Apr 14

Putting Instruction First, Even Now

April 14, 2015
Ben Lewis, Principal Fellow, Northeast High School

I make my way to the “crossroads” at Northeast High School in Philadelphia—the first floor intersection down the hall from the main office. The bell rings and all at once, our school’s 3,000 students flood the hallways, buzzing with conversation. There’s a reason we call it the “crossroads”: this spot is generally the busiest intersection of the school.

In the hallway, a senior tells me about his plans to study engineering in college next year; another tells me about the prospects for the Northeast basketball team. A ninth grader pauses to tell me how excited she is about what’s going on in her science class.

Inside the walls of Northeast, our students make their way to class, but outside, the debate rages on about the future of Philadelphia’s public schools.

Last year, the state-managed School District of Philadelphia faced severe budget cuts, so schools were forced to cut integral personnel. Nurses and school police officers split time between schools, often resulting in unsafe conditions for students. At Northeast, we’re left to operate with 3,000 students, two deans and just five guidance counselors—one of whom is also responsible for teaching three classes. Many of the after school remedial programs have been cut, leaving students who need extra support struggling to keep pace. In very real ways, these budget cuts are affecting students’ futures.

I came to Northeast as an administrator as part of my residency with PLUS. The PLUS training is an intensive school leader development program. Our goal, as PLUS residents, is to learn to be true instructional leaders, to make decisions that are grounded in what will support quality instruction. This year at Northeast, where I’m working with a mentor principal, I’m focusing on how to build and support a school model that puts great teaching and learning at the center of everything we do.

The question I’m wrestling with, though, is how to do that in the face of such an extreme budget crisis. It is one thing to prepare to focus on quality instruction; it’s another to actually do so in a school environment where teachers and students are suffering every day from a lack of key resources.

Operating in Philadelphia’s current educational climate creates challenges at every level—for students, teachers and leaders. The PLUS training hasn’t prepared us to magically lift those challenges. But it has prepared me to ask questions about how we can do more with what we have: Is the vision for quality instruction clear to everyone in the building? If not, what can we do—without adding costs or demands on anyone’s time—to make it clearer?

My PLUS colleagues and I are figuring out how to maintain our focus on student learning, while still acknowledging the realities of our limited resources. Philadelphia’s schools are indeed facing dire circumstances, but inside Northeast and other schools like it, there are educators and students who come to school every day ready to teach and learn, and who want to do well in spite of large class sizes and limited resources.

The circumstances are frustrating. And the burden these cuts put on students and teachers is shameful. But I find inspiration in the ingenuity and persistence of the people I’ve encountered at Northeast. I’ve met teachers who, among a staff of 150, have found creative ways to collaborate. I’ve met administrators who set a positive tone for the school by leading by example. I’ve met students with plans for greatness who are eager to talk about their classes and their futures. Their determination to do so much with so little is what drives me to come to work and wrestle with the challenges, too.

Despite the uncertainty that the budget cuts have created, our students are certain about their hopes and dreams. If my training with PLUS has taught me one thing, it is that every decision a school leader makes must be grounded in what’s best for student learning. Despite the shortsighted decisions that have been made in regard to our schools’ funding, I’ll do my part to drown out the noise of the debate and focus on what matters—bringing out the potential in every student.

Note: This post orginally appeared on the TNTP blog, found here.