HARLEM — When Nadva Zeimer became the principal of Harlem Renaissance High School, it was on its last legs.
“When I showed up, the school was persistently low-achieving. The school had every negative designation known and then the city told us that they were going to shut it down,” he said. “A year later we received our first A grade.”
Harlem Renaissance, on 22 East 128th St., is one of the city’s few transfer schools. Students there have either dropped out or were expelled from other city schools. Many of them are older than 18 and can legally sign themselves out of school, the principal said.
Soon after Zeimer started, he learned that drug dealers enrolled in order to find new customers. He made few changes in his first year, opting to observe and see what worked well and what didn't. He said he also began treating the students as people instead of inmates by giving them more responsibilities. Last year 92 percent of the senior class graduated and most of them are pursuing higher education, he said.
DNAinfo New York sat down with Zeimer to talk about the school’s transformation:
Q: What led to the school's quick turnaround?
The way I tell the story of what happened is just the staff decided to believe in each other. We had some conversations. My conversation with them was, “We’re working with at-risk young people so our job is to believe in them more than they believe in themselves.”
If I look around me and see the adults in the building and I can’t believe in them — and they are successful adults, holding down jobs, have college degrees, have a master’s — how the hell am I going to do that for these kids?
So I just said, “Look around you, we have to believe in each other.” And so I think it started there. We did a lot of work. It was just first taking care of the teachers and making sure that they knew who each other was. We have an amazing staff and I think for some reason there was something going on in the building before that that they thought they were not the ones.
Q: How do you succeed where other schools have failed?
I’m skeptical of data. I have a degree in physics and I think that when you think that data is the story it’s like confusing the menu for the food. If you think the menu is what you are going to eat for dinner, you’re going to have some problems. And I think that a lot of people at the federal level definitely look at student data and think that they know something.
If you use data as a window to tell a story, if you get the data to give you a little peek into the big deeper story, now you are using the data to figure out whose story to get.
Q: How do you use data?
We instituted these weekly progress reports.
[Students] get a report card every week. I look at the data on Monday. So for instance, I see on a student’s card that they are doing well in their classes for the trimester but last week they didn’t. So the pattern is you’re passing, you usually get 85s in all your classes and last week you got below 65 in all your classes. There was a life event.
And it’s amazing, that Tuesday I approach the student and say, "Can you come over here for a second," and I pull them aside and say, "Did something happen last week?" They start crying.
So if you use the data to know who to ask what question to get the real story and connect with the real context, now you are using data to get into where you can find the organic, real interesting stuff.
Q: What’s your approach to discipline?
When a student misbehaves, a lot of schools go to discipline. When a student misbehaves here, we take it as a communication — something is wrong. We take it as a request for support.
Most schools that I’ve worked at — I haven’t worked at too many schools — but the schools that I’ve been in, the dean and the social workers, there is a gulf between them. The dean wants to uphold the rules and keep safety and discipline. The social workers want to care for the kids and see them as individuals and give them a shot and another chance, and they butt heads. The students take advantage of that gap.
So we made it a goal to have the dean and the social worker become a unit, that they speak with one voice.
Nobody gets mad at them when they misbehave. We expect them to misbehave. That’s their job and it’s our job to take care of them and believe that they don’t want to misbehave.
We brought suspensions down by 70 percent in the last two years. We almost never suspend anybody unless they bring a weapon into our building. They don’t fight in this building. They never do. They’ll fight outside but they respect this building tremendously.
Q: What’s it like to see your students succeed?
One kid who just graduated, nobody thought he would graduate. He kept getting arrested. I interviewed him about what happened when he was getting close to graduation.
He ran away from home when he was really young. He lived on the streets and one of the questions I asked him was "What does it mean to be a man? I’ve seen you become a man, how was that?"
He said, "I thought that making my own money was being a man and being independent. And then when I went out and hustled my own money and took care of myself I got that being a man would’ve actually been staying home and getting the money to take care of my family. A man is somebody whose circle of concern is bigger than himself."
I thought that was a beautiful definition of manhood.