Commencement is meant to celebrate student achievements, but for me it was an opportunity to recognize the privileged place of a teacher. For me, it underscored the opportunity that small school faculty have to make a profound difference in the lives of disadvantaged students.
Last Monday, the Kurt Hahn School graduated its first class of seniors. It was an emotional day for everyone present to celebrate the accomplishments of these individual students and of our school. My principal’s commencement address mentioned students who had won film contests, had made tremendous academic gains despite linguistic or ability setbacks, or had initiated one of the increasing number of student groups springing up each year. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, he remarked, if these triumphs — not mere test scores and teacher performance ratings — were the headlines in our local papers? We can link these accomplishments to our school’s particular attention to character development, but there are countless sets of values we could have chosen and gotten the same results. What makes a small school any different from a big school is the combination of personal attention and cohesion that the adults working there are willing to maintain.
The city’s push to open small schools over the last decade, in large part with funds from the Gates Foundation, was intended to provide students with more opportunity for individualized attention and the opportunity to be truly “known” by a teacher. Having seen this initiative in other cities, I’ve always been especially fond of it here in New York. Like elsewhere, many of our small schools were created with a particular mission in mind. A school in Manhattan that focuses on health professions, for example, ensures that all teachers — regardless of their subject area — has experience or passion for connecting their curriculum to the medical field. Kurt Hahn is one of 10 New York City schools to partner with the organization Outward Bound, providing students with unique interdisciplinary experiences that take them outside the classroom and — whenever possible — beyond the standard curriculum. While I connect better with Kurt Hahn’s mission than any other school I’ve come across, the accomplishments we celebrated at commencement were less the result of our particular philosophy. They were the result of what makes the grade in all kinds of schools every day: dedicated, talented adults building relationships with determined students and then giving them what they need to be successful. Student progress is not impossible in a large comprehensive high school, but to me it feels more likely in a small school.
I thought about this as I watched three Haitian students ascend to the stage to claim their portions of the Kurt Hahn Scholarship, a pool of money collected by faculty and our personal contacts to help students buy college books and supplies. The students — a pair of twins and their inseparable best friend — arrived at our school with no English skills and little in the way of home support. After three years with our English as a Second Language teacher, Ms. Kruse, they were language-proficient and ready to invest their tireless energies in the content of their studies as well as continued English instruction. When one of the twins needed to repeat the English Regents exam in order to pass, Ms. Kruse and the student’s current English teacher teamed up to provide her individualized support throughout the year. It was thanks to a combination of hard work and individualized relationships that all three of these students walked across that stage, their faces beaming with the pride their day-to-day efforts had rarely allowed them. After the ceremony, these students presented Ms. Kruse with a plaque that encapsulated, in eloquent, touching, original English, all she had done for them. I’m not surprised that they were too choked up to explain themselves when they gave it to her: Even I, just watching Ms. Kruse’s students pass my door on the way to her class, can’t quite articulate the confidence they take on over the course of the year as they come to more easily interpret and interact with the world around them.
My principal’s right: This story would never make the paper as a reason why a school has avoided being shut down or why a teacher deserves job protection. But it’s why I’m proud to be a part of a small school — of my small school — whatever my struggles. I want to be one of the few people privileged enough to catch these stories, to learn from them, and to share them with anyone who wants to know.