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PODCAST: Teaching Students to Have Grit While Building a School Community

By Emily Frost | April 25, 2016 3:52pm
 Principal Jessica Jenkins believes in letting students struggle a bit to get to the answer, instead of just feeding it to them.
Principal Jessica Jenkins believes in letting students struggle a bit to get to the answer, instead of just feeding it to them.
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DNAinfo/Emily Frost

UPPER WEST SIDE — How does an educator strike a balance between challenging kids and making them feel safe enough to experiment with the unknown?

That's the mission of Jessica Jenkins, the founding principal of West End Secondary School (WESS), a new 6-12 school that opened this September on West 61st Street in the space formerly occupied by Beacon High School. 

Jenkins faced an uphill battle in convincing neighborhood parents with plethora of school choices to try out WESS, and in creating a shared sense of ownership at the school. 

But her first year — from the fresh feel of the space to intense parent involvement — has been a success, she said. 

Jenkins spoke with DNAinfo reporter Emily Frost about education in general, including what makes a good teacher and leader, why the 6-12 school model has immense benefits and how to nurture curiosity. 

She also chatted about the philosophies governing WESS — which uses the city as a learning lab, values grit and perseverance and champions a welcoming school culture — as well as how she'll foster geographic and socioeconomic diversity at the school. 

Emily: Principal Jenkins, thank you so much for talking with me. This past September, the school opened its doors, so we're sitting on West 61st Street between West End and Amsterdam, the building that people think of as the Beacon High School, but now it's West End Secondary School. Each year, you're going to add a grade up until 12th grade, so right now it's just 6th grade.

Principal Jenkins: Correct.

Emily: How did you go about convincing parents to attend a brand new school when there are so many other middle school options and they've never heard of it, and it's brand new, "Why would I take the risk to do that?"

Principal Jenkins: Parents really enjoyed the idea of a student starting in a 6th grade, and actually being able to continue through to 12th grade. They like this idea of building a community from the ground up, our community members were also really excited about the fact that they could be part of the journey, alongside of me, in opening the school, considering this is our founding class and these students will pave the way for future classes after, and that was something that was really exciting for families in our community.

Last year when I was recruiting students, and introducing the school to the district, I had had a year to do that, which was great. I was able to get into all of our schools and different community forums to sell this idea of what it was that we were doing, and what made us unique was that we were going to be using New York City as a learning lab. What I find so interesting is that when I ask our kids, "What makes our school unique?" They actually name that, which means the road show that we did to recruit kids was a positive one.

A big part of our vision and I guess our mission is that we want our classrooms to be the safe context where kids can actually explore relevant real world problems in a safe nurturing environment, because we're asking kids to do hard things. If we're exploring a specific concept around the health of the Hudson River, they may be studying scientific standards that touch on high school in 6th grade, but because it's this nurturing environment where we encourage students to persevere and we encourage students to take on the challenge in a way that builds their confidence, the kids get really excited about it, and then we actually tie it to the Hudson River.

For example, when our students are studying the oysters within the Hudson River and the health of the Hudson River and how we can clean up the Hudson River, it becomes real to them. While we're engaging them in this rigorous course of study, they don't necessary recognize it as something they can't do. They look at it as something that they're really excited to go out and explore because we're taking them out into the real world, and I think that was really exciting for the kids. What I've said to parents time and again, and I think the kids can speak to this, too, is that we're trying to cultivate this innate curiosity.

Kindergartners come into the school, 1st graders come into school, and one of their big questions is, "Why? Why?," and they want to know the answers, and they're curious, and we want to continue to nurture that creativity and that wonder and that questioning the world around them, and that's something that the kids were excited about. For example, in math right now, we embrace something called "struggle time," where we actually provide students with a particular problem to solve, that they have some background knowledge in, but they're asked to either individually or with two or three other students, try to grapple with solving that problem with some prior knowledge, and our support, and when kids get at it without having us directly teaching A, B, C, and D, the kids start to say, "Wow, I have some conceptual understanding of this and I can use my conceptual understanding of this to solve this problem,” without the teacher doing so much front loading of the information.

The kids get ... Initially, the kids were frustrated. They were like, "Oh, I can't do this, I can't do this," but now, the kids are excited about it, and they actually call it "struggle time." We've come a long way with them from September when initially it's easy to give up on something that is challenging, to now, where they look forward to the teacher providing them something to struggle with.

