Staten Island Principal at Forefront of Borough's Charter Schools

By Nicholas Rizzi on February 11, 2013 8:53am 

 Michael Courtney has been principal of the Staten Island Community Charter School in Stapleton for three years. The school was one of the first charter schools in the borough, Feb. 8, 2013.
Michael Courtney has been principal of the Staten Island Community Charter School in Stapleton for three years. The school was one of the first charter schools in the borough, Feb. 8, 2013.
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DNAinfo/Nicholas Rizzi

STAPLETON — Compared to some other boroughs, Staten Island's number of charter schools in small.

While most boroughs have at least nine, Staten Island currently has only three charters, according to the Department of Education.

But for Staten Island Community Charter School's principal, being in the forefront of their arrival on the island has been a good experience.

“They could probably do more in Staten Island, but I’m glad we're in on the front end of all of this,” principal Michael Courtney said.

The school opened in 2009, originally running from kindergarten through first grade. The school has added a grade every year, and will stop when it reaches eighth grade.

The school has been housed at the former Trinity Lutheran school building a 309 St. Paul's Ave. since its start. Relocation is planned when it adds more classrooms, Courtney said.

Courtney, a Manhattan native, said parents in the borough have been appreciative of the charter school choice.

“I know there's a need,” he said. “People are much more interested in charter schools generally because they view it as an opportunity for their kids to get a more personalized and caring approach, and I think by and large that's true.”

Last year, the school had 700 applications for only 50 seats, Courtney said.

"There's a real need and we have a pretty decent reputation," he said.

Courtney started at the school three years ago, but has worked in education for 35 years. His career has taken him to schools in Manhattan, North Carolina, Kentucky and Maine in various positions — from teacher to central office administrator.

But he said being a principal at an elementary school has been his favorite of them all.

"I’m back to what I really love to do,” he said.

What sets this school apart from others in the area?

Our main focus has been RCCP [Resolving Conflict Creatively Program]. We have a strong focus on the development of social and emotional skills for kids, as well as the academic.

 The Staten Island Community Charter School, which opened in 2009, focuses on teaching conflict resolution in addition to academics, Feb. 8, 2013.
The Staten Island Community Charter School, which opened in 2009, focuses on teaching conflict resolution in addition to academics, Feb. 8, 2013.
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DNAinfo/Nicholas Rizzi

We have a very robust, balanced literacy program, which distinguishes us from other schools. We have a brand new Singapore math program called “Math in Focus.”

We're pretty well equipped. We have smart boards, there are ample laptops — Apple Macbook Pros — that we use in classes. We have about 50 and now we're looking at probably 75 for next year.

Our class size. Although it's 20 to 27, we have two full certified teachers in every classroom, so that brings the ratio down to 12 to 1. That's really important.

Why has teaching conflict resolution been such a strong focus in the school?

Two board members that really founded this school had a deep background in resolving conflict creatively, so that was sort of a big investment for the initial founders.

We feel that for kids, to understand how to mitigate conflict in their lives, and starting that at an early age, is a vital skill. So all our teachers go through the training. We got a consultant who works with us on that particular aspect.

How’s it been working in such a new school?

It's been great because it gives all of us a creative opportunity to work together, to try new things. People are not jaded, it's fun.

We will also have a great opportunity to see kids who start in kindergarten and we take them right up until eighth grade. It's a pretty unique opportunity to watch a kid grow.

What has changed since you got to the school?

Because we're new, there are so many things that we have had to do. We've had to develop policy and procedures as we go on. The first year was a K through first, and now we're K through third, so we have nine classes compared to four.

We had to do more hiring, and we've added full-time art, music and PE. There's a lot that we've had done that they were not doing in the first year.

How has it been different working in a charter school compared to other schools you worked at?

A charter affords me greater autonomy than a district school. We can be more creative, we don't have as many regulations and statutes. That's not to say we're totally free from those, but it's more limited.

I think there's a very high level of commitment by people who work here. There is just less bureaucracy to deal with.

We're given a lot of freedom but at the same time the expectations are that we will progress and kids will ultimately, by the time they graduate from this school, be well equipped to go on to high school and college.

What are some goals you hope to accomplish moving forward in the school?

I’d like to see our students, by the time they get to eighth grade, be fully at grade level or above in achievement. I’d like to see our students headed to the really best high schools. I’d like them to be able to say after they left at eighth grade, that this was a great school and they learned a great deal from being here.

And I hope my faculty continues to grow and learn. They're very open to new approaches and professional development.

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