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East Harlem Charter High School Principal Identifies With Students

By Jeff Mays | December 12, 2011 9:23am | Updated on December 12, 2011 9:39am
Nicholas Tishuk, principal and co-founder of East Harlem's Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation, the area's first charter high school.
Nicholas Tishuk, principal and co-founder of East Harlem's Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation, the area's first charter high school.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM—Nicholas Tishuk, principal and co-founder of East Harlem's Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation, knows that his students think he thinks about education all the time.

That's because it's true.

"I'm a militant for good education," said Tishuk who opened East Harlem's first charter high school with his wife and co-founder, Rita, in 2010.

"If you look at a playground full of kids and say only 40 percent will graduate yet expect us to compete in the global market, it's not going to happen," said Tishuk.

"We have a huge crisis in this country when it comes to educating our kids. You can't throw away a good chunk of the population."

The school doubled it size as it entered its second year in September, on its way to adding a new grade every year for the next couple of years.

The Tishuks believe in hands-on learning. Students have been on field trips to Occupy Wall Street and have  re-created the trip of the Freedom Riders through the South.

When Tishuk, 32, a Central Florida native who lives in Bedford Stuyevesant, Brooklyn, isn't thinking about education he loves riding his bike all around the city.

Tishuk said the kids are surprised when they learn about his passion. "I'm a student of the city," he said.

They also might be surprised to learn that he worked on a pecan farm while a student at the University of Florida for room and board.

After he graduated, Tishuk came to New York as a teaching fellow and earned his Master's degree from Brooklyn College and worked at The Renaissance Charter School in Queens.

Tell us a little about your background?

I moved to New York 10 years ago but I grew up in Central Florida near St. Petersburg. My mom was a single parent, a waitress, and I grew up poor. I was a free lunch kid. I was told you need to get a college education. My mom knew college was important but didn't have the practical experience. That's why I identify so much with our kids. A lot of our families are led by single parents and 85 percent of our kids get free or reduced lunch. Hard knocks is hard knocks no matter where you grow up.

What's something your kids are surprised to learn about you?

Rita Tishuk talks to a student about note-taking.
Rita Tishuk talks to a student about note-taking.
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DNAInfo/Jeff Mays

A lot of people are surprised I have a life outside of education. I'm constantly promoting the school so they are surprised when they see me on my bike or talking about a movie. But I'm a city biker. I'll go from Brooklyn to Queens and back to Brooklyn on my bike. It's a passion of mine. I love to go out on my bike because I can be a world traveler just by being a traveler of the city. I recently discovered Wave Hill.

But I'll also pop in and play football during lunch and get to know our kids better during college trips. I know they think: 'Wait. You exist outside of school? You are married?' Making connections outside of school can change a kid's entire perspective.

What made you and your wife Rita want to launch Renaissance Charter School for Innovation?

It's an honor when parents say: 'You can have my baby.' So my wife and I came together and asked what would a really good high school look like? Just like any other profession we sat down at the kitchen table and dreamed up this school. We have one of the most at-risk populations, so part of our work is to tackle the problem differently. We take a different approach. It can't just be academics. We need to be creative as educators. Everything doesn't always work the way you want it to work.

How is it working with your spouse?

We work together as colleagues. Some people might question that. But we have had hundreds of conversations and everything is fine. We've built a strong management team here.

Given the concern in the community about charter schools co-locating with district schools and the feeling from some that charter schools get more attention and resources from the Department of Education, what has been the community's response to the school?

I was surprised how well we were embraced. There is a heated dialogue about public education, as there should be. I've found people want to try new things, but are also skeptical of new things. People have said they have a lot of questions but they see us out in the neighborhood and understand what we are trying to do. Because we have an at-risk population, some people think you shouldn't be able to do the type of hands-on, project learning that we do. This is part of the model. These kids aren't supposed to be successful but they can be and are. East Harlem is a really good place for us.