Emily: Yeah, and it sounds like they're embracing that word "struggle," and it doesn't scare them.

Principal Jenkins: Correct.

Emily: Is that something that you would share with other schools as "This really worked?"

Principal Jenkins: 100 percent. Yeah, and I would look forward to showing principals and teachers and community members and schools that that does work, because I think naturally as teachers, and even myself, if I'm in front of a classroom and I see that you don't have 16 of the 25 students hands raised when you're asking a question, naturally as a teacher, you're going to get nervous and say, "Uh, oh," but if we step back and we give them time to grapple with it, what they come out with in the end is also that skill to persevere with something, with our support, of course.

I mean, we're teaching. We don't just throw out a problem and say, "Here, you're going to go solve this." We have a tremendous amount of support along the way to get them there, but to see them come out at the end and actually say, "Yeah, I persevered through that and I was able to solve it" makes us feel like, "Wow, we're doing our job."

Emily: Did the blank slate nature of building the school appeal to you?

Principal Jenkins: I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to open a school prior to this. The blank state does appeal to me, because I can build something from the ground up, and I create these structures and put support systems in place for teachers to develop teachers along a continuum and to build the school with a community, as opposed to walking into a school and taking on a principalship. That's definitely a skill set I admire, all the principals in our district and districts that I've worked with in my former life, where you've come in because the principals retired, but you're also walking into a school where there are systems and structures in place. I was attracted to the idea of actually creating those systems and structures from the ground up.

Emily: We talked a little bit before about creating an atmosphere in the school from anything from the paint color on the walls to the vibe when you walk in the door. Can you describe what you wanted WESS to feel like?

Principal Jenkins: What I wanted, which is a big part of our mission for kids, is that we're teaching the whole child, so we wanted our school to feel as though it was a welcoming place for kids, and where kids could feel that their learning in this nurturing type of environment. Even down to how our classrooms are structured, even how we have our seating arrangements, and we purchased special desks so that they could either, if it's independent work, they can work independently, but if they're in groups, the desks can move easily within the classroom.

They're a little bit more modern, these desks, so that they're actually sitting in ... I guess they're like that triangular type of shape where they can work in groups of three or groups of four. That's also supported the type of learning environment that we want to have here. We've heard kids say, when they came in, it's always interesting to hear their perspective, it's like, "Wow, this is so fresh and so new, and we feel like we're going to a brand new school," which we felt like we got the job done then, because this was an older building and it's a great building, we love the building, but I think that that definitely contributed to our kids feeling as though they're walking into this really welcoming environment and that they're supported, because that's our whole entire philosophy for how we're educating thing.

Emily: Some people criticize how much money goes into things like building infrastructure and desks and Smart Boards, but do you think that they really do play a role in how kids feel about themselves and how they feel about school?

Principal Jenkins: First of all, our students are growing up in this age of technology, so I think that the Smart Board piece for me, was critical for all of our teachers to have access to it, because of all of the amazingly innovative things that they do with the Smart Board. It's not just putting a PowerPoint up, and sometimes people who aren't educated in the use of technology and such might just use the Smart Board for a PowerPoint, but we really use it in this interactive way, so I thought that that was really critical for 6th graders because this is the generation that they're growing up in.

Not to say that the technology is everything, because there's a time and there's a place for them to be writing, and reading not from a Chromebook, and not from a Kindle, and from actually handling text, but I do think that the environment affects, the actual physical environment, physical space, does affect students’ perceptions and the students’ experience here.

Emily: How did you create community? I mean, you talked about Beacon had this parents association that was really strong and the community there was strong, but at a brand new school where people are coming from all over, how does that work?

Principal Jenkins: School culture, I would say it's probably equally important to me as quality teachers and quality instruction of the room, and school culture was a big part of my proposal, and I think a big part of why our parents, from across the district, which is awesome, because we represent every school in the district, but parents across the district wanted to sign onto this, because we look at parent engagement here much differently than a traditional idea of parent involvement might look like where I involve parents in the book study.

