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Schools & What We Mean by Being 'Successful'

Today, Deborah Meier files her first blog response to Todd Sutler of the Odyssey Initiative, who joins her on Bridging Differences this week and next.

Dear Todd,

I notice that even you and I talk in terms of success, so it makes me wonder: What do we mean by words like "the best" or "successful," whether in personal or organizational terms? Does it assume one has to "stand out" from others or a ranking order of celebrity, power, fame? Must there be losers? Is this a race?

Sometime in the late 1960s I decided to become more than "a temporary teacher until ..." But first I knew I had to come to terms with my own divided self—the one that wanted to "change the world"—in some grandiose way—and the one that simply wanted to live an interesting and useful life, which didn't depend upon which way the wind was blowing. My parents were, at first, "disappointed." They both changed their minds when they recognized the fascination and satisfaction that I had in the work I did. (My parents died before, in the small world within which I have worked, I became slightly famous! I guess it would have pleased them.)

I recognize in many young people these days something similar, a kind of "neediness" about being special, doing something "more than," above and beyond. So many say they are interested in teaching, and then imagine they will go on to more earthshaking occupations that influence more than 25 to 100 youngsters a year. Like making policy and/or becoming entrepreneurs of some sort. I recognize it—and it isn't bad. But it also worries me.

There is, in short, a kind of fad about being a "success" that cripples many young people's choices. Many find it hard now to imagine being "just" lifelong classroom teachers or even principals for decades. Those "justs" are my heroes—my colleague Elaine Schwartz who started a public school in New York City the same time I did and is still there. (Disclosure: My grandchildren were her students.) Or my late friend Alice, who taught virtually until she died in her 80s, and Heidi, and Digna, and Jane, and Dottie, and Roberta, and Blossom, and on and on!

When we talk about Odyssey I worry whether it's going to be "just" a stepping stone, or ... I remember a child saying to me at recess when Central Park East had been open for less than a year (l975): "Will my children be able to go to this school?" I said, "Of course." (Actually, I wasn't sure at all.) Will their children, she pursued? Yes, I replied. And then a bunch of kids surrounded me happily chanting, "and their children's children, children's, children's ..." Of course, there's no way of knowing, but from Day One we have to build something so solid that it will be hard to destroy. Alas, it turns out to be pretty easy to undo overnight what takes years to build.

The nation is full of sad stories, including one school that I played a role in starting—the Central Park East Secondary School—one of the very first high schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools. It opened in 1985 and died in the late 1990s.

So I love looking at what the three of you have done for the last year as you think through starting your "own" school with the lessons learned from others. It hurts me to say that you probably can only do it now as a "mom and pop" charter. You are doing what the Pilots "piloted" in Boston and the Center for Collaboration piloted in NYC. But the times are not yet ready for a return to those exciting days when we thought we were starting something that would eventually be solidly entrenched within the "regular" public system.

But I suppose I worry that you'll rush on too soon to "bigger and better" ventures. At the same time I hope that the time will come when your work will be part of a new trend—which you might help lead.

I wrote Mike Petrilli about "policy" proposals, rather than focusing on practices, as you had hoped, because what Petrilli and I share is wondering how "special" schools could "scale up." The "details" are what I wrote in two books about the three schools I felt closest to. The Power of Their Ideas (about CPE and CPESS), and In Schools We Trust (about Mission Hill). They are not outdated. We were also lucky to have had many others write about us and to have been the subject of many films, including one by documentary filmmaker Fred Wiseman.

We're hanging on by a ... shoestring. The ties that bind us together are weaker, and it's harder for others to believe that they too can do something like we did. But just you wait and see (I hope): Others will soon pick up the thread and move forward, using the experience of these schools which operate too often now in lonely isolation. A few are lucky to be part of larger networks, but what we need is an umbrella which we can all fit under that spreads the word about our work and is a political voice in the larger world.

I have visited some of the schools that you mention, Todd; others are—happily—new to me. How might we pull all these strands—schools, networks, organizations—together? There is strength in unity, even more so because we each approach the problems in different (but compatible) ways. The MET schools that Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor started in the 1990s are hardly like CPE schools, and yet I think they are blood brothers and sisters!

I'm curious about what similarities and what significant dissimilarities you encountered. I'd love to do something similar in New York City and Boston. "I have my little list."

Put aside some funds for joining us in San Francisco next November at the Coalition of Essential Schools regular fall forum. It's hard to leave these annual gatherings without renewed enthusiasm.

Deb

P.S. Happily more teachers are writing books again—as they did in the 1960s. It augers well.

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