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On April 16, 2014, the Syracuse City School District board of education voted to close Fowler High School, and moments later to found the Public Service Leadership Academy (PSLA) in its place. Fowler High School had graduated between 28% and 31% of its student cohort for the past decade, was labeled as a persistently failing school under the No Child Left Behind Act, and when it repeatedly failed to make adequate yearly progress was closed by the State of New York. Located in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the state, Fowler High School served students with intense needs. They spoke 40 different languages, required substantial special education supports, and were raised in extreme poverty. PSLA would come to serve the same community and the same children.

For a few months I wondered who would be given the opportunity to bring change to a school and a community that had faced failure and disenfranchisement for generations. I was in my fifth year as founding principal of a small technical school, the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central, that was weeks away from graduating its third class. It would be later confirmed that this student cohort achieved a graduation rate of 86%; higher than many of our suburban counterparts, and approximately twice the district average. I was proud of what our school family had achieved, and I was looking forward to building upon a new tradition of academic and technical excellence. I did not have to wait long. On June 16, I was asked by the superintendent to lead the Public Service Leadership Academy as its first principal, and on July 1, I was appointed by the school board. Our only barrier to success was to envision what, to most, appeared unimaginable.

The district had great hopes for PSLA. Maggie Mcrobbie-Taru, my vice principal, and I began in a small office on the second floor in an isolated wing of Fowler High School surrounded by a community that was grieving for the loss of its school, and angered by miscommunication as to what this new school would hold for them professionally and for the children they educated. As we founded a new program we would collaborate with a 3-year corresponding phase out of Fowler. We began with a vision of developing and implementing 11 career and technical education (CTE) programs to which students from across the district would choose to apply. The CTE programs were divided into three academies: first responder, cyber engineering, and entrepreneurship. Students would explore each academy option during their ninth-grade year, and beginning in 10th grade they would select a program of focus. Academic coursework would be integrated into their program, where activities such as job shadows, fieldtrips, and volunteer opportunities would infuse the student's chosen area of study. The end objective was to provide students with a challenging academic program, in collaboration with various public, private, and higher education partners. We began with a charge to become the premier technical high school in the country, but in reality we began with nothing. We were dream rich and resource poor.

Preliminary discussions about building PSLA began by defining our guiding principles. We began to formulate the values of a neophyte school by pulling from the philosophical work of Ken Strike's school community theory (SCT) and Randall Curren's developmental liberalism. School community theory teaches us that community is a necessary condition for societal norms, as well as encouraging us to not singularly focus on economic utility as the primary educational aim. To establish this community a common purpose is paramount; schools must become communities of purpose (Strike, 2010). A strong aspect of establishing this community is how we define its intellectual values. Strike calls for an intellectual community that is more concerned with human flourishing than with human capital. It is the appreciation of human creativity, discovery, and discourse of ideas, where good schools teach students how to use their minds. They view what they teach as practices, with an emphasis on authentic teaching. "They see academic subjects as human activities--things people do together; when students learn a subject, they are initiated into a community of practice" (Strike, 2010, p. 12). As such we should lessen our attachment to comprehensive schools, where we traditionally focus on students trying "everything." Instead SCT demands that schools emphasize a common experience for students; a method to bring students together, that in most cases establishes a particular theme or curricular focus (Strike, 2010).

Developmental liberalism, defined by philosopher Randall Curren, informed PSLA's development by drawing attention to the school's role in inculcating virtues of character and rational thought in our students. The theory of developmental liberalism demands an education that will promote forms of reflection and equip students with insight and strategies of self-management that help them overcome limitations of rationality. It is an education rooted within the Aristotelian conception of moral education that not only enables students to critically reflect on what they want to do, what they ought to do, and what they do and do not know, but also one that allows children to learn "strategies that make it possible to act more rationally by working around defects of rationality that [they] cannot correct" (Curren, 2006, p. 467). Developmental liberalism reminds us that a child's development of rational agency requires assistance, where "the development of rational agency proceeds more or less well depending on the character of the circumstances and efforts made" (Curren, 2006, p. 459; cf. Curren, 2017). Schools have a very real role in providing the education that will allow its students to flourish.

The work of Curren and Strike framed PSLA's approach to school reform. From these principles we defined ourselves as a career and technical high school (CTE) devoted to the development of the whole child with an understanding of the meaningful role that we had in developing our student's rational capabilities. Our next step, and possibly the most important one, was the hiring of 12 core content teachers who embodied these beliefs. From career changers, to veteran educators, to specialists in leadership training, to experts in personalized learning we built a team of eclectic and dedicated teachers to form the core of PSLA. While we did not have a formal assessment tool to determine our teacher applicant's best fit, I looked for those who could express genuine care for children, people who were willing to challenge the status quo of the educational establishment, and just simply raw intelligence.