We involve parents in the school day, we involve parents in visiting classrooms, and helping us figure out how we're going to add new lockers down here, and what that looks like for space. I have them involved on so many angles, instructionally as well, and we give parents multiple opportunities to do that, so we have parents that can come in during the day, but we also have many parents who work full time, so there's so many different ways to be involved here, other than the traditional, I think there's actually a very well known book, "Beyond the Bake Sale."

We are so beyond that here. We do something called "intensives" in Expeditionary Learning Schools and essentially it's a 3-day crash course, mini college course in something that you, Emily, would be interested in. If you are interested in gardening, there'll be 10 or 15 kids, so you're the teacher of gardening, there'll be 10 or 15 kids that come in. We're doing another one on Broadway, but our parents are super excited because they may have an expertise in this. I might be the one that's in charge of the gardening one, but while I might not have expertise in that, we have parent experts that can come in.

Even if they can't come in during the day, they can offer us resources like, "Hey, I know this great person, and you can go down to see how they do urban gardening here." There's so many ways for them to be engaged, which is great.

Emily: They can call you at any time with ideas?

Principal Jenkins: And they do. I love it. We love it. I communicate with the parents weekly in pretty lengthy updates, which they're really thankful for. I involve them in the school day as often as I can, because we would not have been as successful as we are now without that. Families rightfully ask, "How do you scale up? How do you continue?" We started off really strong, we're really proud we've met our goals for the year, we continue obviously, these goals will be our goals for several years to come, but we feel like we've met our goals as far as our parent engagement piece, and we want our parents to know there is a strategic long-term plan for hiring, for what that looks like for 7th grade, what their course of study looks like, and I think that that put a lot of parents at ease.

Especially because a lot of these parents signed up for 6 to 12 model, and as you know, the middle school process and the high school process sometimes feels like applying to college.

Emily: I've heard that, yeah.

Principal Jenkins: When I have a child, and I came to any district in New York City, I would be confused. A lot of these parents, they ask really good questions because it's hard. These poor 5th graders have to choose a middle school, and then they get into 8th grade, and then it's college all over again for 9th grade. I've already actually met with some of my families here who have siblings at other schools about, "What do you recommend for high school?" They're so happy because their other sibling that goes here can stay, happily.

Emily: Yeah, so they feel like they've dodged a bullet in that ...

Principal Jenkins: They do, they do.

Emily: ... They don't have to do another application process.

Principal Jenkins: And they're so excited about it. They're equally excited about the fact that we have the strategic long-term plan, that we're not building the plane as it's flying.

Emily: You're not winging it?

Principal Jenkins: There's no winging it here.

Emily: Do you think that the 6 through 12 model is one that other New York City schools should adopt so that there aren't so many applications and it's not so tricky?

Principal Jenkins: Yeah, I mean I don't ...

Emily: How can that be changed?

Principal Jenkins: I don't know if I would say that the 6 to 12 model would be beneficial to limit the number of applicants and to make the process easier. I think the 6 to 12 model supports kids academically, and from a social and emotional perspective, I know, and my teachers know, every single one of our children, their strengths, their learning gaps, their next steps, how to challenge them, and as they scale up, so if you think about when they come into 9th grade here, we know exactly what they've mastered, where their deficits are, where we need to continue to challenge them, what regents classes they've already taken, what courses they're going to be on par to take for advanced placement classes, because we're going to be offering three high school courses in 8th grade here to students.

They were super excited about that. I think that's why I would sell 6 to 12 models, because we don't need ... There's no learning curve in 9th grade for us. We know them so well that just even for example, going up to 7th grade, my two English teachers will go up to 7th grade. We can start teaching out of the gate in 7th grade, 8th grade, 9th grade, because we know exactly who are learners are. Parents, they were much more relaxed when I said to them, "It's okay. There's no pressure to take these high school classes in 8th grade, but since they're offered, we can have a conversation about whether or not they can take it," but the beauty of it is they're going to be here in 9th grade, so that if they don't take it in 8th grade, we're going to give them a special program for 9th grade and they won't be behind.

Emily: You got to select the teachers?

Principal Jenkins: I did get to hire all of our teachers, but it was governed by an committee, which is a chancellor's regulation, and we put together this team of teachers, so we did it as a team which was awesome.

Emily: What, in your opinion, makes a great teacher? What were you looking for?

