CREATING A UNIQUE PATH TO LEADERSHIP

TBCBShermanA Conversation with Ben Sherman, Founding Principal
East-West School of International Studies, Flushing, New York

THE BREAKTHROUGH COACH: Your career has followed an unusual path – one that even you didn’t foresee when you graduated from college. Can you tell us about it?

BEN SHERMAN: When I graduated from Queens College in 1986 (with a degree in education and linguistics), I thought I would go to Israel and start a kibbutz. Instead, I ended up in China, where I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) for a year; I moved to Japan, where I stayed for 11 years. While I was there, I earned an M.A. in Education from Temple University’s Japan campus. I returned to the U.S. in 1998.

TBC: Did you go directly into education?

BS: No. My deep interest in technology led me to work for a tech start-up company as a computer network engineer. I missed teaching, though, so I began teaching ESL to academically struggling kids at a school on the Lower East Side of New York. My principal suggested that I attend the New York City Leadership Academy and become certified as a school principal, which I did.

TBC: How did the idea for the East-West School begin?

BS: My professional experience had led me to believe that combining knowledge of technology with a thorough understanding of Asian cultures could play a major role in our society’s success. I wrote a concept paper for a grade 6-12 school that would focus on those areas and would be designed to work intensively with students over a seven-year continuum. All students would study Chinese, Japanese or Korean for 1 period every day, interact with sister schools in China and Japan, and – at the high school level – study computer programming through a partnership with Microsoft. The concept was approved by the Gates Foundation and by the City of New York Department of Education. The East-West School of International Studies (EWSIS) opened in 2006. By 2009, we were at full capacity with 650 students in grades 6 through 12.

TBC: Do you have a diverse student population?

BS: In many ways, yes. Our students are ethnically diverse, but nearly all are economically disadvantaged: 55% are Asian, 35% Hispanic, 15% African-American, and 3% Caucasian and Native American; with 92% qualifying for the Federal free or reduced-price lunch program.

TBC: When – and why – did you begin working with TBC?

BS: The principal in any school – but especially one like ours with such a unique approach to education – needs to build a positive, supportive and collaborative culture among students, teachers and the community. In order to do that, the principal has to be in the classrooms and accessible. At the beginning, however, the demands on my time made that very difficult. I was working 12-18 hour days, 7-day weeks. During the first year, I took a total of 1 vacation day!

I attended my first TBC 2-Day Program during the 2006-2007 school year. I realized at once that TBC’s Management Methodology™ was the way for me to fulfill my vision for EWSIS, but I wasn’t ready for full implementation. I went back to another 2-Day Program (I’ve been back a total of 5 times now), and have implemented more and more of the methodology every year. It’s an ongoing process for me, requiring continuous reinforcement. Now, I take my full vacation and never bring work home.

TBC: In the Principal’s Letter on your school’s website, you mention your “open door policy” and the problem of coping with the “minutia” of your job. How do those things work within the TBC Management Methodology™?

BS: I have an “open-door policy”, but not an open door. I will see anyone, but they need to make an appointment through my secretary. I still struggle some with the minutia – managing e-mail being my biggest challenge – but I’ve set-up an auto-reply explaining that I only review e-mail on a very limited basis. I have a daily morning meeting with my secretary to manage all the incoming communication and requests for appointments. TBC’s Management Methodology™ allows me to focus on what my job really is: fostering student success.

TBC: Has TBC’s Management Methodology™ helped you to build support for the changes you needed to make?

BS: TBC helped me to take a step back and look ahead at where I want my school to be, I have been able to make multi-year plans so that there are continuous incremental changes. We’ve also worked to build a community culture: members of my staff conduct evening and Saturday parent workshops in Chinese, Spanish and English.

TBC: EWSIS is a very unusual and innovative school, and a successful one. What are some of the indicators of that success?

BS: We’re proud of our success, and grateful to TBC’s Management Methodology™ for helping us achieve it:

  • Our average daily attendance rate is 93%
  • Last year we had only 10 in-school suspensions, and no out-of-school suspensions
  • 95% of the students in our high school cohort graduate on time
  • 98% of our graduates go on to post-secondary education
  • Our graduates receive an average total of $950,000 in one-year college scholarships

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