The Class of 2016 commencement this spring marked the end of a period in the life of this school dedicated to the growth and development of the High School.
For the many of us who have been a part of this, it has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience and opportunity. What comes next will be just as important to the life and health of the school, but it will be different.
The commencement ceremony was certainly about the 64 members of the founding class, yet this momentous occasion also allows us to reflect on the contributions of the many in the creation of the high school. In 2006, the High School was a glimmer in the eye of a few trustees. One in particular, Sally Hines, persistently ensured that the possibility of a high school was included in the Long Range Plan of 2006. By the spring of 2007, we had teams following up on the Long Range Plan. One team visited schools and developed our organizing principles. Another searched for space, another to find financing and fundraising. We conducted focus groups of current families. This was not a lonely pursuit but a group project. Out first potential building was a parking garage on 11th street, now luxury condos.
A global financial crisis in 2008 changed the landscape and oddly made things easier. During VIP Day in 2009, GCS parent Scott Sabbagh invited me to walk down to 38-50 Cooper Square to look at a building. It was a gorgeous May day. As we walked through the basement methadone clinic and above NYU classroom space, the dream of its vast potential immediately began to form. As one of our trustees said, it was the “Sun and the Moon and the Stars.” If we were going to create a high school, this was the place and therefore this was the time.
Now we had to find the money. Chair of the Board of Trustees at the time, Doug Evans, kept the naysayers at bay. Elyce and Andy Arons signed on as Capital Campaign Co-Chairs along with Miyoung Lee and Gerrity and Patricia Lansing and, working in concert with Development Director Joyce Kuh, brought credibility to the effort. Ellen Jewett and Ashley Leeds built the financing alongside Chief Financial Officer Frank Kamenar. It took a year of negotiating with landlords, banks and ourselves, but in the fall of 2010 we got the go sign. Sara Queen was instrumental in leading the construction effort.
Hugo Mahabir was waiting in the wings. He had been watching us from afar; he and I met even before we knew for sure that we were moving forward. In September of 2011, Hugo came aboard as Division Head, and we had a staff of five plus me for what we called “Year Zero.” We also had 80 professionals at 86 Fourth Avenue who were back stopping the whole thing and helping in every way they could.
When we interviewed eighth graders who might compose the class of 2016, we had next to nothing—a construction site, some iPads and a lot of ideas. We held open houses where the newly hired dean of faculty, arvind grover, played the student and demonstrated making sourdough bread. I made up March Madness projects on the spot from passions of prospective students. Dana Foote kept spirits high, Camilla Campbell and Woody Loverude kept us organized, and we borrowed our JK-8 teachers to help on revisit days.
At the end of my regular admissions talk, I spoke about who would be right for this school and this class. I would say, “We need people who are willing to do the harder thing, not the easier thing. It is harder to be a creator than a follower, and at the end of the day, it is so much more satisfying to be a creator. To be the one who created the writers’ coalition, to be the one who created the dance ensemble, to be the one who created the student government. When people ask you how you would make your school better, you will be able to tell them how you built it.” We invited them to join us in creation, and they did.
When the class of 2016 said “Yes!” in March of 2012, we had a dynamic dean, a top-notch college counselor and that was all, so we had to go looking for teachers. Happily, what we found was that there were plenty of people who agreed that there had to be a better way to navigate education across the rolling seas of adolescence. That joy, engagement and passion should be at the center of the process of self-realization. They agreed with us that teenagers are stronger when they collaborate to build a healthy learning community and culture. Outstanding teachers even took pay cuts to join us because they believed in what we were doing. The JK-8 faculty helped too, by ensuring that the growing faculty knew our mission and understood our community.
We started our first ninth grade class just as the construction dust was settling—59 students strong. Being a high school student is not easy. It is a time full of challenges, difficulties and pressure. It is also a time of huge cognitive development and self-realization. There is so much to learn about the world and yourself. There are a wealth of expectations and no clear guarantees that you will meet them. High School students enter a school as children and leave as young adults.
As is said at the Passover Seder, if that is all this group had done, “Dayennu,” it would have been enough, but we asked this group to do more. They were asked to help build a community and an institution. They built it joyfully, and they took it seriously. They were asked to partner with us as we navigated the journey, and they took that seriously too. They were not shy about telling me when they disagreed with me, and I respected them for it. They responded when we reminded them about their special responsibility as founders. They absorbed our mistakes and growing pains knowing that that was part of the challenge of being a builder.
Our vision quickly became a reality: a year-long independent project for sophomores called “March Madness”; 80-minute class periods in rotating blocks; a full-day for exploration and self-directed study on Wednesday Lab Day; the Writing Center and Math and Science Center as focal points for student growth and learning; and, critically, that this should be a community where a school breaks out. Students took seriously the call to take on a rigorous course of traditional academic studies, while diving deeply into the subjects and issues that move them and fuel their passions. They created new theater productions, choreographed original dances, made visual art that received national acclaim, and learned to swing in Jazz Ensemble. Student-athletes built varsity programs that won league championships.
Word got out. Applications to the high school and all the grades grew dramatically each year, as families from all over New York City and even New Jersey heard about the growing high school.
It took a great deal of good will and belief from the adults in the community. Parents trusted us. Faculty kept looking for the right way to support the students. It was not just on the academic end that people put their shoulders to the wheel. We refinanced the whole school and secured a tax abatement for 46 Cooper Square through the hard work of Denise Shirley. We built a new floor in our second year. We continued to create and design right through the end of our very first prom this June.
Now it is done - they have graduated. The community built a school. Each person contributed and was crucial to our success. For all of us--the students, families, faculty, staff and trustees--it has been harder to be a creator than a follower, but I think we can safely say it has been infinitely more satisfying. In fact, I say that it has been thrilling.