Principal Jenkins: I think starting a school from the ground up is a special skillset. I think that what I look for here is commitment to building the school alongside of me, which looks a lot different than maybe in a traditional school where a lot of the structures are in place. What happens is what I'm looking for is so I have one teacher who is our tech guru, so he has clearly put our school on the map as far as being every child has a Chromebook, and how do we manage apps. This distributive leadership piece I'm looking for, I'm looking for teachers that can wear many hats, and do so without feeling overwhelmed, because I'm also providing support to them simultaneously so they can grow in their practice.

For example, a couple of my relatively new teachers are leading our WESS players in a Broadway show that we're putting on, but I'm looking for teachers that are well rounded, that can bring more to the table, and then I guess the next piece that I look for is what I think many people have considered in the past, considered soft skills, and research is suggesting now the soft skills are actually what makes people successful in the workplace. How are you really going to contribute to creating this culture where we love children here, and they need to feel loved by us, and feel supported by us? That's something that I look for in an interview, by asking, "So give me an example of a time that you've assisted a child, or you assisted a group of children in X, Y, or Z?"

I allow them to fill in the blanks. The academic questions are there for the teachers, to ensure that there's content knowledge, but the cultural piece is there, as well, like, "What will you bring to our culture?" It may not be a chess club that they're bringing to a culture, but it could be, "One of my skill sets is I am really good at de-escalating conflicts." "Oh, I would love to hear about that," because generally, that would be something that a guidance counselor would say.

"Oh, can you tell me about a time that you've de-escalated conflicts?" That teacher becomes, and we have her here, that teacher becomes the teacher that is like a go-to, and then, that commitment to building a school, because there's nothing more rewarding than doing this together. Not my school, like a lot of times, "Oh, it's the principal’s school." It is literally all of our schools — parents, students, teachers, and myself —because I tell the parents all the time, initially out of the gate, I think they wonder, "Wow, I hope that she does want us as involved." I say, "I need you to be as involved, because we would never be where we are now without them."

Emily: You mentioned de-escalating conflicts, and I was wondering, what are the unique challenges that a 6th grader walks in here with?

Principal Jenkins: First, I'll say that we have a structure in place here called "Crew," which a lot of schools and community members would know as "advisory." I would say advisory has been in school for about 30 years. We call it "Crew." It's essentially, literally like we are Crew, not passengers, and there's a group of students, 13 students who meet with their Crew advisor twice a week, and that's where we address the exact question that you're saying, the unique challenges of a middle school. The transition from an elementary school to a middle school where we're not zoned, so you don't all know each other. We have kids from private school ...

Emily: They're not all from the neighborhood?

Principal Jenkins: Correct. They're from all over the place, and we have ... Which is awesome, but that's also a challenge in that let's make sure that we are inclusive of say the four or five students that came from a private school, the four or five students that came from out of state, the 15 to 20 kids who might come from one school, but one school might have 30 kids coming from it, so let's make sure that we mix that up. Then, there's that friends piece, like what does that look like? Because remember, in 5th grade, regardless of what school I was in, I'm in a 5th grade class with 27-30 kids in a room, between 20 and 30 kids, and I know them, and I follow them here, they see 137 kids all day long, so that's a challenge.

What does that look like and what does it look like to make friends? Because obviously you want to gravitate towards the, "Oh, I know that child. He's on my soccer team," even if they didn't go to the same school. "Oh, I know that child because we are part of an after school club some place else," or, "We're in an acting program together." That was something that we've addressed in Crew and what we did that was really cool in Crew was that we mixed our Crew kids up completely, so essentially, every school is represented in every Crew.

That was very strategic in that, so this is your family and you don't know each other, and that's really uncomfortable. Initially the kids are like, "Why can I be with so and so? I know them from the past." I'm like, "That's exactly why you can't be with them, because we want to put you out of your comfort zone." Then, the other piece that you handle in middle school and 6th grade is that I find that 6th grade is this interesting year, and I say to the parents all the time, a lot of middle schools treat it like we go from 5th grade to 6th grade, and all of a sudden, it's this different experience.

I come from the philosophy and a lot of parents have said I treat this like an elementary school, because 6th grade is a transition year. I mean, there are schools and there's been schools for years that are K to 6 schools, right? I'm not just talking about New York City, I'm talking about all over the country. For a reason, right? Because we think that 7th and 8th grade looks really different, so a lot of the structures that I have in 6th grade are very much things that we might do in 5th grade, like for example, we do "caught being good" breakfasts, where we acknowledge students who have adopted our core values and have modeled that, and have modeled perseverance and serve as a model for the school community. I'll tell you that we have an incredibly rigorous curriculum, but simultaneously, we have this curriculum where in Crew and in classrooms where we're building students’ character.

