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Principal's Perspective: Ted Sizer's legacy

Allison Gaines Pell is the founder and principal of a new, small public middle school called Arts & Letters, located in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She lives in Brooklyn, and is a public school parent herself. We are pleased to add her contributions to our blog.

Inspiration, hunger: these are the qualities that drive good schools. The best we [educators] can do is to create the most likely conditions for them to flourish, and then get out of their way.” -- Ted Sizer, Founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools

Several weeks ago, I attended the Fall Forum of the Coalition of Essential Schools,an organization started 25 years ago by Ted Sizer, a great man who passed away in October. I was both inspired and saddened.

Saddened because I see the ways in which movements to create and sustain innovative places of learning can be marginalized due to the intense testing pressure that school leaders face. It takes much longer, and is much harder, to create a nurturing community of learners, and to change the beliefs and values of adults to create that culture, than it is to look at and analyze test scores.

Inspired because I saw the ways that so many educators across the city and the country continue to elevate the thinking and learning that takes place in our public schools. Too often, educational practices that lead to powerful and active learning opportunities (the kind we each can remember from our own lives), are reserved for the nation’s private or elite schools. This has to change.

Four years ago, I started a small school called the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts & Letters. At our school, we are driven by a series of challenging questions: How do we create a public school that provides the same opportunities for student learning that our nation’s best schools offer? How can we attract, grow, and keep exceptional teachers? How do we nurture a community of learners to become well-rounded citizens?

In schools, everything we do—from how we begin our day, to how we communicate with students and their families, to the supports and enrichments we provide, to the lessons we plan—answers these questions in some way, whether we intend them to or not. Sometimes, we don’t get it right the first time and we have to think again. Sometimes, we are exceptional: we make exactly the right decision at the right moment, and our students respond with grace and greatness.

In writing here, I am looking forward to being more public with our efforts, successes, and struggles to create the conditions for the inspiration and hunger of which Sizer speaks.

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