Operating from a democratic and egalitarian mindset we began to develop specific structures of our school. In alignment with Strike, we defined ourselves as a small school with a CTE focus, and developed a vision to inspire our students to become life ready for a future filled with passion, success, and enjoyment. Despite our lack of students, we gathered the few neophyte stakeholders throughout the summer of 2014 to discuss, brainstorm, and research instructional best practices for PSLA. While we did not identified specific research based practices that would lead to success; we all agreed on strategies, that in our hearts, we knew would bring the most success for our students. This agreement made all the difference in our early development. While we understood that we were not a small school in numerical size we established an academy based system where our students structured their daily activities around a chosen academy and CTE program. Through these academy strands students would not only define themselves and their purpose, but their experiences would socialize them into the behaviors of their chosen profession; students who were in the fire-fighting program would be mentored by Syracuse City firefighters, experience fieldtrips to surrounding firehouses, participate in core-content classes aligned to their program, and begin to dress like those in the profession. In a very real sense students would begin to be educated in the ethos of what defined success in their chosen area of study.

In alignment with Curren we developed integrated instructional units that taught character and virtue through activities and experiences. We called this Crew (a reference to rowing together), and it was a specific course that our students took within the school day. Lessons and activities focused on character development, and were taught in a setting of action, discussion, and student leadership. The Crew concept was a specific instructional period within the school day and focused on the character and moral education of students that did not regularly fit within the standard courses recognized by the State of New York. Building upon the expeditionary learning Model, from which Crew was borrowed from, we set forth to develop opportunities within the school day for student to receive education in virtue. Further, we began to organize available socioemotional supports across the building, Grades 9-12, to proactively meet the needs of students. Resources were organized into a unique behavioral intervention center, where interventions were guided through the work of a behavior intervention specialist. Most importantly, we implemented these structural reforms through an egalitarian and democratic decision making process with the fourteen of us closed in a room until consensus was reached. We argued, we disagreed, but in the end what we developed was ours, and with consensus could support the developmental interests of our students. Special care was taken to develop opportunities for leadership and for building wide collaboration, where decisions of instructional practice, rules, and school climate were to be the students' as much as the faculty's. Our goal was to foster an environment that challenged everyone to bring their best daily and to provide the opportunities for collective continual growth. We longed for our first student class to share and discuss our educational hopes for them, and to discuss the reality of adult educational constructs against he reality of student need.

Fortified with our idealism and hopes for a more progressive approach to education, the first students entered PSLA on September 6, 2014. Our first year was not easy! We were repeatedly haunted by the very real, and mostly forgivable, failings of the human condition. The students in Fowler and PSLA were resilient; however, adults struggled to understand why Fowler had been closed, and wondered why these young, naive, and unorthodox upstarts thought they could do any better. But despite the many challenges, our journey began to realize success after its first year of implementation. After 1 year of PSLA we had effectively reduced the drop-out rate to 0%, increased the academic promotion rate to 10th grade by 50%, and reduced the suspension rate by 30%. We were also very much surprised to find that the Fowler graduation rate, a graduation rate that had flat-lined at 29-31% for the past decade, finally moved upward to 35%. This number initially surprised us as both Fowler and PSLA were under separate principals; however, the reality in execution was that we shared the same physical space and much of the support staff. Upon reflection it became clear that the alignment of socioemotional supports and the implementation of building wide behavior expectations and interventions fostered an environment, across the entire building, that was more supportive of students. With our initial success at PSLA the Superintendent expanded my responsibility to include not only the growth of PSLA, but also the successive Fowler phase out. As such, we set forth to analyze the keys to our progress and to build upon those systems for continued academic gains.

In reflecting on what innovating practices had begun to move PSLA forward, I came across a very practical and poignant article, Character and Academics: What Good Schools Do (Benninga, Berkowitz, Kuehn, & Smith, 2006), which captures the spirit of our reform efforts. Their work identified key areas of school design, identified in bold below, that positively impacted school reform. The reason I have included Benninga's attributes of what a good school does is that they so well embody the reform initiatives that were implemented at PSLA. Additionally, their work highlights many of the practical strategies and approaches to school reform that embody the developmental nature of Curren and Strike's philosophical insights; it directs school reform efforts toward supporting the development of the full child as a purposeful means toward increased academic achievement.


One, "good schools ensure a clean and secure physical environment." In the growth of PSLA this broad action item played out in four key ways. While we were thankful that our project began in a newly renovated building, we tenaciously cared for its cleanliness and upkeep. Beginning with the custodial staff and ending with the students, we all worked together to sweep the halls, empty the recycling, and keep our classrooms in good order. For students this specifically involved a rotating classroom assignment to clean trash from their academy hallway, collect and process the building's recycling, and tidy their classroom at the end of the last period. Most importantly we dedicated our walls and our hallways to student achievement. Moving past a simple display of student work, our hallways celebrated in photo, picture, mural, and banner the core ethos of a school community dedicated to career and technical education. We attempted to make our school visually represent what we believed.

At the center of our success was the creation of a socioemotional support center facilitated by a behavior intervention specialist. While we did not articulate a specific goal of developing a psychologically safe school environment as we built the public service leadership academy, we were in fact doing just that. Through our consolidation of available student supports across the building we were able tailor our responses and interventions to meet our students' immediate needs in real time. While some days felt like triage and the adults were exhausted, we were able to respond to our students' basic mental health needs through individual counseling, development of CTE-level teams, targeted lunch groups, and the use of teacher lead Crews. The PSLA Crews were an adaptation from the expeditionary learning model, and were thirty minute class periods that focused on explicitly teaching 21st century skills. We crafted and taught lessons that ranged from communication techniques, to collaboration skills, to deescalation strategies. Often teachers simply used the time to chat with their students.

