Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

A Playbook for Responsive School Leadership

By Rodney Fisher — November 10, 2015 4 min read

As the founding principal of New York City’s Marie Curie High School for Medicine, Nursing, and Health Professions, my mission is to make sure that our students receive an academically rigorous education, preparing them for college and successful health-related careers in our communities. We strongly believe that students can learn and reach their full potential through the use of engaging and effective teaching and learning techniques, accompanied by viable resources to support their learning.

Marie Curie High School, or MCHS, is located in the Kingsbridge section of the North Bronx. The current population is 572 students, 108 male and 464 female. Of those, 116 students receive special related services, and 53 are English-language learners. The ethnic breakdown is 330 Hispanic, 194 black, 18 white, seven Native American, seven Asian, nine Pacific Islander, three Hawaiian/Philippine Islands, and four “other” or multiracial. Our school participates in the universal-meal program, in which all students receive free breakfast, lunch, and snacks. All of our students are classified as economically disadvantaged.

Rodney Fisher, the founding principal of the Marie Curie High School for Medicine, Nursing, and Health Professions, poses for a portrait inside the New York City school.

As an educator for the past 22 years, 11 of them as principal of MCHS, I have recognized the challenge of keeping the school’s mission and vision at the forefront of our strategies for effective teaching and learning. This challenge began in earnest in 2009, when levels of student accountability for both New York state and the city were increased to focus more on students’ academic progress.

As the accountability for student progress rose, some teachers began to put more emphasis on teacher-centered instruction and preparing students to pass standardized exams, and spent less time trying to engage students in higher-order thinking. This instructional shift contributed to students’ disengagement in school, leading a substantial number of 9th graders to seek transfers at the end of their first year. They felt that they were not only failing to receive an education that truly engaged them, but also were missing out on a program that fully and deeply prepared them for the medical and health professions.

These transfer numbers were a red-flag indicator that we were moving away from the mission and vision of our school. One way that I addressed the problem was to administer surveys to our students to gather constructive feedback about academic programs and school culture. I also instituted weekly grade-level student focus groups to stimulate a dialogue about the students’ concerns. After collecting and analyzing the resulting data, we shared the findings with the school community, both staff and students.

Then, as a community, we worked in grade-level and subject-department groups to brainstorm ideas and implement new academic, social, and emotional strategies that will keep our mission and vision at the forefront of teaching and learning.

The students and faculty who advise the principal participate in a CPR training class, from left to right: Jessica Román, a senior; April Colon, a senior; Peta-Gaye Williams, assistant principal; and Diamond Joseph, college counselor.

One result of these meetings was the formation of a school wellness committee, made up of administrators, teachers, students, and parents. The committee’s goal is to continue to support teachers with the provision of medical and health resources and topics for interdisciplinary instruction.

We also created a food-partnership committee, which informs the community about the nutritional value of food served to students and addresses concerns about the food and service. This committee has instituted a salad bar, provided more fresh fruits, and included vegetarian meals on the menu. Since these improvements, there has been an increase in the number of students eating meals in school, something that no doubt gives them the energy needed to be active learners in their classes.

The school has also expanded partnerships with organizations that support our academic programs, extracurricular components, and experiential learning.

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One of these partnerships includes Lehman College’s nursing department, which provides graduate nursing students to co-teach classes with our health teacher. These health courses support students in researching medical and health topics, as well as in organizing a student-led health fair each semester.

We also partnered with Teachers College, Columbia University, professor Christopher Emdin, who collaborates with our science teachers and students on the Science Genius Program, one of whose features is integrating science topics with hip-hop. During staff professional development, teachers work together to create interdisciplinary units, lesson plans, and common assessments that integrate medical and health topics with the content of all subject areas.

Likewise, we have strengthened partnerships with New York University’s Mini-Meds program, Montefiore Hospital’s Mentoring in Medicine program, and Jewish Home and Hospital’s internship program.

Our Mini-Meds program provides students with the opportunity to shadow physicians and interns during their rounds at NYU. The Mentoring in Medicine program assigns a physician from Montefiore Hospital to the school to teach an advanced biology course, in which students participate in biology labs and take field trips to various health facilities. Our Jewish Home and Hospital internship begins in the sophomore year and lasts three years. Students intern in the geriatrics unit of the hospital, working with the nurses to care for the patients. Students also receive tutoring, SAT-prep courses, and classes for exams to become certified nursing assistants, pharmaceutical assistants, and emergency medical technicians.

Through working collaboratively with all members of our school community to address students’ needs, and by broadening the reach and scope of our partnerships, we’ve made MCHS’ mission and vision once again the focal point of our instruction and school culture.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as I Put Our Mission Front and Center

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