Individualism at forefront of Graham School approach

Overlooking the Hudson River, in Hastings on Hudson, sits a unique public school. The outside may appear typical, with two separate buildings, distinguishing the high school from the K-12 school. However, if you were to take a closer look, you would realize that, unlike the unfortunately overcrowded classrooms that plague the majority of public schools, these classrooms are comprised of eight students, one teacher and two teaching assistants. Why the unique classroom composition? This school serves students who require a little extra, specialized attention: students who are in the court system, severely emotionally disturbed, wards of the state, disabled, physically and sexually abused, and students whom, for whatever other reason, have not done well in the traditional public school system.

The Graham School’s motto  —”Because every child deserves a strong, loving family and the opportunity to succeed in school and life”— speaks to the unique, holistic approach this institution takes with regard to education. To serve the needs of its students, The Graham School boasts a wide range of support services, including counselors, psychologists, teaching assistants and teacher’s aides. Some students even have a personal “helper” with them at all hours to monitor their daily activities. The school operates as a 12-month program, which is vital to making the gains to bring most students up to their grade level. Students’ home lives are sometimes less than ideal, so the school and its specialized, yearlong program help ensure the youth are in a safe place with constant supervision, and building the consistency previously lacking in most of the students’ lives.

Kimberly Fazio, a 15-year veteran teacher at Graham, is enthusiastic when she discusses the school’s approach to teaching, calling it a “beautiful model of collaboration.” Fazio spear-headed Graham’s Project-Based Learning Program — though she’s quick to acknowledge its success depends on a “team of teachers” — that boasts a 100 percent graduation rate.

“Many of our students have struggled previously. They were failed by different systems and circumstances,” Fazio explained. “Yet , we are able to build a community of students … a family of teachers and learners. It’s definitely a non-traditional approach but it’s working.”

With this non-traditional approach to the education of its students, it only seems fitting that such an institution would take a similar “one-size-does-not-fit-all” approach when it comes to its staff. This was emphasized during negotiation of the school’s most recent contract with its teaching staff. Vanessa Van Deusen, president of the Graham School Federation of Teachers, a NYSUT local, said that the school’s new contract was historic in this regard.

While previous contracts took a blanket approach when rewarding staff for their hard work and dedication, the new contract looks at each position individually and addresses increases accordingly. It also acknowledges the time invested in the profession, rewarding those who have dedicated extensive time working at Graham which, because of the type of services it provides, has a higher-than-normal turnover rate.

Van Deusen, one of her local’s negotiators, said: “This was important as it rewards those who stay in this difficult profession longer, as opposed to those who are only in it for a short while.”

Negotiating a new contract is not a simple task. In the case of the Graham School, the process took two full years. Members were first be polled to identify the changes they wished to see in the contract; that data was then compiled and analyzed. Once all of that was complete, the initial proposal was drafted.

But local leaders said all the preparation and work was worth it as the contract passed with 95 percent support from members. Van Deusen described the passage rate as historical, saying “typically we are just worried about getting the majority.” She credited her administration, led by Superintendent Amy Goodman, for working with her union. “This contract demonstrates that we care about the work being done and the people doing it.”

(By Jessica Bigbie, a student at Cornell University, who was an intern in NYSUT’s Legislative and Political Action Department over the summer.)

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