Amy Garland ’14, Brooklyn Latin School

Amy-GarlandI spent my spring break visiting The Brooklyn Latin School (TBLS), a recently founded specialized high school in New York City modeled on the famous Boston Latin School. My wonderful host, Principal Jason Griffiths ’97, was kind enough to provide me a wide range of experiences, from sitting in on his meetings with teachers to auditing classes. I want to thank him and TBLS for this special opportunity, I learned much more than I could have hoped to about teaching, education, but most importantly leadership.

I came into this Princeternship with a particular interest in TBLS’ distinct educational culture—students are required to take Latin for all four years, to wear a uniform, and to call their teachers “magistri.” Of course, as a Classics major, the nerd in me reveled in these aspects. As someone from New York City, with a clear idea of how potentially absurd it was that a school founded in 2006 could foster a culture so seemingly distant from this modern environment. Although these are the features that stood out for me before I arrived at TBLS, they were not the ones that I considered most important by the time I left. The culture, as part of the eight “essential features” of TBLS (including its International Baccalaureate program), only formed the backbone of the school’s success. With these features established, it was up to the school’s leadership and faculty to take them and run with them, as it were. The unrelenting dedication of every person working in that building is what truly made it a special place.

The week I visited was actually a rather strange week for TBLS as they were just about to administer their Interim Assessments (IA). So on my first day, I sat in on a variety of classes, as that was to be the last day of classes that week. In most classes I visited, the teachers and students were reviewing for these IA exams. These tests are made by the teachers themselves to diagnose how the students are performing. The students were all very attentive and clearly concerned with doing their best, asking questions and clarifications of the teacher’s expectations.

I also visited a number of Latin classes, a subject that seems to be the focal point of many students’ angst. Predictably, mandating everyone to take the language for four years is not a terribly popular prospect for many people. However, I was struck by the creativity especially of TBLS’ Latin department. They did not use textbooks (Ecce Romani, anyone?), but instead cultivated their own curriculum with new methods of discerning the ancient language. It was very refreshing to see such innovation in what often seems to be a stale process, especially when you are just memorizing declensions and conjugations.

This was something that I noticed in the classroom and then learned more about during my time spent with Principal Griffiths—the faculty at TBLS are young, driven, and competitively creative with their curriculum. The place is just bursting with new ideas of how to make the classroom a lively place, to install a sense of diligence, and also to motivate these students to perform at their best.

The other two days I spent with Principal Griffiths, Garland 1shadowing him while he reconnected with students and faculty casually in the hallway as well as sitting in on meetings he had with his various staff. For instance, we met with his dean of discipline to go over the consequences of the various academic dishonesty incidents that had occurred during the IA examinations. We also met with the Parent Coordinator to discuss an open house that they were preparing for that evening for admitted students (an event that I attended and enjoyed very much!). I also got to sit with the Latin department and help grade their IA exams, which was interesting and surprisingly very fun.

Principal Griffiths also generously offered me time to just sit and speak with him in his office about TBLS’ unique mission, the NYC Department of Education’s increasingly frustrating bureaucracy, and how to cultivate such an amazing faculty. Witnessing his dealings with the people he worked with was very interesting not only from an education-specific perspective, but also just in terms of understanding Garland 3how best to lead such an intricate institution with many different moving parts. He gave me a number of great pieces of advice, including how the principal (or any leader) needs to stay focused on the mission, or the big picture, and should leave the details of the day-to-day to the people hired to do those very things. This also entails ensuring that you have the best people around you, which Principal Griffiths has managed to accomplish through a rigorous teaching hiring process. This leadership style helps maintain the sense of ownership the faculty has over their teaching and curriculum, for example.

My time at TBLS was not only a great learning experience but also a directive one—I am now more motivated than ever to enter education in some way, whether that is as a secondary school teacher or as a policy maker. Nothing really beats the empowerment that a thoughtful (and thoughtfully administrated) education can provide.

Imani Oliver ’14, Brooklyn Latin School

Imani-OliverJanuary 7, 2013 was my first day interning at The Brooklyn Latin School in Bushwick. I’d prepared for my visit by reviewing all of the statistics on the school, the school’s mission statement, and some of the great work students were doing at TBLS. I walked into the building at 8 am, which is shared with an elementary school located on the lower levels, climbed the stairs to the high school and was met by Jason Griffiths ’97. From there I was led to the main office, within which his personal office was located. After talking briefly about my interests and initial questions about TBLS, we jumped straight into meetings. From 9:30 am to noon, there were 3 separate meetings.  The first was with a teacher in the form of a discussion over a rubric that the teachers used to self evaluate and to improve upon their personal success in the classroom as teachers. This particular teacher was a Grade Level Leader, which is a teacher who is chosen to represent and follow the progress of particular grades. Exercises like these are important to the operation of TBLS, as they function heavily on self-evaluation as well as staff support. This was mirrored in the other meetings we had with the college counselors and other teachers who reflected on their significant day-to-day experiences since their last meetings with the principal. These are often called Leadership Check-ins. The system of checks and balances was also very important in the operating system of the school.

