides students an equitable and individualized experience.  We carefully identify and curate the most sought-after memorable moments of high school, college, & career, and amplify/bring guided access to those experiences.   As early as a freshman year, students are given personalized choices allowing them to select specialized classes and engage in internships.  This student-centered approach embodies accessibility; removing the need to wait and navigate complex admissions merit-based systems, eliminating unintended barriers.  Our NYS-CTE certified STEAM Engineering program is embedded alongside the four-core, along with daily health-and-physical-education, music, performing arts, and a rich Russian-language curriculum. Our mastery-based learning and assessment systems ensure a maintenance of academic, mental health, and physical fitness in a student’s life.  All of these experiences are delivered and supported through our 1:1 and BYOD 21st-century learning initiative which was instituted in 2013.  Our digital-approach ensured an equitable, seamless, and triumphant transition to remote-blended learning when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. (bit.ly/NASSPCTE)

To further model the importance of equitable systems, our students participate in our school’s VISIT (Visit Inside Staten Island Tech) Program.  VISIT was created by our school as a District-wide, K-12 pipeline program aimed at bringing underrepresented 5th and 7th graders from feeder elementary-middle schools into SITHS for a 4-hour STEAM experience.  Each VISIT is facilitated by 9th-grade student ambassadors who are alumni of the visiting schools, which allows our VISITors to see themselves in SITHS. VISIT enables 5th + 7th + high school students to interact and inspire one another, experience different cultures, realize the K-12 pipeline, and increase high school awareness & readiness.   VISIT also familiarizes students with our school, and builds trust, stewardship, and sense of community. (bit.ly/NASSPVISIT).  

Embedding the needs of each student as a guiding value to inform organizational decision-making.

Creating brave-spaces to discuss sensitive issues is important in ensuring that our own school’s culture, from a curricular, instructional, and experiential perspective, meets the needs of our students and families. SITHS conducts needs/inquiry-based decision-making. This is achieved through the use of distributive leadership via frequent meeting of our school leadership team and focus groups.  A team of students, faculty, staff, and parents – as well as prospective students and parents – help us to evaluate how we build relationships, partnerships, trust, and rapport from a Culturally Responsive focus. (bit.ly/NASSPFocusGrp

We function in a large system which moves quickly and changes often. The city, state, and nationwide “initiatives” that impact our “work” often end and cease to exist before any efficacy can be established, which calls for a strong and resilient decision making system within our school environment. Our institutional decision-making is always scaffolded around a multi-year plan, with sustainability and preservation of past-initiatives embedded in our practice and execution. I have come to reinforce my belief around the importance and sensitivity of how a message is collaboartively crafted, cultivated, delivered, and preserved within our community.

The goal of our inquiry-based-decision-making always aims to identify our school’s “glows” and “grows” to create a plan to be more culturally responsive to better align curriculum choices and instructional practices to ensure the student experience is inclusive, rich, and rigorous. Our approach towards “mastery” focuses on equity and Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) as core values. The philosophy is that pedagogical shifts towards Mastery Based Learning creates more transparent and effective learning environments for all stakeholders—and that certain elements of mastery are inherently culturally responsive. We see that “mastery” and “CRE” work in tandem to amplify the impacts. Together, CRE and mastery shifts empower students to be active and independent learners, with increased engagement and motivation, and a sense of belonging.  Students are invested in their journey and gain confidence that they can experience success in our rigorous academic environment.

In our inquiry work, there is a strong resonance and parallel among the faculty, students, and parent feedback about what constitutes a “partnership”, what needs to be done to further facilitate these partnerships, and what instructional shifts best foster independent learners. To further create awareness and share what has been identified by these key stakeholders, a public service announcement-style video is used for our work to be heard, received, and realized. (bit.ly/NASSPLearningPartDispos)

Leading learning so that each learner, student and adult, will succeed in a globally competitive society.

Everyone within SITHS receives targeted support to learn and thrive in a 21st century globally competitive society.  The student population is largely a homogenous pool of academically gifted learners.  Beyond instructional moves, shifts that involve “creating an environment of respect & rapport” have been essential in developing a great bond and trust between teachers and students.  We have gathered extensive feedback from faculty-student-parent focus groups and have carefully analyzed the data to identify glows and grows, overlaps and gaps that exist within the school community.  We’ve learned that when we know our students well, they feel safe to tackle the complexities of becoming independent learners. Students are encouraged through a growth-mindset to see  “failure” as an opportunity instead of a final-measurement. Students are comfortable asking for help because they know we serve in partnership with their personal growth and development.