Emily: It's nurturing and challenging at the same time?

Principal Jenkins: Yeah. There's that word that we use a lot these days, which is interesting, because I'm reading a lot about it, that companies are looking for when they're hiring, and that's that word "grit." How do you persevere in the face of challenges, and what does that look like? Because we're finding that the most successful students in college right now are those students who exhibit that, "I can persist through a challenging problem. I can persevere when this does not come easy to me." They're performing high on their test entrance exams to get into college, but what we're finding as a country is that these kids are coming home because it's either too challenging for them, not because they can't do it, because it's not comfortable to them, and so on.

We're trying to develop that whole child which has been a great, great transition for parents in changing mindsets, because initially, they thought it was soft skills when in fact, those are the skills that will catapult these kids to success.

Emily: You talked a little bit about the different schools that have fed into WESS, and you helped design the admissions policy, and then you went around to all of the schools in the district, ...

Principal Jenkins: Literally.

Emily: ... And told them about the story of what you were hoping to do. What were the challenges in getting a diverse pool here and how are you going to deal with those in the future, making sure that you don't just have kids from the school that's down the street?

Principal Jenkins: Right, yeah, no. You know, given my background and how I had opened a school prior, and I opened a school prior that was literally right smack in the middle of Staten Island borough, and was interesting was that what happened was, it became difficult there for kids from other areas to actually get there. It actually made it difficult, transportation was an issue there and such, so what's happening after a couple of years was, the schools that were right in the neighborhood ended up inundating the lottery. It was a different district, but it was a lottery district and I was like, "Uh, oh." What are we going to do?

Because naturally, the schools in the neighborhood are going to apply to the neighborhood school, so I was really proud of the work that I had done last year, and then I continued to do this year, because we didn't just require parents to come to an open house. I actually went out to them, so that to get to ensure that we represent schools from all part of the district, but I recognize that we may have parents that may not either know about the information session, it may not have been shared with them. People get busy, they don't look at calendars.

I know that happens to me, too, so I actually went into classrooms in schools and counted that as an information session, because just because mom can't make it, or mom has something else going on, or your guardian has something else going on, the child's so excited about coming, that's the decision. These kids went home to their parents and said, "This lady came to speak to our school. I think it's called West End Secondary School. It sounds really cool and I want to apply," and they're here. That experience although it was very exhausting, because it was just me. I didn't have a staff yet. It was actually my mother and me, and Saturday mornings, evenings, inside of classrooms, that was very successful.

Because of those relationships that I developed with those principals, I noticed that my applicant pool this year, so for one particular school in general, that principal that I went out of my way to actually speak to her classrooms, the students who were matched this year from this school, there's like 10 or 15 right now, and that's because the kids here are talking to them, and that's going to happen naturally. They all talk to their kids, so I'm really proud of the applicant pool that I have here and it reflects diversity in the district.

Out of the gate, I felt like we had a strong start because we represented most of the schools in the district, other than some K to 8 schools. The word gets out, and then parents are saying, "Okay, I'm not so afraid to send my child down 61st," because the other piece, which is just a natural challenge, is that I am literally at the southern most part of the district. I had our current parents and current students leading our open house sessions, so I have Declan, who's from 178th Street actually say, "Okay, so this is what my commute looks like in the morning," so parents heard that and they're super excited about it, as opposed to last year, they were afraid.

I remember having parents and not even so high in the, I guess, 110 to 116 saying, "Not sure if I'm ready for my child to come down there," but when they heard it this year, so that's been really helpful and I feel really confident just based on numbers now that we've done that work and that is a direct ... That's thank you to the parent body, and to the kids, because they're talking. For example, P.S. 208 a few of our students from there are talking, it's actually really easy to commute to come down here, which is why I noted that the first 10 or 15 kids that were matched were from that school, which means I can thank those students for doing that, because they're the ones. I can say, "Oh, it's easy to come down here," but if a kid says, "This is what you do. You're going to hop on the A train, and you're going to go to 59th street."

