It Had to Begin with Me

Adequately funded, well-functioning public schools in New York City are a precious commodity. Therefore, my parents searched long and hard for the “perfect” school for my brother and me to attend. They found School of the Future on Manhattan’s East Side when I was ready to enter sixth grade. Five years later as a junior, I am inundated with SAT prep books and college brochures, and my educational quest continues.

After spending some time in School of the Future, I realized it wasn’t perfect. The teachers were almost too kind and nurturing. This attitude may be appropriate for a middle school environment, but once I got to high school it began to frustrate me. We were encouraged to speak freely and collaborate on group projects. Some students mistook free speech in a democratic classroom to mean arguing and filibustering, and collaboration to mean chatting incessantly and hoping the work would complete itself. I must admit chatting about clothing can be more interesting than discussing the Civil War. Although these side conversations were entertaining, funny and even meaningful at times, I was becoming more of an expert on Abercrombie and Fitch than on the Gettysburg Address.

Something had to change and it had to begin with me. I had to take charge of my own learning. I had risked alienating myself from my friends during class in order to focus on what I knew inside was really important. This is not an easy thing to do in high school. Would I be labeled as a “nerd” or a “teacher’s pet?”

The first thing I had to learn was not to care so much about the opinions of my peers, which was a valuable life lesson. A person can’t go through life worrying about what others think, especially when she knows what she’s doing is right. Second, I learned to appreciate and utilize the nurturing environment that once annoyed me. It was comforting to know that I could approach my teachers on their time and that they were always willing to help me. My school uses student research papers or “exhibitions” as an alternative assessment in place of the New York State Regents exams. When I was preparing my science exhibition paper, I often sought the help of several of my teachers. In fact, my humanities teacher was quite influential in helping me strengthen my argument throughout the paper. Every time I approached him for assistance, he was willing to help me. This goes for all of my other teachers as well.

After this realization, side conversations were much less distracting to me than they were before. I found that if I focused on my work, and did not partake in these diversions, oftentimes those around me would follow. While the chatter in the classroom was not completely eliminated, I did find that those who wanted to concentrate on their schoolwork were not as easily sidetracked as they used to be.

I came to realize that a little piece of perfection can be found in even a seemingly flawed system. Despite my trepidation regarding the liberal educational philosophy that characterizes my school, I’ve come to appreciate the skills I’ve developed in this environment. Thanks to the classroom debates, in-depth discussions and intellectual atmosphere at School of the Future, I can work collaboratively, listen to and respect the opinion of others and have tolerance for the diversity of opinions found in our society. The most important lesson has been that personal growth is an important step for institutional change.

School of the Future
A small public high school in Manhattan founded in 1990, School of the Future is a CES Mentor School. School of the Future enrolls 625 students in grades 6-12.

Caroline Ensler is a junior at School of the Future in New York City. She is presently a math tutor, a member of the debate and volleyball teams, and a student in a sociology class at Hunter College. This summer, she and her twin brother attended a college preparatory program at UCLA. Caroline hopes to begin college in fall 2008 on the West Coast.