How things start

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A friend wiser than I in the ways of organizations is convinced that the way things start leaves an indelible mark on how they turn out. Whatever we do, we always try to get off on the right foot, whether it’s a first date, the first honeymoon night, a first day at work, the beginning of a novel or the launch of a new coffee shop. But the question that my friend’s axiom has left me to ponder over the years is whether there can be life after a bad start, whether the effects of a troubled launch are ineradicable, virtually impossible to overcome. Sports teams come back from way down to steal victories. Recently, a former student from my Houston years reminded me of the dark day (for Houstonians) when the Buffalo Bills overcame a 38-point deficit to defeat the now defunct Houston Oilers. And we’re all familiar with the well-worn movie formula of Boy Meets Girl. Boy Hates Girl. The Feeling is Mutual. Boy and Girl Fall in Love and Marry.  Why can’t an organization or an individual act similarly and catapult itself out of a deep hole it has dug for itself at the opening bell of a new enterprise?

Recently, the board of Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS), the holder of the charter for the Quest School, announced that the school would be closing because of low performance and low enrollment. There were protests from parents, staff and from the Chicago Teachers Union. (Quest was one of several unionized charter schools under CICS control.) But it looks like the deed is done and the school will close. Although my connections with Quest ended several years ago, I was involved with its work for its first four or five years. I was a regular presence in the building, both as a mentor and thought partner to some of the teachers and administrators, and for a year as a literacy coach.

Quest intrigued me because of its initial commitment to a unique approach to learning through what they called “gamification,” a bold attempt to try something different from standard teaching practice which wasn’t serving a lot of students well. I also had strong bonds to the staff, some of whom were my former students and colleagues.

By the time I left Quest, so much of the original vision had been abandoned and most of the teachers and administrators to whom I was attached were gone or about to leave. I sat down to try to make sense of what had gone wrong and whether anything could have been done to halt and reverse its unraveling. This piece, in an earlier version, was the result. It has marinated in my computer for several years because it didn’t feel right to contribute to the struggles of an institution that was still breathing. Now that the story is almost over, there’s no longer any reason to exercise restraint. Many people who have continued to be part of Quest in these last years could add more details, but I’m guessing that what they have to say wouldn’t change the arc of the story very much because, as I argue here, its fate was sealed almost from the beginning.

               I’m sure examples of magical turnarounds abound, but my own experience is heavy with situations where the outcome is virtually fixed from the outset. In spite of later Herculean efforts to scratch and claw up from the edge of the abyss, as the courageous climbers of Yosemite’s sheer rock face do, the precipitous fall to the valley floor below is almost inevitable.

Since I’ve lived most of my work life in and around schools, those are the examples that come most easily to mind. How many times as a school director and as a teacher educator have I seen novice teachers make the rookie mistakes they’ve been warned against? Like adolescents determined to shrug off advice from their elders or prove incapable of acting on, they have to make their own mistakes, and, as a result, dig a deep beginner’s hole – trying hard to be friends with their students, not being clear about behavioral expectations, not building consistent routines and rituals, etc.  With rare exceptions, all is lost for that year, but the good news is that Year Two offers a fresh start, and the best advice one can offer the suffering beginner is to take careful notes about lessons learned that can be applied to next year’s start, which almost always yields better results.

               Unfortunately, there appear to be fewer second chances for organizations and institutions. Sometimes the poor starts are the result of bad decisions by the founders, and sometimes they are a consequence of circumstances and decisions forced on them          

               I wasn’t present at the birth of Quest, a proposed 6-12 school, based on principles of game design and systems theory, modeled after a school in NYC called Quest for Learning, but I did start visiting soon after it opened. In contrast to other new charter schools, Quest was operating out of what was, by comparison, a pretty posh location. CPS had given the school a whole building, formerly the home of a neighborhood school which had closed when the public housing development it served was torn down. Although it lacked a gym, it was otherwise a fairly recent construction and was ready for occupancy without any renovations. In fact, in Year 3, CPS even built for Quest an annex to house the high school grades it was about to add.

