By Jeff Mays
EAST HARLEM — While hundreds of other schools across the city were closed Friday in observance of Rosh Hashanah, freshmen in the inaugural class of the Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation were engrossed in the middle of a full school day.
Principal and school co-founder Nicholas Tishuk thinks that helps to explain the difference between East Harlem’s first charter high school, on E. 100 Street and First Avenue, and other schools. Where other city public schools would never dream of holding classes on the Jewish holidays, those at Renaissance wouldn't have it any other way, he said.
"The fact that we have classes this week is controversial, but we do not have any Jewish students," said Tishuk, who also teaches one of the college bound classes.
"One day in the middle of the week did not work for us," Tishuk said of the rest of the NYC public schools’ truncated schedule last week. "For our kids, Monday will be the fifth day of school and not the second."
The goal of Renaissance school is to engage students in a dialogue to help develop the critical thinking skills they’ll need to be successful in high school and beyond, Tishuk said.
Students are encouraged to develop their own goals, and to take responsibility for themselves. To that end, there are no bells between classes, no uniforms and no hall passes. Every student attends a daily college prep class and students who speak English as a second language and special education students are not segregated from the general population.
The mission is to develop an atmosphere where everyone cooperates, said school co-founder and director of development and communication Rita Tishuk, who is married to principal Nicholas Tishuk.
As she walked through the hall of the building the school shares with three others, Rita Tishuk checked her cell phone and then stopped a student to ask why he hadn’t completed his English homework.
Looking stunned, the teen quickly made excuses for the tardiness, then promised, "I’m going to do it."
It may come as a surprise to many students that staffers other than their teachers are likely to check in on them when they fall behind on homework or other assignments, thanks to a special software program that lets teachers send updates about individual students out to the entire staff. Now, everyone in Renaissance charter school can make sure the teen keeps up with his school work, Rita Tishuk said.
"We try to create a village-like atmosphere where everyone knows what’s going on with everyone else," said Rita Tishuk.
That atmosphere extends to the parents. Teachers and administrators made home visits before last week’s start of classes.
"Some parents were shocked to be getting a call from a teacher on the second day of classes. They thought something was wrong, but it was a positive call," Nicholas Tishuk said.
Unlike most high schools in New York City, which draw students from all over their borough or the city, all 135 students at Renaissance charter school live in East Harlem in the vicinity of the school.
In order to get the students to start thinking of ways to use their neighborhood to their advantage, the school held a two-week summer program to teach the students more about East Harlem. The kids learned about the art and culture of their historic neighborhood, something many were exposed to for the first time.
"We are trying to let kids know they have something to be proud of living in this neighborhood," said Nicholas Tishuk.
Tishuk said the school doesn’t fit the typical stereotype of a charter school. There are no attempts to "skim" top-scoring students from the public school pool. Forty percent of this year’s student body qualifies for special education, more than quadruple the city average. Another 14 percent of students are still learning English. Almost all entered the school below their age-appropriate grade level.
The school is also going against the grain by gearing their admission towards students in high school as opposed to elementary or middle school, where disciplinary issues can be less pervasive.
"People said grab them when they are five and haven't been damaged by the system," said Nicholas Tishuk. "But there's a whole group of kids this age that need great schools right now."
He cites the 450 applications that flooded in for the 135 slots as proof. In Harlem, where charter schools are controversial, Community Board 11 wrote a letter of support.
"We spent a lot of time in the community because we wanted to make sure we are wanted here. When you consider that we are unproven in East Harlem, the number of applicants says a lot of parents are dissatisfied with their options," said Rita Tishuk. "These parents want their kids to go to college and this is their last four years."
Part of the school's plan for success involves co-teaching. There were four teachers in the college-bound class of 32 students, leaving clusters of eight students per instructor. Every class has at least two teachers, Tishuk said.
Math learning specialist Ray Ramirez taught his class on a recent day about improper fractions, while three other teachers roamed the classroom working with and encouraging kids.
When one student refused to go to the board, a teacher went over to give him a private pep talk instead of a public scolding.
"Don’t be scared of the board. The board is the learning place. If you don’t know about something when you come up here, you will by the time you sit down," said Eugene Figueroa, a math certified special education instructor.
Naquan Grant, 14, who wants to become a judge to "help clean up New York City," said he can already notice the difference between Renaissance and his middle school.
"You have three teachers in each class and you are getting more help than usual. At my other school there was only one teacher and you hardly got any help because there were so many kids," Naquan said.
Already, he has had conversations with a teacher at the school who attended Harvard Law School about what it takes to become a judge.
Even though it's early in the school year, Naquan said he's already convinced he made the right decision with his decision to move to Renaissance.
"I felt it would be a good experience to be in this school because it would be different and we would be the first graduating class and set a legacy for others to follow."