As a part of our school’s instructional focus, incorporation of 21st-Century Global Skills and shifts towards Mastery and CRE practices cultivate independent learning experiences.  Through open participation of teachers and their willingness for school leadership to video-record authentic learning moments in their classrooms, we have created a repository that captures and showcases teacher best-practices and student work-products.  The video library, shared via social-media, celebrates and emphasizes our teachers’ work as dynamic-active learners and practitioners of these shifts. Our teachers are innovative artisans within their fields, and receive tremendous inspiration and support from our professional-development team, which consists of three Peer Collaborative Teachers via our UFT Teacher Center. (bit.ly/NASSPMasteryCRE)

The UFTTC is dedicated to creating a collaborative work environment where educators come together for professional learning, sharing of best practices, one-on-one and small group coaching. (bit.ly/NASSPPPDS) Throughout the year, the UFTTC offers Continuing Teacher and Leader Education accredited professional development opportunities for educator enrichment, and also provides a multitude of technology and professional resources which can be referenced by educators to enhance their practice. (bit.ly/NASSPUFTTchrCenter)

The ultimate display of the partnership between our students and teachers is realized through the development of a cross-curricular student portfolio. The curated collective spans the individualized and personalized experience of the student, across various curriculum over four years. The presentation is inclusive of earned industry level certifications along the journey, as well as unique Work-Based Learning experiences that demonstrate mastery of learned content and applied skills that colleges and workforce partners indicate as necessary in the competitive workplace. (bit.ly/NASSPPortfolio)

Empowering students and adults to assume leadership roles to promote each person’s learning and well-being.

Our focus on service learning is an important pillar of the SITHS distributive leadership model.  Our student government, National Honor Society, and multiple committee-based leadership opportunities exist so students, teachers, and parents can serve and lead.  All efforts are designed to always pay our efforts forward through a legacy of local-community stewardship.  Our program often serves as an education anchor institution for Staten Island. 

Our VISIT District wide K-12 Pipeline program which serves to model and realize the importance of equitable systems in life and educational institutions, also serves as a vehicle for engaging faculty and students in distributive leadership roles. These leadership roles engage teacher-to-teacher and student-to-student peer relationships within the STEAM education community across our district. (bit.ly/NASSPVISIT)

While the mission of our original VISIT model serves as a powerful introduction to high school awareness and readiness, we recognize that there are still select Staten Island middle schools whose students are underrepresented at SITHS.  Therefore, in addition to maintaining the FUNdamental vision of VISIT, we also implemented a new extended VISIT program, VISIT+, to support two specific underrepresented intermediate schools, IS 49 and 61. We developed a CTE Focused High School Readiness Program that offered 7th grade students and their teachers a unique opportunity to engage with SITHS faculty and students through direct instruction and learning experiences. The instructional component specifically focused on 2D/3D design & printing. Students learned how to think and problem solve using industry standard 3D-modeling software to design, fabricate, and test their solutions. More specifically, through this experience, middle school students and their teachers learned how to take a battery operated remote control car and convert it to solar-power, then design and print a new 3D chassis. Students were also provided free SHSAT (Specialized High School Admissions Test) Test Prep, courtesy of the SITHS Alumni Association, in an effort to further bridge access to students. The culminating efforts featured students from IS 49 and IS 61 conducting a friendly race with their personalized 3D printed cars at the District offices and showcase their embedded transferable skills. (bit.ly/NASSPVISITPlus) As complement to the instructional component, a peer-mentoring component is included to foster long lasting, sustained relationships that focus on the student’s perspective and experience transitioning into high school. A series of SITHS hosted evening parent workshops and a unique STEAM Summer Camp for students provides additional opportunities to engage with our faculty and students. These enrichment activities further facilitate the lines of communication between our school and the community and increases access while maximizing opportunities for success. (bit.ly/VISITOverviewPDF)

Fostering innovation and creativity as part of the learning process.

A foundational ideology that I share and model with our school community is a sentiment that I hold dear to my heart as a SITHS Class of ‘92 alumnus myself. I’ve always believed and lived life knowing that the secret to happiness and success is to never let go of being a kid at heart and in mind. We were all children once upon a time, and we were experts at it. Children possess the two most incredible superpowers – imagination and the ability to suspend disbelief.  Nothing is more powerful than a child’s pure faith, imagination, and the boundless creations and innovation it often leads to. Our student’s high school experiences will be the cornerstone of their childhood memories as they enter adulthood. As our students cross that threshold, I urge them to hold onto a piece of their childhood innocence and to continue revisiting and exploring their purest form of imagination and ideas. 

I always hope that my words, actions, and celebration of our “stewards-of-play and innovation” (bit.ly/NASSPInnov) serve as an important reminder that the child that lives in us all need not nap any longer. For the sake of humanity, we need that child to be awake and to have playtime on a daily basis. Being a kid at heart and in mind, and being limitless in imagining, realizing, and attempting to innovate through frequent failure is the secret to success. I firmly believe that these sentiments of playfulness and imaginative exploration are most likely to be the catalyst of innovation and life-changing discoveries leading to a better tomorrow. (bit.ly/NASSPlay)

Believing in these sentiments is one thing, but creating a playground for ideas to pollinate, germinate, and grow requires a systemic approach and commitment to these ideals. In 2016, we created a MakerSpace, a Hi-Tech, Lo-Tech, No-Tech learning space to engage our students and teachers across every curriculum in thinking beyond the classroom and prepare students for today’s global marketplace. The MakerSpace setting serves as an ideal learning environment to execute creative, innovative, and meaningful project-based learning modalities.  In this hypersonic society, it is not the technology itself that is important to learning; instead, it is the way we use it. The MakerSpace realizes the principles of 21st Century learning skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking in a safe, multi-disciplinary, accessible space during and after school. (bit.ly/NASSPMakerSpace)

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