               So, the startup problems the school experienced, and continued to struggle with, were largely of its own making, apart from the school’s recruitment problems, resulting from its location in an overserved area of declining population. This problem did not surface at the outset because the unique educational model it offered drew students from many parts of the city, so the initial enrollment numbers were robust.

               The cause for the rough start lay elsewhere. The New York school on which Quest was modeled served a very different population from the one that arrived at the Chicago location. In NY, it included the likes of the children of the actor Daniel Day Lewis. Here it was a disproportionate number of students performing below grade level, some of whom were accustomed to settling their disagreements physically. The administration of the school was recruited from suburban schools where the challenges of urban schooling seemed light years away. As a result, there was little planning to address the desperate deficiencies in reading that made it difficult for students to benefit from the richness of the systems design/game theory focus of the curriculum. In addition, many of the students came from trauma-riddled communities, the effects of which were evident in their behavior – anger, sudden aggressive outbursts, mistrust, difficulties focusing on work for any length of time.

The result was a perfect storm of academic and behavioral problems that overwhelmed the founding leadership, which resigned in the face of discontent by staff and parents. Two subsequent administrations failed to right the ship, leading the staff to resort to organizing a unionization vote in the hopes that by having a voice in the school’s decision-making they could create some stability and clarity about the school‘s direction, without which teachers find it difficult to work effectively. Teachers are the ultimate bourgeois citizens, hungry for order, stability and predictability as the basic components of sustainable community.

               The leadership at the time I left, the school’s fourth in four years was more successful in providing some semblance of order to the daily life of the school, but the residual effects of early missteps lingered. (I know second-hand that there have been other subsequent leadership changes, accompanied by cascading changes of direction.) Large numbers of families from throughout the city who flocked to the school at the outset departed, resulting in staff cuts which were sure to continue to grow in the coming years.

               There was a promising time when the first 9th grade class moved into the new annex. That separation provided a golden opportunity to create a new culture, unburdened by the dysfunction that hung as a dark cloud over the main building. But the following year, a new leadership made an ill-advised decision to return those classes to the main building where all the gains that had been made sank with little trace. Good, hard working professionals tried their best to provide students with the education they deserved in the face of crippling instability. There were poetry readings, community service projects, creative experiments in the use of technology, serious attempts to tackle The Great Gatsby, attempts to replace the dizzying number of suspensions and expulsions with restorative justice practices and, yes, even attempts to infuse the curriculum with gamification strategies.  But they never quite managed to overcome the sins of the fathers and return the school to an upward trajectory.

               The battle for unionization was bitter and sapped much of the remaining idealism that drove the staff. By the time the unionization vote succeeded, most of the leadership of that campaign had decamped and their replacements had neither the commitment nor the experience to take advantage of the new voice it could have provided.

               The decreasing student population opened unused space in the building, which CPS then allotted to a new campus of the Noble Street schools. This powerful organization which operated more than 20 campuses around the city was eager to gain a foothold in a new part of town, and the Quest staff assumed with good reason that this was the beginning of the death spiral for the original occupants who would eventually take over the whole building. Because of the harsh behavioral management system of demerits, fines and expulsions, the Noble Street students looked so much more presentable and focused. In response, one of the revolving door administrations at Quest decided to adopt policies that resembled those of Noble Street, including dropping the core commitment to gaming and systems theory. This robbed Quest of its original reason for being. It is a wonder that the school survived as long as it did. Painful as it is for me to say, the school should have closed several years ago.

               So, we return to the question with which we began. Could Quest have overcome its bad start? As Americans we are programmed to believe that all problems can be solved with a combination of hard work and ingenuity. The returns may not be in on that belief yet, but we can defer judgment on the question of whether we are doomed by a bad start, by doing everything in our power to insure a good one. In the case of schools, it means investing thought and resources from their inception into building a cohesive and caring community, responsive to the needs of the students and families it serves. Beyond that we are hostages to the capricious acts the Gods may subject us to. Quest never managed to recover from its unfortunate launch and every subsequent attempt to right the ship left its hull even more damaged. The announced closing marks an end to what might have been a glorious experiment.

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Marv Hoffman

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