And lastly, we celebrated the ethnic and cultural diversity that defined the PSLA and Fowler communities. Through open celebration of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist holidays we fostered a unique culture of sharing and celebration. One of my favorite memories was to witness Muslim and Christian friends throwing colored powders at each other in celebration of the Hindu holiday Holi. In that moment they could have cared less to whom the religious tradition belonged and why, rather they knew they were having fun and sharing the joy that their Hindu friends felt. The conclusion of each academic year was celebrated by an expansive and active multicultural festival. For many, this was the highlight of the year. Not only did these events increase the respect that students held for other faith traditions, but in led directly to an increased sense of family and collaboration throughout the school. Students gained a degree of comfort and belonging with each other, transcending traditionally conceived barriers, that allowed them to support each other throughout their academic course of study.

Two, "good schools promote and model fairness, equity, caring, and respect." The promotion of these traits occurred at PSLA both through formal planning, but more importantly through the day-to-day interpersonal actions of adults with students. Most importantly, PSLA began with an idea that it was a WE project; that is, Maggie and I were no more important than the social worker or science teacher, and as such all members of the faculty had a voice in how the school would run. Admittedly, we wished we had designed a better way to include students during the planning process; however, as our Crew structure developed during our first year we began to use it as a venue for student voice. During the early days of implementation the faculty worked countless hours, and once school began we gathered weekly to discuss our progress and areas for improvement. Second, we embraced the identity of a CTE school. Students were to belong to a family that was their chosen field of study, and through that family identity they would work, learn, and grow together. It was in this CTE structure that we embedded the concept of CREW, or character education, and taught the curriculum through the lens of their professional pursuit. A CTE embedded education defined our program, and fostered the conditions and environment for the formation of our students' character education.

Three, "in good schools students contribute in meaningful ways." It sounds simple, but we put service and leadership at the center of all our activities. Whether we were engaged in team building, or holding an awards ceremony, students were active in planning the event and carrying out its execution. Through our organization around CTE focus areas, students engaged in volunteer activities and community service and took on the focus of that particular group. The Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps students would greet a returning honor flight, and the law enforcement students would volunteer to supervise visiting students to a fire house during the Memorial Day parade. In year four of our implementation we have developed a plan to organize mentoring and academic monitoring, within academy, and carried out by peer leaders. We continually look for ways for our students to be leaders and servants to others.

Lastly, "good schools promote a caring community and positive social relationships." Throughout our work we examined ways in which to involve the community. Associated with each CTE program an advisory panel was created that brought institutions of higher education and business partners together to support each of our selected fields of study. These experiences brought to bear a wide array of mentoring, shadowing, and work-based learning experiences to provide a rich and diverse set of learning experiences. It has always been our goal to create a school environment that did not necessarily feel like school; rather it was designed to immerse our students in the professional and community activities that defined their chosen area of study.

I offer the connections of "Character and Academics: What Good Schools Do" (Benninga et al., 2006) to our work in developing PSLA as it underscores a deficiency in our thinking about school reform. The success of PSLA is the success of a community focusing on the holistic child. Yes, we were, and still remain, focused on improving algebra exam scores for our students, but we embraced the notion that strong academics and strong character development go hand and hand. If nothing else, we were successful in producing a graduation rate that was double that of the community's high school graduation rate because we cared about teaching those skills that are not traditionally associated with a school's responsibility; we set out to educate the full child who would be prepared to flourish in his/her future life pursuits and in the process we improved performance on standardized measures of success.

After 3 years of hard work our turn-around efforts received a powerful endorsement. After completing an April 2017 visit to PSLA the New York State education commissioner MaryEllen Elia publicly labeled PSLA as a model school. By the end of the 2017-2018 school year we had continued to witness a decline in our dropout and suspension rates, with a corresponding increase in credit acquisition and passing rates on the New York State Regent's exams. Most surprisingly, the last class of Fowler High School graduated almost 50% of its students. In 3 short years we gathered a staff who believed in our students, and we diligently and creatively crafted an experience for them that helped them realize success. While I have moved onto other pursuits and challenges, PSLA continues to experience great success. The first graduating class is expected to graduate close to 60% of its students, a 100% increase over what had been previously realized.

In the arena of school reform we know what works. The challenge is finding the people who will do the work, with great fidelity and enthusiasm, to make the dream a reality.


Benninga, J. S., Berkowitz, M. W., Kuehn, P., & Smith, K. (2006). Character and academics: What good schools do. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(6), 448-452.

Curren, R. (2006). "Developmental liberalism." Education Theory, 56(4), 451-468.

Curren, R. (2017). Why character education? London, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

Strike, K. A. (2010). Community and small schools: A third way of school reform. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Matthew Williams

Syracuse City School District, Syracuse, New York

* Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Matthew Williams,
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Author:Williams, Matthew
Publication:Journal of Character Education
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jan 1, 2019

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