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Veteran Educator Doreen Land Revives a Struggling Mott Haven Charter School

By Patrick Wall | June 10, 2013 6:50am
 The new principal of Bronx Charter School for Children helped bump it from a D to a B in her first year.
Principal Doreen Land
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MOTT HAVEN — Doreen Land knows her way around a whiteboard.

Land, 49, who grew up in Queens and holds two advanced degrees in education, has worked as a schoolteacher in New York City, a principal in New Jersey and Washington D.C., and a superintendent in Cleveland and back in New York, where she helped launched Promise Academy Charter Schools within the famed Harlem Children’s Zone.

So when she arrived last school year at The Bronx Charter School for Children, a K-5 elementary school by the Mott Haven Houses, and found it floundering, she had a few ideas. 

First, she replaced 15 teachers and other staff members.

Then, she instituted a regimen of regular assessment and analysis, followed by intervention, to keep targeted kids on track.

To draw in parents, she has launched healthy cooking, GED and English-language classes. To hook students, she has added chess and dance classes.

The result?

The school’s progress report grade skyrocketed from a D to a B in Land’s first year.

This year, Land’s second at the school, 1,300 families applied for 432 open spots.

“We want them to see this place as a beacon for them,” she said.

Q. You come from the Harlem Children Zone’s Promise Academy, which is renowned for providing “wraparound” support for families, not just students. How have you tried to do that here?

A. We created a position called "family liaison." That person’s job is to really be the eyes and ears of the school for families.

So we had a family that was burned out of their home in November. They called the family liaison right away. I reached out to the board and we were able to help with supplies and things like that for the family.

And we really follow attendance. If a child is out for two days, the family liaison will call. If we need to, we’ll do another home visit to see if there’s anything we can do.

There’s a family who lives quite far and the kids were getting here late. So [the family liaison] is right now going to get those kids and bringing them to school, because that’s the only way we could get them here, and the family needed support.

Q. When you enter a new school and size it up, what are you looking for?

A. You’re looking for the conversations between teachers. You’re looking for how teachers speak to scholars. You’re looking around the environment to see what’s valued. How is instructional time respected? Do you hear announcements every 15 minutes? Do you see paper on the floor, graffiti on the walls? Do you see kids’ work up? Do you know what the kids are working on? What kinds of the things does the school celebrate?

You’re also looking for cultural sensitivity. What’s the makeup of the staff? Do none of them look like the kids? Do they all look like the kids? And even if they look like the kids, how respectful are they?

Q. What are the advantages of running a charter school versus a traditional public school?

A. We have more flexibility in the instructional programs we use. The way we can redesign staffing. Last year we created a position called intervention specialist — there are five of them now — because we know that the biggest changes happen for kids academically in small groups or one-on-one. So these people spend all day working in small groups or with individual students.

Looking at data. So we meet weekly — what is the data saying? 'Patrick can move out of this group now. Let’s bring in Doreen.'

And I think a lack of complacency. Because I know and everybody knows that each year, you’re either asked back or you’re not. So nobody is in the building that you don’t feel agrees with your culture or is trying to move forward.

Q. You have pushed hard for the school become “data-driven.” What does that mean?

A. It’s called progress monitoring, and that’s how we spend the year: assessing, redirecting. There’s a lot of conversations daily about how kids are doing and where we need to redirect our instruction. Before last year, we really didn’t have data to tell us specifically where kids were. There was no school-wide assessment tool. So once we got that in place last year, we were able to target instruction. Whether that’s for guided reading or small group work, we could do it because we had the data.

Q. You've hired a lot of new staff. Who is your ideal teacher?

A. They are very data-driven. They’re flexible. They’re lifelong learners. They’re great at executing lessons. They reflect on their practice. They take feedback and implement those changes. They are team-oriented. Everybody’s like, 'Tell me what you need!' It’s a little scary sometimes. [Laughs.] People come in here sick!

We want people who are really about kids. And not feeling sorry for them. But believing that they deserve a great education. We don’t need you to save our kids. We just need you to believe in their ability.