WATCH: Back-to-school special! Joan Sullivan on the importance of effective communication
A while back we conducted an interview with Joan Sullivan, who was then the Principal of the Bronx Academy of Letters, a New York City middle and high school founded in 2003. Earlier this year, Sullivan was appointed Los Angeles’ Deputy Mayor of Education, where she’s responsible for overseeing the city’s Department of Education as well as its education policy initiatives. As the school year gets underway, in light of Sullivan’s expanded responsibilities, we are pleased to bring you this video and interview, in which Sullivan talks about her work as a principal, as well as her influences and ideas about education.
Joan Sullivan grew up with nine older siblings. Through constantly competing for a chance to speak, she learned that sometimes a letter is the best way to be heard. Despite her father’s mistrust of the American school system, Sullivan took part in a formal education that would teach her to write eloquently. And rather than dreaming of becoming an astronaut or movie star, Sullivan dreamed she’d become the U.S. Secretary of Education.
After stints as a presidential campaign organizer and novelist, Sullivan entered the education world. She spent three years teaching in the South Bronx before becoming founding principal of the Bronx Academy of Letters (BAL), a high school founded on the belief that kids who are taught to express themselves in writing have the best chances of upward mobility.
Sullivan spoke with Dowser about how the emphasis on communication and community has made BAL one of the top-ranked schools in the nation.
Dowser: How did the idea for the Bronx Academy of Letters evolve?
Sullivan: I was working in a small school in the South Bronx, and I was inspired by the work but also frustrated.
Richard Kahan, the school’s founder, was there one day and I said to him, ‘I hear you are creating another school this year. I would like to be a part of that.’ Two weeks later, he came back to me and said, ‘OK, we have a proposal due in about two weeks for a school that would open next year.’
Did you jump at the chance to be part of this new school?
I had to think about it. The idea of teaching and creating a school and getting certification as a principal in the same 10-month period seemed crazy. It was. But I signed on to write the proposal.
Did you know from your prior teaching experience that you wanted to have this emphasis on letters, writing and communicating?
Yes. I felt convinced from being a teacher that no matter what a student wanted to be, whether it was a police officer or a doctor or teacher or a writer, they needed to be able to communicate effectively.
I also knew that students had an interest in expressing themselves, so being able to have a venue for exploring their experiences through the written word wasn’t a hard sell to students looking for high schools.
What are some of the special writing opportunities that you offer in your school?
We have writers-in-residence, working authors who come in and teach writing-intensive courses to students. We have a writers’ forum where we invite writers of all types to visit the school and participate in assemblies. We also have a library that runs throughout the halls of the school so that students are surrounded by books.
What do you see as the biggest obstacles for your students?
Many of our students are special-education students and English-language learners, which presents a unique set of challenges. Many are arriving with skills that are below grade level, and a lot of our students live in shelters or in foster care.
How do you and your colleagues work to overcome these obstacles?
The starting point is hiring a great staff that is going to establish a rapport with the students and make the content meaningful and exciting for them. Beyond that, giving students the opportunity to participate in programs outside the classroom is essential.
Do you have any favorite student success stories?
We had a young man who was not only the first in his family to graduate from high school but who is now at Columbia University on a full scholarship. He’s from an immigrant family, and had older siblings who lost their way in the public school system and dropped out. He wanted to follow a different path and be a role model for other young men of color, specifically Latinos. He worked really hard and was one of our top students.
What about a student for whom even your best efforts fell short?
I had a young man who came to us in the middle of his sixth grade year having spent the last two years at a detention facility for young people. When he arrived at BAL he didn’t know his alphabet, he couldn’t even identify the letters by sight. But he was a smart boy.
The prison system had set him up with a foster family, and while he was with that family he did well; he not only learned the alphabet but also could decode some words. Then, he returned to his mother’s house and was immediately truant again from school. Eventually he was picked up and put back in the detention facility.
What do you take away from an experience like this?
There are lots of stories like this, where you see all the potential that exists in these young people and you even make some inroads with them, but forces outside the school are too powerful and you lose them.
How about at the other end of the spectrum. What was your happiest day at BAL?
The day that our first class graduated. We started with 78 students; they had lots of attention from us and we made lots of mistakes on them, sort of like a first child. Family members traveled from far and wide to watch those students receive their diplomas. The sense of pride that the school community felt, and those students and their families felt, and the sense of accomplishment that I personally felt, was awesome.
Why do you do this work?
I’ve come to believe the only real meaning there is in life is community and investing in other people. The legacy that we have is the change that we’ve affected in the world. There’s no better way to establish that than through our schools and through our community and through young people, who are our future in the truest sense.
This interview was edited and condensed.