Over lunch, Jason and another principal from a nearby school briefed me on just how difficult the job is, but equally how rewarding it is. The other principal and Jason had gone through the New Leaders program, which is comparable to Teach for America, but for principals. It had a great impact on their preparation and placed them in the right place to handle whatever stresses accompanied the job. Interestingly enough however, they both noted that being an athlete in college, as am I, is also a great precursor to handling the stresses of such a job. The encouragement there was enormous and I enjoyed almost being able to see into the future where I could really help to impact my community in a great way just like those men.

The many meetings of the morning were a great way to start the visit because it prepared me for the types of questions I should have been asking. Before starting the internship, when Jason asked what my specific interests in education were, I immediately thought education policy. I was sure that I want to go to law school and affect the education community from that end in my hometown of Brooklyn. I thought that following a principal at an outstanding school in Brooklyn would be a great way to get insight on how to approach the field. What this trip did for me however was broaden my interests to consider the student experience as well as teacher responsibility in my ideas of what education policy really is. In my junior independent work, I’ve studied the importance of recognizing racial ethnicities. Over lunch I asked the importance of race in the school as well as in the classroom. After telling me that the recognition wasn’t as important, Jason set up a meeting with a visiting principal named Sylvain who was currently in the New Leaders program and doing his ‘residency’ at TBLS. At the end of the school day, Sylvain and I had a very long conversation about the importance of race as dependent on the student body. Sylvain and I are both Jamaican, and we discussed the importance of recognizing culture explicitly within student activities and faculty choices in some of the schools in the Bronx where he’d worked before. It changes per caliber and per location of the school, which I found very interesting to the topic of education reform. The lack of attention to this disparity is apparent in current NYC education policies.

 The next two days went by quickly and were jam-packed with meetings, classroom visits and one-on-one discussions with faculty and students. Oliver 10After each activity, I’d debrief with Jason, and learn even more about things I’d never even considered. TBLS’s curriculum is based off of the International Baccalaureate degree, one of the most prestigious programs in the world for education. Students at TBLS are pushed at a standard that very few other public schools in the city hold students to. I went to classes on the second day and students were hard at work in every one of them. They were used to visitors, so their performance in my presence may have been even more impressive, but it was surely not unnatural for them. There is a special teaching style at the school, where students are the teachers themselves, and teachers encourage the students to encounter the material for themselves and are only there to guide students on the correct paths for the difficult IB exams for each class. IBs are so advanced that preparation for those tests are more than enough for some SAT IIs and state tests. I even got to attend an ‘advisory group,’ which meets every Tuesday to debrief in a small group and to work on the social and mental development of the students. All students have an advisory group with which they matriculated throughout their four years. I attended one for transfer students and I got to tell them how lucky they were to have advisories, since I had nothing like them when I transferred into my high school.

On day three I got to sit in on more classes and speak with teachers about what drives them to teach and how they approach each class as another opportunity to develop their students on several levels. I then got to speak with the school secretary, Chelsea, on the inner workings of the school. The smaller size of the school was definitely an advantage, but wouldn’t stay the same if the school were looking to continue expansion. However, I learned that there is so much to consider with all of the students, and that they can use all the support they can get, especially from personable people like Chelsea. The faculty was extremely receptive to me, especially teachers that allowed me to walk in and out of their classrooms during classes. Finally, towards the end of my last day, Jason and Chelsea helped to gather some students who had similar extracurricular interests, life experiences or even school experiences as me, and I got the chance to personally encourage students to continue their hard work, although it may seem fruitless at times, and enjoy what they are doing. I answered many of their questions and bonded with them for the short time we got to speak. That was the best part of the entire experience for me, and I really enjoyed connecting with the students, the basis of all my interests, on that level.

Oliver 8In the end, I’d learned so much about Jason Griffith’s work that I never would’ve known without the Princeternship experience. I wouldn’t have known how tough it was to start a school from bottom up and have it compete at the level of other specialized high schools in NYC, and even its mother school, The Boston Latin School. I wouldn’t have known how tough it is to deal with building issues and to try to expand the student body without having the real estate to do so (only in New York!). I wouldn’t have known how important it was to determine a strict culture for the school, to enforce it, and to watch young minds flourish because they ascribed to such a strict formal culture. I’ve learned a great deal over my time there.