In Principal’s Office, a regular feature of SchoolBook, a city school principal is interviewed for insights into school management and the life of a school leader. What do you think makes a good principal? Join the conversation below.
Harlem Renaissance High School is a transfer alternative high school designed to help students who have been unsuccessful in other schools earn missing credits towards a high school diploma. The school has 226 students, many of whom experience issues such as homelessness, teen pregnancies, and high crime.
Harlem Renaissance, which received a B on its last progress report, was one of 33 schools initially slated for turnaround. But in April the city said that the school and six others had the necessary foundations to improve, and plans to close them were withdrawn.
Nadav Zeimer has been the principal of Harlem Renaissance since 2010 and his tenure has been marked by greater integration of technology in the classroom as well as an emphasis on community partnerships. In 2011, he received a PENCIL award for innovation in education. Mr. Zeimer has an annual salary of $136,694. This interview was edited and condensed.
You were initially designated a turnaround school, and now you’re off the list. What changed?
I had been asking to be taken off the list because I felt like we had already executed a turnaround here. I had some staff leave after I came on board, and so there was a change. It didn’t make sense for my staff to do another turnaround. We would get dizzy. We’re now known as a FKATT, short for “formerly known as transformation/turnaround.” school.
What sort of support have you received from the city?
We met with the chancellor and suddenly two people showed up here and gave me a large chunk of the money I asked for. Obviously, they’re going to monitor us carefully and watch to see how I spend this money [$334,000 for the coming year].
We had a situation where we admitted over 35 English Language Learners. We had never had any before, and since we admitted them after the day our enrollment data was recorded, we didn’t receive extra funding for them. So I asked FKATT for support and they came up with a brilliant solution: if there are any ESL teachers that are excessed from other schools, they’ll put them here and not rotate them.
I get a strong sense that even as far up as the mayor, somebody’s saying we want to be able to show that these FKATT schools that were not turned around end up being successful. So I feel very in the spotlight, in a good way.
You haven’t been afraid to experiment within the school. Talk a little bit about that.
Restorative justice circles have been really big here. It’s a Native American tradition that my staff has been trained in. You sit in a circle, you have a talking piece. It goes around the circle; each person who has it can talk as long as they want.
It’s kind of simple, but the impact that it’s had on our community I would never have predicted. To the point that last year we had a conflict brewing among students and two girls came downstairs and talked to the dean and said “we want to have a circle. We don’t want adults involved. We know you have to be in the room but just shut up.” And the students, on their own, left that circle, crying and hugging each other. What a gift to the community to have that kind of thing.
We also had a little luck with the Tribeca Film Institute. I think they meant to write to a charter school that they had worked with but accidentally e-mailed me. I thought that our school would be a great match for them so I wrote back. A representative came here and saw the work we did with video, and now they’ll have a professional documentary filmmaker working with two of our teachers, and I don’t have to pay anything for that. That’s been one of my dreams, to have a documentary filmmaker in the building, telling stories.
Becoming an educator wasn’t always on the cards for you. How did you get here?
I was a software engineer out of college and then I had my own business. In 2002, I made a move from San Francisco as my grandparents were starting to need care. I had applied for the teaching fellows as a backup. I got accepted, and then taught sciences and ran the robotics background for eight years at Westinghouse High School. I particularly liked teaching the special education classes.
What are you doing with special education at Harlem Renaissance?
Our special education students do better at the Regents than our general education students. It’s an amazing thing, and that’s a tribute to our special education department. My theory behind that is that most of our students should be special education and just haven’t been diagnosed.
We have more than 40 special education students and two special education teachers. We have a separate inquiry team. One teacher works with students in a class that supports them in the work for their other classes. Our other teacher co-teaches in the regular classroom.
The student body at Harlem Renaissance poses some unique challenges. How do you cope with them?
The biggest challenge is student attendance. It’s hard to make a difference with students who don’t show up. Behind that is gang involvement, students’ basic needs not being met – be it housing, belonging, respect- those kinds of underlying issues we have to spend a lot of time dealing with.
Iesha Sekou, who works here in the building (with Streetcorner Resources), said that students who become homeless go back to their neighborhoods and join gangs to stay part of that community. And so what they learn is to use aggression and conflict to get out of rules and regulations. Those are challenges for our staff. We get bullied by students a lot.
When I was a teacher I used to tell students that when they were uncomfortable, when they felt frustration, they were learning. That’s what it feels like. If it didn’t feel like that, everybody would play concert piano and speak 20 languages. It’s a frustrating thing to learn. We deal a lot with emotional explosions from students.
How do you take your staff through that?
It starts with hiring. We talk about it. You need to de-escalate, that’s the first priority. Students are great at finding your buttons. They’re going to say something that’s really offensive. So we work with teachers when there’s a behavioral issue to have a private conversation with students.
Tell me about your overall approach to professional development.
Teachers came to me and said “give us clear expectations and a clear structure, and then let us improvise.” I made them a promise that I wouldn’t keep changing initiatives. For three years, we’d work on the same thing. So that gave teachers a space to say we might as well really go for it. They have these three-teacher inquiry teams where they visit each others’ classes, give each other feedback and plan lessons together,
There’s been a huge push in education toward data and metrics. How do you approach it?
We have a weekly progress card that in one look lets me judge a student’s progress. It shows me how many credits they have and their exam grades. Each week the teachers flag any sudden change. Students who have improved are recognized because they did something that works. And if a student suddenly falls off, it’s a way for me to see that they become homeless, or they had a fight. Something happened so that things are falling apart.
One of your pet projects is the EXPO, a multimedia showcase of the work and achievements of the school’s graduating seniors. The school has a media lab. How’d it come about?
I always felt that teachers were media producers. They used to produce pen and paper media, and the best teachers were the ones, like the best executive producers, who knew exactly what they wanted in the end and had quality control checks on the way. When students produce meaningful products and they have an audience, the product is much better and the students think they’re doing real work. That’s where the EXPO came from. I wanted to give the teachers a taste of what that looks like: an event, with real deadlines and an audience.