Buoyed by his success at M.S. 22 in the South Bronx and armed with innovative new techniques developed at Harvard's Urban Superintendent's Program, the already prominent educator came back to Brooklyn hoping to start a revolution from within the traditional public school system.
"I tried to get more district schools — that was always the plan," Waronker said. "I didn't go to Harvard to run a boutique school."
But everybody has their breaking point. For Waronker, who prides himself on a warm relationship with both the Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers, that point was the city's Office of Labor Relations.
A special contract with the teachers' union allows New American Academy to pay its top teachers up to $125,000, significantly more than what's offered at other district schools. But expanding that contract to more schools would trigger demand for new contracts among the city's other unions, which could compel comparable — and potentially bankrupting — salary increases.
"I realized I’m not going to break through the logjam between the DOE and the UFT," Waronker said. "That’s when I realized, oh my goodness, we’re going to have to shift gears and go the charter route."
Now, a man who spent his entire career championing district schools is going charter. New American's charter was approved by the New York State Department of Education this fall and will begin enrolling students at a yet-to-be-announced Brooklyn location in September.
While charter schools receive public funding, they also accept private donations and are not necessarily subject to the same rules governing district schools.
"I think it’s great to be a bridge between the district world and the charter world, because charters were always supposed to be bringing innovation back into the district world," said Yehudi Meshchaninov, development director for the charter school.
New American's unorthodox model combines 60 students and four teachers in a single classroom, where special-education students often sit side-by-side with the brightest in the class. Despite teacher salaries that can reach $125,000, the model saves money by eliminating most administrative and support staff.
"NYSED’s charter office ran our numbers three times because they just couldn't believe it," Meshchaninov said.
Unlike some of the country's most prominent charter networks — KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First — New American eschews the "no excuses" model that demands strict discipline and drills children from kindergarten on the all-important goal of college.
"The 'no excuses' model alone is not giving kids the tools they need to succeed — they learn to work hard, they learn to follow instructions, but that’s not what’s happening at the top private schools in the country," Meshchaninov explained.
"If you’re serious about equity, it should trouble you that affluent kids are getting a very different education than underprivileged kids."
Perhaps most surprisingly — for a charter, at least — New American will use union employees. Of the dozens of charter schools operating in Brooklyn, only four have contracts with the UFT.
"The initial vision and mission is to work with district schools to help make them better, and without the union you can’t do that," Meshchaninov said. "The union is very supportive of what we’re doing."
The union would not immediately comment on the charter, but it featured an enthusiastic preview of the new school in its newspaper this fall.
With that kind of support, Waronker hopes to eventually bring his model back to the district that first nurtured it at P.S. 770.
"I think if we have five to six schools, we’ll be able to tell if it works or not," he said. "I believe if you’re not boots on the ground to do things differently, you can’t mandate from the top."