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Flexibility is Key to Learning at East Village High School

By Serena Solomon | November 18, 2013 7:44am
 Mark Federman has been the principal at East Side Community High School for 19 years.
Mark Federman
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EAST VILLAGE — When structural damage forced a four-month evacuation of East Side Community High School's building last September, it put principal Mark Federman's flexible approach to education to the test.

"We think outside the box" said Federman, 43, who has been at the school on East 12th Street for 19 years with 13 years as principal.

"When you are used to thinking out of the box, you have those muscles built. As leaders, we were able to rally the students."

Despite the disruption of students split between two other schools more than 40 blocks apart, coupled with a weeklong blackout from Hurricane Sandy a month later, the school maintained its A grade rating from the Department of Education for the eighth consecutive year.

The DOE released the 2012-2013 results last Wednesday.

"We always give a green light when a teacher suggests an idea," said Federman, giving the example of one of the many extracurricular activities at the school recently suggested by a staff member — golf lessons at Chelsea piers.

"We don't try and think why something wouldn't work. If something isn't working then we are not going to get stuck… 'Oh I had this idea and I am not going to give this up.'"

As principal, Federman said he is constantly walking between his red tape responsibilities — following DOE formalities, completing mounds of paperwork — and being what he knows is needed, a regular fixture in hallways and classrooms. 

His efforts seem to be paying off. When walking through the hallways, students feel comfortable enough to yell "Hi Mark" (he and other teachers go by first names, a procedure Federman said "works for us"). In classrooms no student is fazed when he drops by.

The result is an informed ear-to-the-ground when making a decision to benefit his young people.

"I think a big problem is principals getting locked in their office and they are just not spending enough time on the playing field," he said.

Q: What is your secret with East Side getting an A grade each year?

I think the key to having a consistently successful school is, we are never done. I am not coming to school the next day and working a little less harder. Until 100 percent of our kids graduate to the college they want to go to there is always more work you can do to get them there.

Another thing is we have very strong teachers. We spend a lot of time getting the right teachers into the building and developing teachers. We give them opportunity to have freedom within a greater school vision.

We are always demanding that our kids are learning, but as educators we have to be learning as much as the students. We are constantly taking time out to do this. We have an early dismissal on Friday with longer school hours Monday through Thursday so we have two hours of [teacher] professional development on Friday afternoon. 

Q: How else do you develop your teachers?

Teachers take a survey of their class. It is feedback so the teacher gets really anonymous feedback from their kids and then they use that to become a better teacher. There are some questions that are standard and there are other questions the teachers themselves come up with.

Q: When did you decide to have a career in educating young people?

I grew up outside of New Haven, Connecticut, and I would say had a not-so-great school system. I think the irony is most teachers become teachers because they had one great teacher or had a positive experience in school. I was very critical of my education growing up and saw many things like racism and segregation.

I saw that there were a certain group of kids that were expected to go to college, that were expected to graduate high school, and there were other students who where expected to do very little.

I always felt there was a better way to do this.

Q: How does that impact the way you run East Side?

They [students] all had to have the opportunity to be tracked for college or to graduate school. It shouldn't be that these students are denied access to these classes and those students can be in those classes.

There is no tracking in our school. Every student is taking the same classes and the same curriculum. Our school is pretty eclectic and diverse, but they are all in the same classes. If a student is struggling, they might get a class that gives them a special skill set or an extra class that will help them get up to par.

And kids who might have an opportunity to take an advance class when they are older, but the core curriculum for 99.9 percent of the kids in the school is the same.

There is an expectation that every kid who walks in these doors in on track to go to college.

Q: What is the Coalition of Essential Schools model that the school is shaped on?

The concept first is having a smaller learning community. Our average class size in middle school is between 18-22 students and in highs school our cap is 25. For a class to go over 25, it has to be absolutely necessary.

On top of that, we have an advisory system where every adult in the building has about 12 to 15 kids. Each of those kids come to the homeroom in the morning and the advisor is the one that gets to know the student. You keep track that they are doing their work, but you also act as a counselor and a parent to that student. You are checking in if they have problems at home. You are the one advocating for them if they are falling behind.

You are better going to be able to teach kids if you known them well.