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.
Harvest Collegiate High School is a new school, located near Union Square in Manhattan. It employs an inquiry-based curriculum and emphasizes group learning. It will offer a full music program, as well as dance, theater, and frequent field trips. Part of the Coalition of Essential Schools, Harvest Collegiate will debut this year with a 9th grade class of approximately 120 students.
Kate Burch, who crafted the school’s vision as part of her master’s thesis, was previously a history teacher at Humanities Preparatory Academy. She has an annual salary of $132,633. Here, she talks about the process and challenges of starting a new school. This interview was edited and condensed.
Harvest Collegiate was born as a master’s thesis at Teachers College, Columbia University. Tell me about that.
I wanted to put two cultures together: the really strong academic rigorous work that I grew up with and the nurturing, loving students as individuals approach, and put them together in this school.
We have this instructional model that everything starts with a spark, or experience of curiosity. It could be from focused observation, from teacher modeling, or even an experience that students have outside, and that questions come from there.
This is our larger instructional framework and was a lot of the conceptual work I did for my thesis. Then I just had it for a couple of years. The DOE has over the past 10 years requested proposals for new school design. This year they had over 300 submissions, and we were interviewed in stages. Part of the process was getting a lead partner. Ours is the Institute of Student Achievement. They help with the instructional model, give us coaches, and support us.
The next step is to put together the right team. Tell me about the approach you used.
Probably my biggest work this spring was hiring our teachers. Once a teacher came on board, I would ask them to come to the committee to interview our other prospective teachers. I created a rubric, and we each give an independent number to each candidate and take the average. Part of what we’re looking for in an interview is “are you going to be able to work with this person and write curriculum with them?”
Another essential idea is creative contribution. One of our interview questions is “what else can you contribute to this school? What extracurricular club might you lead?”
Tell me about the inaugural class.
We have an incredibly diverse population. I’ve been meeting with every family coming here. They’re from over 20 different home countries, and what’s nice about this location is students are almost equally distributed from the four boroughs, geographically diverse within New York. We are also expecting 18 special education students and 8 percent English Language Learners.
If you could define your instructional vision in a few words, what would it be?
Every student is an intellectual. This is not higher-order thinking that only the honors kids or gifted kids can do. Every student is not only expected to do this but is also engaged by this.
Since you’re a new school, school progress reports don’t yet apply to you. What accountability metrics is the city looking for from you, and how will you gauge your own success?
We will have a new school quality review. It evaluates us on having a coherent instructional design, teaching, and one more metric which we get to pick.
I think something that’s really important to me and our staff is not to be driven by DOE mandates, but to understand what we value as a school community. We’ve developed our own internal accountability metrics that are probably a higher standard than the DOE’s. Our graduation requirements include a ten-page research paper in four core subjects. We’ve also added a checkpoint at the end of tenth grade where students also have to present. We have a system every six weeks that measures student progress along this rubric and we use it to know when we need to intervene.
School is starting. Any apprehensions?
I feel pretty good. But because I haven’t been an assistant principal, I feel myself weak on operations. I ordered our computers through our Race to the Top grant which didn’t come in so we just reordered them. That means we’re starting school without computers so I feel concerned about that. Gym is also little bit of a challenge because we are sharing the space with another school.
Something striking in your curriculum is the emphasis on travel. What do you hope students will gain through their trips?
Each week, we have a half-day field trip and it’s designed to be developmentally appropriate. So in ninth grade it’s about exploring the city. The essential question is “how do we live where we live, and where do we come from?” It starts with a scavenger hunt of Union Square. Then they look at how the city developed over time, starting from downtown, the Lower East Side, Ellis Island, and then in small groups, they choose a neighborhood and do research on it. In tenth grade they’ll do community service. In eleventh grade it’s about understanding the college landscape and in twelfth grade they’re doing a career internship.
This year, we’re definitely going to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration, for better or for worse. We’re also planning on bringing students to a Native American reservation, but it might be too cold in January!