Breakdowns and Breakthroughs

How my schools vision and core values served me as a leader

Julie Goldstein, Principal, Breakthrough Magnet School

Successful school design depends on collaboratively creating a vision and a mission that includes voices representing all stakeholder groups and reflects the organization’s core values which in turn drives not only drives the design of systems and structures, but when aligned with the leader’s personal motivation, also serves as a guide in the development of innovation as well as during challenging times.   

Breakthrough Magnet School is a pre-k- 8th grade interdistrict magnet school in Hartford, Connecticut whose theme is Character Education. Placing equal importance of personal development with academic success has provided our staff, students, families and partners with curriculum, instructional approaches, assessment methods and enrichment opportunities.  Breakthrough is truly a Global School for Students of Character, serving 360 students, half of whom reside in Hartford, and half from surrounding towns, from over 20 different countries of origin.  75% of our students identify as Black or Latino, 65% live in homes whose incomes fall below the poverty line, and roughly 15% receive special education services.  15% of our students qualify for English Language Learner instruction and over half our students speak a language other than English at home.   The mission of Breakthrough Magnet School is for staff, families, and community members of diverse backgrounds to work in partnership, developing students as models of outstanding character. Using a unique character education curriculum that uses the acronym, B.R.I.C.K.©, students learn how to see challenges as opportunities by changing breakdowns to Breakthroughs, taking personal Responsibility for being the author of our lives, having Integrity by keeping our commitments, approaching situations with an attitude of Contribution, and maintaining a growth mindset by developing our Knowledge of academic and social skills.  Breakthrough Magnet’s vision is that character development permeates our broad-based instruction, providing students with academic rigor through project-based learning aesthetic appreciation, technological expertise, and physical expressiveness, aimed at contributing to others.  At Breakthrough we celebrate our global community and our students’ lives are marked by vitality, effectiveness, health, and well-being.  

Starting with day one of my six years as a school leader here, the vision and mission which perfectly aligns with my professional raison d’etre, to place personal development at the same level of importance with academics to ensure that one day all students have access to an excellent education,  has provided the backdrop and in some cases acted as a map to guide my decision making and it what I credit with all of our school’s successes, ranging from a 10%  increase over each of the past four years in students’ academic proficiency, to 95% of our students demonstrating proficiency in their own personal character development, and an overall school climate that is best described as nurturing and ambitious.  

Because of my commitment to our mission, its alignment with my personal values, and as a result of my earliest training with Teach for America, virtually everything I see and do is through the BRICK and TFA lens.  As we do when teaching academic skills, I think aloud with students and staff about what areas of BRICK apply to situations for the benefit of all students. We use the core values to strengthen ourselves to lean harder as Contributors or to build Knowledge, or accept Responsibility for our perceptions or to improve our Integrity by watching our words or making sure our actions align with our words.  We also change Breakdowns to Breakthroughs. And what I hope to inspire, is how this area in our mission and the core components have contributed to the course correcting actions taken when the outcomes of one initiative threatened to go terribly wrong. Because failure is not an option.

What is important is not what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens to us.  Jean Paul Sartre

One of my SLCoP bold initiatives for 2017 was created as a solution to students’ requests each year to start a high school.  Since the magnet school market is saturated and there is no need for new schools, my idea was to create a pathway for a large group of graduates from Breakthrough Magnet School to attend high school together, creating the first high school BRICK Advisory Group, who could formally and informally continue to engage in Breakthrough Magnet School’s Core Values by meeting monthly with Breakthrough Magnet Teachers and Leaders.  To set this up, I first met with our teachers, then with students, took a vote, and sent communications out to parents to let them know we were moving forward.

A Breakthrough Magnet student on the morning of her graduation wrote herself a pass and smiling, handed it to her teacher, Mr. Field, saying “this is the last pass you will need to write for me.”

A Breakthrough Magnet student on the morning of her graduation wrote herself a pass and smiling, handed it to her teacher, Mr. Field, saying “this is the last pass you will need to write for me.”

When I proposed this idea to the principal of the school we had identified about a mile away, she was excited because her school was growing and she anticipated needing to recruit three times as many students as in past years.  She also loves our students as individuals because of the personal development they bring with them to high school in the form of self confidence and student engagement in the classroom and in extra curriculars.  As a next step we arranged a field trip for prospective students to explore the high school and meet with administration.  Finally, the principal and I let the magnet school coordinators know about our plan, including the exact names of the students who had made this high school their first choice.  In other words, it appeared we had done everything right.  Everything except put specific expectations in writing and developing  a contingency plan, to name two ideas that come quickly to mind.  

There are no words to describe the huge shock to us all when the first lottery round took place and none of our students were selected for this particular high school.  After many different communications, we came to learn that the needs of the high school of focus had changed and that no new students would be selected for the freshman year.  There were no explanations as to why the plan changed or why there was no communication with me to let me know in advance.  Regardless, there was nothing that could be done to reverse that moment.  In other words- speaking for everyone involved, this was a breakdown of epic proportions; once you enter the school lottery, your choices are locked in and there is no way to change your selected schools.  It was a done deal with no apparent alternatives.  

After the emotional dust of shock, anger, mixed with some despair and regret settled, we had two choices- either stay stuck or get to work to find a new solution.  Together we explored our options, and learned that although there was no way to negotiate a different outcome in the magnet lottery, the vocational high school directly across the street was still accepting applications for incoming freshmen.  And not only that, this particular school had expressed interest in working with Breakthrough to help them add Mindfulness to their school’s program.  Presented with their available options, all of the students affected by the breakdown either sought a home district option or in most cases, applied and were accepted to this vocational high school. Having the mission mindset kept us focused on doing whatever we could for our students, within our control.  Now not only will our graduating class stay together, they will be just across the street in a school that sees us as having more to offer than just  our amazing students.  We are looking forward to helping them implement Mindfulness in their ninth grade and hopefully creating the advisory program we had initially come up with.  Whatever, we do, I think it best that I make it my personal mission to formalize this next plan in writing.