INWOOD — Uptown educators Christina Reyes and Ryan McCabe are both driven by the struggles of the past.
Reyes, 35, is a former reading teacher at Inwood's Manhattan Christian Academy while McCabe, 33, taught math at I.S. 192 Piagentini-Jones in Throggs Neck in the Bronx.
Frustrations set in for both teachers: Reyes was unhappy that the public school children that she tutored in afternoons either weren't reading books or couldn't read at proficient levels, while McCabe was grappling with a fluid school that he said suffered from a 70 percent turnover rate year-to-year.
Those frustrations have driven the two together. Reyes wrote the charter for the Inwood Academy for Leadership, which opened in 2010. McCabe applied to be a special education math teacher at the school two years ago.
Now the two work together — Reyes as executive director, McCabe as principal — to foster a culture of collaboration and learning that extends from teachers to students. This extends from the daily shout-out emails McCabe sends to teachers commending them on effective strategies that they have employed in their classrooms, to the points system that allows students to earn money for iPad cases or school trips by showing exemplary behavior.
The environment begins with a top-down focus on teacher development and retention, and Reyes said those goals were so important that the school hired Nathan Ecklund, author of the teacher development book "How Was Your Day at School?" as a consultant.
"If something isn't working, we talk about how we can change it," Reyes said. "We're not so set in our ways that, if something is really working against teachers, we wouldn't put it under the microscope."
The result, McCabe said, is a school where a performance teacher won an innovation award from her colleagues for helping her students perform a flash-mob on their regular homeroom teacher. It's a school where McCabe bought bungee chairs for a classroom at the suggestion of the reading teachers.
"They wanted something where our jumpy kids can sit in a chair and really read," McCabe said. "So I bought six of them, and then the social worker wanted them, and then the assistant dean wanted them. It's kind of caught on like wildfire."
Working at Inwood Academy is a delicate operation as the 5-8 school is located in two campuses separated by a mile: grades 5 and 6 are located in a trailer at 93 Nagle Ave. in Fort George, while grades 7 and 8 share space with the Good Shepherd School at 620 Isham Ave. in Inwood. The school is expected to add a ninth grade next fall, and is anticipating leaving its Nagle Avenue location for the space vacated by the defunct St. Jude elementary school.
Inwood Academy's two campuses, on Nagle Avenue in Fort George and Cooper Street in Inwood, are a mile apart. How do you manage two different locations?
McCabe: It causes me to be a very good planner because I need to be very structured in what I'm doing. If not done well it appears as if I'm not in either building, but if I'm doing it well it appears as if I'm here the whole time and in Cooper the whole time. And it's also about bringing people up and making them leaders, so if I'm in Nagle today, I know that Cooper is being run well.
Do you have a set schedule? Monday you're at Cooper, Tuesday you're at Nagle?
McCabe: What has worked is for me to sketch out a plan of what I need to accomplish for the week and then allocate time. So if I have three teachers in Nagle that I need to work with this week but I've got seven in Cooper, I'm going to allocate more time to Cooper this week. But I also send a daily email to our teachers and one of the sections is "Where's Ryan?" and I very clearly label: I'm at Cooper at this time and I'm at Nagle at this time, so everyone knows where I'm going to be.
What's with the college pennants that are on top of every classroom?
McCabe: We're really college focused. Part of that is through taking kids on college trips. March 20th is a day we've outlined where we'll shut down the school and say that every kid in the school is going to visit a college that day, whether you're in fifth grade or eighth grade. We want to make it an option, but we also want to help you make informed choices, so we're going to surround you with colleges, we want to show the names of colleges. So when you're ready to make that decision, you're not just looking at the colleges that you've heard that a friend or cousin went to.
Reyes: The goal is for each student to visit 16 schools before they graduate. We even went to a CUNY School for mariners that no one ever knows about, but it's all about working on a ship, and there might be a kid that wants to do something like that.
You're adding a new grade and moving to a new building next year. How will you manage that?
Reyes: We have to do work. This building [Nagle] looks like an elementary school. Our other building looks like a middle school; now we're going to put all those kids together. What does that look like? Here the kids walk to class in lines, and in the other building we're trying to transition them to making choices on their own, so how we do that in one building is something we're going to have to talk about and figure out as a staff. We'll have to work out what the culture looks like.