Recipe For A New School: Add Great Teachers
The two births that would change everything for Taylor Delhagen were due to occur 24 hours apart. If all went according to plan, his school would come into being one day, followed by his first child the next.
The baby boy's impending arrival had Delhagen contemplating the gravity of his role as a teacher opening a charter high school in one of New York City's poorest neighborhoods: Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Four of the five founding teachers, the 31-year-old Delhagen among them, came together from a nearby charter, where they'd had some success producing high test scores among low-income students. But they had felt stifled in what they see as a more vital task: developing human beings.
Now comes the chance for Delhagen to more freely offer an education he would want for his own son. He's teaching in a community that's just four miles away — but in many ways a world apart — from Brooklyn's gentrified Fort Greene, where rent on his family's two-bedroom apartment just spiked 18 percent.
He and his colleagues were heavily involved in designing Brooklyn Ascend High School. The school year began on Sept. 8, the day before his wife's due date.
Principal Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño spent most of her budget on accomplished, experienced educators, rather than saving money with rookies. She hired just one teacher who is relatively new to the profession, a math teacher starting his third year in the classroom.
Delhagen is teaching social studies. His class looks and feels sometimes like a theatrical production, as he stands on a chair directing charges scurrying about.
His larger goal is to help this school's 66 ninth-graders not just to dodge the life of poverty and crime that surrounds them, but to exercise real choices about their futures. He's keenly aware that each one of these students is someone's child.
But as a new father, he can no longer work until 9 o'clock every night like he did when he started teaching a decade ago. Nor can he get so emotionally invested in his job that he makes himself sick.
Nationally, one of the biggest reasons education is so inferior for students in poor neighborhoods is their schools' inability to keep engaging, effective teachers like Delhagen. Burnout among young, ambitious educators is common in the first few years, especially once they start families of their own.
Jarvis-Cedeño knows that of all her school's innovative elements — from a liberal arts curriculum to a beautiful building to a discipline system stressing character-building over suspension — nothing is possible without excellent teachers.
She is trying to make the job sustainable for them, and for herself as she cares for a husband with cancer. One example: She told Delhagen to take as much paternity leave as he needed.
'Who Are You?'
On Aug. 28, Delhagen was feeling optimistic and surprisingly calm as he decorated his sixth-floor classroom in the restored theater that now houses several charter schools.
He kept his green-cased cell phone by his side should his wife, a middle school English teacher, go into labor early. He planned to take off three days when the baby arrived, and then work half-days for four weeks. ("And you will go home," his principal told him. "Will you really?" his wife asked.)
His lessons were ready for the first 14 days of instruction, all focusing on the danger of studying history from a single perspective, the subject of his research when he did a Fulbright fellowship in India last year. He had a schedule to alternately run and bike to work to stay fit with minimal free time.
Five days later, 18 high school freshmen shuffled tentatively into that room for an orientation activity. "Namaste, everybody," Delhagen said, using a Sanksrit greeting. His arm around a boy taller than he is, he tells the students they have three to four minutes to write answers to the following:
1) What do you want to do with your life?
2) Who are you? Who do you want to be?
3) What do you stand for?
Many students found the first question the easiest. "Shouldn't you know who you are before you know what you want to do?" Delhagen probed them.
Students then received papers listing 60 values, from respect to achievement to adventure, and had to circle the five that meant the most to them. It was the beginning of an extensive process to get students and parents to choose four core values for the school.
Over the summer, the teachers and administrators voted on a fifth value, selecting the option suggested by Delhagen: seva, a Sanskrit term he defined as "joyous service." ("Selfless service" is also a common translation.)
At a planning session in late June, one teacher questioned whether they all can live in joyous service every day.
"Aspire to it," Delhagen replied.
The middle child of a progressive Presbyterian minister and a social worker, Delhagen heard a lot about service growing up in places including Philadelphia and a tiny orchard town outside Rochester, N.Y. At the College of Wooster in Ohio, he majored in political science and international relations and figured he would do Teach For America for two years before pursuing a law career.
One of the students who changed his mind was named Princess. As he taught a unit on the Haitian revolution at a small Brooklyn high school, "she just knew so much more than I did," he said. To be of service, he had to throw himself into teaching wholeheartedly.
By age 23, Delhagen was part of a group of young teachers starting a high school in a chain of so-called "no excuses" charters, with a rigorous discipline code and high academic standards geared toward passing standardized tests. He proved brilliant at preparing his students to score well on tests and was showered in teaching awards, one of which paid for his wedding and honeymoon in Croatia.
But the testing culture felt "dirty," he said, as he was urged to spend too much time teaching students to be quiet. No-excuses discipline could feel ridiculous — wearing black shoes with silver eyelets around the laces violated the uniform standard of solid black, for instance — and he said he saw low-performing students counseled out.
Seeking other opportunities, he met Betsy Olney Goldfarb, the administrator planning the first high school in the small Ascend charter network. She was on the hunt for exceptional teachers interested in providing a broad liberal arts education. Delhagen, who now spends his summers training new teachers for Teach For America and lectures at a graduate school of education, was a prime candidate.
He would be a package deal with his friend Dan Sonrouille, who had taught science alongside him since the founding of their last school. They helped recruit an English teacher and a special education teacher, and signed on together as Sonrouille had just become a father and Delhagen was about to follow suit.
Ups And Downs
On the first day of school, Delhagen had his students assume the role of reporters in Ferguson, Mo., covering the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. They were to construct "tweets" based on photos posted around the classroom. Brown was depicted on camera robbing a convenience store, in his high school cap and gown, and smiling with his family. Depending on which photo was provided to the press, he could be seen as a thug, a scholar or someone's child. The whole truth, students learned, involves multiple points of view.
On the second day of school, the baby did not come. Not on the third or fourth day, either.
That Saturday morning, Tiffany Delhagen went into labor at the farmer's market. She endured 36 hours with no pain medication before giving birth on Sept. 13 to 7-pound, 3-ounce Rumi Miles Delhagen.
In a haze of love and sleep deprivation, the new father worried he'd been overly ambitious about returning to work. He went in to brief a substitute, one of the school's two administrators, when Rumi was just three days old, but otherwise took a week and a half off. The birth coincided with school closures for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so he missed just four instructional days.
"Whew. This parenthood-teacher thing is no joke," he wrote in an email on his first day back on a half-day schedule, teaching his three world history classes in the morning but using substitutes for an afternoon character seminar and yoga elective.
He returned full time Oct. 20 to a staff jolted by an unexpected setback: The math teacher had quit after being threatened at a corner store near the school on his lunch break. The school's second administrator is now teaching math until the principal finds the right fit for the job.
In February, Delhagen is scheduled to moderate a panel on teacher retention at Teach For America's 25th anniversary conference in Washington. People often ask him when he's going to become a principal or do something else. Teaching is fun, he says, and it's his calling. Why would he leave?
Yet in the evenings, as he finds himself typing lesson plans on a laptop with one hand and holding Rumi with the other, he wonders how he can handle both roles well.
He wants to be fully present for his son, to challenge him as he challenges his students, to teach him to be kind to others. At school he can't wait for his wife's text messages with photos and videos capturing the moments he's missing.
And while he could get by spending far fewer hours than he does planning lessons and preparing class materials, he won't let up on himself there, either. For other people's children, he can demand no less.
This is Part Two of our series by Sara Neufeld of the Hechinger Report exploring the launch of a charter high school in Brooklyn. Tomorrow: A mother turns to a new high school to conquer teenage apathy. This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
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