My New York diary: leading, teaching and learning

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Date published 29 January 2018

I’m in New York City for the next three days, taking nine academy principals from England to visit and learn from charter schools.

Day one

What follows is an unvarnished attempt to process some of what we’ve seen; fuelled partly by the incredible stimulus of our visits and partly by an effort to stay awake long enough to successfully join the New York time zone.

Today we visited North Star Academy, one of the early charter schools, part of the Uncommon network and a stellar performer. We arrived at 7am. Many students and most staff had beaten us to it. Connor, from the office team, who looked after us when we arrived, said his regular day is 6am-5pm. Students do a 7:45–3:45 or 5:00 day followed by two hours of homework daily.

The North Star kids work hard. Their teachers work hard. And the motivator for all this effort was present in everything we saw; the universal expectation that all students will attend and succeed at college. We wanted to see if the rhetoric matched the reality and asked some of the children if they did intend to progress to college; I’m not entirely sure they even understood the question, so ingrained is their ambition.

North Star’s desire to equip all their alumni with a college education is built on a belief that gradation will give these students the keys to a better life, one that will allow them to escape the social injustice they experience now. The neighbourhood they live in is a brutally tough one. The factors stacked against them are numerous. We heard more than once that the public schools they would attend if they weren’t at NSA are dangerous.


North Star staff are unwavering in their belief that their way is the best way — perhaps the only way — to lift these children out of poverty. Their confidence in the methods they use came with an intensity which at times felt a little unsettling.

Their practices are informed by principles which you can find on their website; a sharp and structured focus on classroom practice, informed by the work of Uncommon leaders Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Doug Lemov; regular self-evaluation by children who are trained to be ‘grade-hungry’, deliberate use of language (scholars, lectures, tutorials) to pave the way to college; hierarchy, rigour and consistency in all they do.

We could have spent hours pouring over their processes, speaking to their staff and hearing from their students, but the minibus was waiting. Tomorrow we’ll be seeing two more schools — this time in Brooklyn and Harlem — and I can’t wait to see where the differences and similarities lie.

Ambition TL8

Day two

It’s Thursday in NYC and today our inquiry has developed from an examination of schools to an examination of school systems.

We started the day in Brooklyn, with a visit to Uncommon Charter High School. UCHS is newer to the Uncommon family than North Star. It’s a start-from-scratch school, having begun with ninth grade students and grown rapidly from there. Despite that the Principal, who was our welcoming host for the day, describes it as having been like the wild west when he took over four years ago. Now it’s a successful school. Grade point averages exceed those at North Star, though their SAT scores are lower. College success is still an expectation and a major strength of the school.

Visiting UCHS gave us a great opportunity to gauge the similarities and differences between Uncommon schools. We dug into the issue of principal autonomy and heard how aspects of school life are divided into three categories; those where Uncommon mandate, those where Uncommon believe they have a ‘right’ way to offer but where schools may choose to opt out, and those where principals’ discretion is preserved.

At UCHS this local autonomy is expressed in part through the student and staff culture, which felt noticeably warmer. Talking to their wonderful student ambassadors on a tour of the school, we heard about their favourite teachers and the student-teacher relationships they want to maintain beyond their high school years.

UCHS felt more familiar than I was expecting. Whilst they consistently use the instructional methods we’d witnessed at North Star, down to identical scripted lesson plans, elsewhere we saw practices which would have been at home in a UK secondary. Overall, the word which seemed to best sum up what we’d seen was ‘personality’.


Our afternoon was spent in Harlem with a different Charter Management Organisation (equivalent to our Multi Academy Trusts), Democracy Prep. DP has 23 schools from K-12, teaching 6,700 children in multiple locations across the east of the US. Along with the usual challenges presented by distance, they also have multiple time-zones to contend with, which had us re-think our concepts of barriers to effective cross-MAT working.

DP is still built on the founding principles of the charter movement we’d seen embodied at Uncommon— maximising learning time, data-driven decision making, tight instructional teaching methods, absolute focus on progression to college — but there are differences too. DP has a core belief in the importance of civic contribution and participation in democracy, and build in activities to develop these attributes in their children. They also have an international outlook and offer study in Korean at all their schools.

Having heard a little about the CMO, we headed out to visit one of their schools; Democracy Prep Harlem Elementary School (DPHES). In many ways, this was quite a contrast to what had come before. Security on entering was tight, with a schools’ police force checking ID. The municipal-feeling building was markedly different to the two bright and ordered high schools, with a complete absence of natural light and no outside space. The building houses five separate schools, a practice we discovered is not an unusual one.

Peer Support

Back at DP HQ we had heard about the outstanding results the school has been achieving and so were eager to get into classrooms. Again, there were similarities and differences. There were two or three teachers in every class — DPHES uses paired teachers throughout — and instruction bore many of the hallmarks of the teaching we’d seen elsewhere. Much of the interaction between children and teachers seemed standardised; a range of ‘call and response’ techniques, verbal drills, tracking, clicking, giving support and silent clapping. Again, the emphasis on college was strong — I joined a class of 7 year-olds learning how to write a ‘college-ready’ letter. The school was preparing for a show that evening and so after a good look around classrooms we left them to their rehearsals so we could return to DP HQ and discuss what we’d seen.

Talking later to the CEO of the CMO, I was struck by the many parallels with our own developing MAT system, particularly in their school turn-around work. Interestingly, the CMO takes a much larger management fee — around 2–3 times greater than the UK average — but resourcing was still a struggle. At DP, schools are actively encouraged to retain and develop their individual characters, but once again a three-tier system is used; must do, may do, leader choice.

It had been a full and stimulating day, and there was much to discuss on the bus back, not least the newly-published MAT performance data. Tomorrow we’re visiting a middle school — the missing piece in our school jigsaw — and seeing another CMO. I can’t wait.

Day three - high expectations

I write this at 10,000 ft. The wonders of modern technology mean I can be connected on my flight back from New York after five intense, powerful days. After packing as much as possible into our weekdays, I’ve been lucky to have some NYC down-time for the last day or so, which has provided helpful processing time for everything I’ve seen and heard.

One topic was front of mind as I wandered the Big Apple yesterday. High expectations, and specifically, what lessons we could take from the charter school version of high expectations we’d witnessed.

Important to say from the off is that I don’t think I ever heard the phrase ‘high expectations’ from NYC educators. They were much more likely to talk about inequalities and barriers, and the resultant need for social justice. Those concepts were not just present, they were absolutely central to the ideologies underpinning the schools we visited. As a result, the practice of high expectations never felt optional or an afterthought — instead it was integral and ingrained.

So what did ‘high expectations’ look like in the schools who hosted us? One interesting commonality was how overt educators were about the need to push their students to achieve beyond standard expectations. More than once, we heard leaders talk about how the odds were stacked against their children, and how they would need to work harder, be more dedicated and achieve more in order to compete. Leaders weren’t afraid to share this truth with their students. Indeed, we heard how children were conditioned from elementary school to be ‘grade-hungry’; to be ‘politely persistent’; not just to aspire to college but to expect it of themselves. In this way, school leaders enlisted children in the fight for their own futures.

At times, this all seemed like pretty tough love; the long days, the unbending routines, the required conformity. But it gets results for the most marginalised and disenfranchised in society. For the leaders of the charter movement, the end justifies the means. Perhaps there is something we can learn from them in our efforts to break the link between a child’s future and the circumstances of their birth.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

Melanie Renowden
Deputy CEO at Ambition School Leadership

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