Building True Community Schools- An interview with Luis Torres
Posted by SusanHorowitz
February 07, 2012, 2:35 am
The introduction to the new citywide instructional expectations for the 2011-2012 school year begins, "To successfully prepare all students, including students with disabilities and English language learners, for life after high school, teachers need to create cognitively demanding learning experiences in their classrooms every day.” Behind this seemingly straightforward expectation is the overwhelming responsibility that each New York City teacher faces of turning one of the most diverse populations in the country into a cohesive community of learners that is ready to face these cognitively demanding learning tasks.
Every teacher and school community feels a responsibility to challenge students cognitively while developing ethical, honest, safe, respectful and caring citizens who are able to take risks, think critically, problem-solve and understand the value of civic responsibility. But schools cannot be expected to achieve this purpose alone. Schools must first work to form a united front: a community of students, teachers, families, and community-based workers, which has one common goal. This may seem to be beyond the scope of a school’s mandate, but students cannot be properly served if they are not first provided with a sense of stability and community.
Luis Torres, the principal of P.S. 55 in the Bronx and ASCD educator of the year, has lived with this goal in mind every day for the past seven years. Torres often explains that he does not want his school “to be an oasis surrounded by a dried out dessert,” but rather a part of a successful and thriving community. Given that P.S. 55 is, according to Torres, located in the number one crime area and third most impoverished neighborhood in the city, this is not a small goal.
Torres has a worked hard to equip his school with the tools the community needs to thrive. Through a process that Torres calls community matching, he has worked to analyze clearly the needs of the school and the surrounding community. He then reaches out to organizations that can help meet the identified needs. Through community matching initiatives, Torres has brought his school a playground, a media center and library, a community computer center, a sports museum, iPods, new computers, SMART equipment, tutoring, weekend language classes, music programs, a mentoring program, a health clinic, and much more, all without added expense to the school.
He explains that it is not difficult for schools to form beneficial partnerships, as long as school leaders know where to look for support and what to say to potential community partners. There are several offices within the Department of Education (DOE) that are designed to help schools form successful community partnership. Torres suggests that principals and school leadership team members looking to strengthen community relationships start by reaching out to the Office of Strategic Partnerships, which works to marry schools to organizations that will meet a community or school need.
However, he warns that relying on the DOE to find partnerships is not enough. A good school leader is able to find potential partners and market his or her school. When Torres wanted a SMART table for his school, he asked the company to provide one for free. In exchange, Torres promised to allow potential SMART customers to come see the tool in action. When Torres was using federal funding to shop for an afterschool tutoring program for his students, he shopped among several companies before he found one that would be willing to provide an additional service of free tutoring during the day. None of the companies had ever had a free daytime tutoring service, but in order to obtain Torres’ after school business, one company was willing to design a daytime program just for P.S. 55. He also arranged for this company to put its logo on the school uniform, as long as the company bought those uniforms for the students.
Sometimes, there is nothing tangible Torres can offer a potential partner, but that does not stop him. When it comes to forming relationships in the corporate world, Torres is willing to market himself; he says that “nothing I do benefits me personally and I am willing to beg for my kids.” So, he shares what he fondly refers to as his “sad story.” He tells about growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in the Bronx and having no options open to him. He explains that he had to join the army just to get an education. “I put a lot of guilt on people. There’s no reason for this community to be the way it is,” he says. He tells potential partners about the embarrassment that all New Yorkers should feel when they look at the neighborhood he works in and see that no one has been able to make any lasting change there; it has always been one of the poorest and neediest. He explains that they have an opportunity to leave a legacy and make a difference in the future of New York. He tells investors that if they invest in this neighborhood he will make sure that the students set goals to make the neighborhood a better place. This type of marketing has worked to form some of P.S. 55’s most successful partnerships. Torres has formed a partnership with Steiner Sports that has given his school a sports museum, new funding and equipment, and allowed his students to meet some of the most successful athletes in the tri-state area. He has also brought one-on-one interactive technology mentoring into his school, using this technique.
Beyond working with companies, Torres must form relationships with influential community members. When he began offering Saturday family literacy programs for African families in his neighborhood, he could not understand why no one was attending. As it turned out, Torres said, parents could not attend tutoring because they needed to be at mosque. Torres quickly sought out the local imam, and together they agreed upon a way that parents could balance weekend tutoring and religious duties. The program now services about forty families. When Torres realized how many of his families had cases with Administration for Child Services (ACS), he had ACS open an office in his school. When he saw that attendance was suffering because students and their families had to spend large parts of the day traveling to reach the nearest dental and medical clinics, he formed a partnership with Montefiore Hospital to open a medical, and soon mental and dental, clinic in his school.
Torres is proud of the work he does with his school, but admits that it is not yet enough. He says he stays at P.S. 55, because the way the country forgets about his students “is a social injustice” and “politicians are not being held accountable.” He says that “no matter whose kids they are, they are all our kids,” and he will know he is successful when these kids are able to leave the neighborhood, get an education, and then come back to make the community a better place.
Come hear Torres speak about his community school and ask him questions about his community initiatives at the LinkEducation expo on March 10th at 10am at NYU Kimmel Center (60 Washington Square South). LinkEducation is here to help parents and schools find programs to better their children’s education. Like Torres, LinkEducation believes that it takes building partnerships and strengthening the whole community to improve our schools. SAVE THE DATE! For more information and to RSVP visit the K-12 Education Expo page.