Emily: I'm always curious about what a typical day in the life is for people that I talk to, and I know you're coming from Staten Island, right?

Principal Jenkins: I'm coming from Red Bank, New Jersey.

Emily: What time do you get up? What does your day look like? How do you balance this with life?

Principal Jenkins: Yeah, it's interesting. I have actually always wanted to work in Manhattan for years, and so when this opportunity came up, I said, "Wow, this is perfect," and I miss Staten Island and my school's doing amazing, which makes me feel great, because you want to make sure that what you start gets even better than when you were there, but my typical day is interesting. I wake up at 4:05 a.m., I am on the 5:20 a.m. bus and I'm in the door here by 6:45 a.m. everyday, but I love it, and I think when you love it, it becomes something that you just become accustomed to, and to be quite honest with you, I get so much work done on the bus, which is great, so I use that as time I would have been driving during this time.

Even if it was Staten Island, from Red Bank to Staten Island, that was 35 minutes you can't work, but if I'm on the bus for an hour, that's a lot of work that I can get done, or emails that I can catch up on. Then, I'm here until the end of our after school program, which is awesome, and really comprehensive, and then there's a couple late nights we have a week which makes it a little challenging, but it's okay. As I've gotten older and more experienced in my principalship, I've been a little bit more strategic about those late nights.

For example, accidentally two weeks ago, I had 3 late nights and that was a little challenging. Those are late nights that you're coming home at 10 o'clock, so to balance, you had to make sure that those meetings were just scattered, but because I love what I do, and I'm really passionate about what I do, and I knew that my place was back in a school and the parents are adorable because they're always like, "Are you staying?" It's like, "I'm here to stay." I love it, and I can't wait to see these kids graduate. Yeah, a day in the life, it's challenging, but if you're excited about the work, it pays off.

Emily: A lot comes at you that you weren't expecting. I mean ...

Principal Jenkins: They're 11, and it's a small school so you do ... I think what the parents love and what we love is that we see things, right? The students are adorable. They're like, "But how did you notice that? They didn't pick that up in my last school." I'm like, "It's not bad that they didn't pick it up in your last school. It's that your last school had 900 kids in it." We have 137 kids, so we things. They're finally accepting that. They're like, "Do you have cameras?" They're so adorable. I'm like, "No, we just watch you, and we hear you." They're adorable.

Emily: Each grade will be about 130?

Principal Jenkins: No. This particularly class was large. I had asked for this initial class to be large with enrollment for a few reasons, because naturally will be attrition, but knowing that Beacon would have loved to stay here but couldn't because they were overcrowded, we did scale back [on enrollment.] We knew that we were going to, so we wanted the first class to be larger, and then each class thereafter will have about 100 students in it. At scale, we'll be at 700. It sounds big, but for a 6 to 12 school, it's a dream, because we have students that would go off to high schools with 3,000 kids in them.

Emily: To a potential parent, why would you come to this school? What are parents looking for?

Principal Jenkins: We guarantee to parents, and parents speak to it now that we know their child well: we really truly provide an academically rigorous environment. All kids are challenged in all classes all day. I have amazing teachers and I know that all principals say that because they do have amazing teachers. I look at myself more as a coach. I have a principal title, but I see myself as more of a teacher leader and coach, and I think that that's been a really good strategy here because it's supportive of teacher development, but I think what the parents see here is that, "Wow, our teachers are accessible. They care about our kids."

Our teachers are in contact with parents, sometimes daily. They'll send out an email blast to parents. We post homework online for kids so that they actually don't have to waste time copying homework that's already up there.

Emily: That's great.

Principal Jenkins: They all have their Google Chromebooks which organizes them, because we know that 6th graders sometimes have difficulty with organization, even adults. When they see the level of instruction that's happening inside classrooms, I think that they are blown away by what the kids are doing, when we let go, and let them do it, as opposed to what you were saying before, that rote stuff, that rote stuff doesn't live here. I think that because we had such a fantastic first year, our incoming class is equally fantastic, and when I say equally fantastic, obviously the kids are awesome, but the parents get it. The parents get what it is that we do here, and they're really supportive of it, which is great.

Emily: Yeah. Well, thank you so much. I can't wait to see what else you do.

Principal Jenkins: Great. Thanks.

Emily: Thank you.

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