A critical aspect of building Cultures of Genius in which all kids can learn is nurturing stronger relationships between teachers, administrators and the students in their care. Far too often, the adults in schools play transient roles in the lives of their students; it isn’t rare for teachers of one kid to not talk to each other or to social workers and vice principals — both within individual schools and across then — with whom the child spends time. The results of this lack of connection become crystal clear with at-risk kids, as they move into troubled adolescence and, eventually, drop out. The one teacher who can make a difference ether doesn’t know what is happening and isn’t alerted by either colleagues or school data systems.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Noah Green of Harlem Link Charter School in New York City, continues a discussion began last year by the school’s cofounder, Steve Evangelista, about the importance of buildiong these connections. Read, consider and take action in your own schools.

One of the great pleasures of my job as special project manager for Harlem Link Charter School is the ability to help parents, teachers and children advocate for their own education. One time for that came last month when parents, educators and students from all over New York State flocked to the state capitol in Albany for the annual Charter School Advocacy Day.  An auditorium in the statehouse held over 1,000 supporters of charter schools, screaming, chanting and holding signs that read: “Charter schools are public schools!”

During lunch, I got up to take a walk around the room and chat with some of my colleagues and fellow charter school supporters. Despite a constantly growing number of charter schools, the charter school network is still quite small, and more often than not I run into at least someone that I know. As I circulated around with a colleague, I was surprised to hear a call of “Mr. Green!”  I would have expected to hear “Noah,” as I thought I would run into friends that I knew.  I turned around and saw two of my former fourth-grade students, Shawna and Abby, who were attending the event as sixth graders with their new charter middle school.  I was so excited to see them, and to see that they were being given the opportunity to come to the statehouse and see the concept of “active citizenship” in an up close and personal way.

As I talked to the girls, their teacher came up and asked me if I had taught them before – which I said I had.  The teacher then reported not only on Shawna and Abby, but was able to rattle off the names of other sixth graders who had also come from our school: Sean, Steve, and others.  She spoke about all our former students in an incredibly caring way, discussing their struggles and successes, strengths and weaknesses.

As a former teacher, it was not the discussion of students that I found striking – I believe that strong, dedicated teachers ought to be able to speak about their students in such thoughtful ways.  What struck me was how quickly the teacher was able to rattle off the names of all the students who had attended our school before moving into her school.  Thinking about Steve’s piece for Dropout Nation, it is a statement about the health of a community when students attending a new school, are still associated as a community based on the previous school.  Being a member of a school community should not stop when one attends a new school; it should be a community that exists well beyond the walls and years of the school.

In my capacity to support our current fifth graders in finding middle school placements this year, I have encountered stories of student success and recognition all over. 

The first time I escorted a fifth grader to an interview at a high-performing Upper West Side public school, I told the principal my school and named the two students who attend her school from ours.  She responded, without thinking, by saying “I LOVE Larry!!  And Erica is doing fantastic as well!”  As the principal of a 6-8 school, she knew both our students by name and was able to instantly speak to their success in their new setting.  Again, they were spoken about in the same breath.  This has been true of every school leader or teacher that I have spoken to where Harlem Link graduates attend.

When students develop strong relationships with each other and with adults in a school, they take important skills and capacities with them when they take the next steps in their education.  It cannot be an accident that adults in different schools, charter and public, are able to discuss our students by name and continue to associate them with each other.  Building relationships in our school empowered students to build relationships in their next school placements.

These types of relationships are difficult without a very clear final cause.   Harlem Link’s final cause is to “graduate articulate scholars and active citizens.”  In a world where numerical data and test scores are the coin of the realm, I find myself wondering what better proof there is of meeting our mission than seeing and hearing about the scholarship and citizenship of our graduates in their new settings.

The mission of Harlem Link is about something more than just great test scores, though we aim for that as well.  It is about realizing who students are and empowering them to recognize and utilize their own innate strengths to craft and create lives they desire for themselves and their families.

In The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner wrote that 21st century students “want to neither passively consume information at school nor just go through the motions at work”. They want to connect and interact with everything, from ideas to colleagues to even problems that need solving. They want collaboration and they need to be part of a vibrant community that includes their former teachers.

Harlem Link’s first class of graduates are proving this description to be true – and the final cause of our school is not to fight these tendencies, but to highlight them and bring them out in our students through collaborative, innovative and differentiated models of teaching and learning.  From the evidence, we seem to be on our way.