Using HARLEM to Create Hope

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by Meghann Persenaire

Each morning, the George Washington Bridge is my gateway—my means of access to New York City and more importantly my school— St. Hope Leadership Academy Charter School. If I depended on one path or gateway to the bridge, I would likely arrive at my destination a few hours late or not at all. However, in the age of navigation apps, I am thankful for the multiple paths and gateways I have to reach various destinations.

If your school’s destination is to be a community focused on character, do you have a vehicle or method of transportation? Do you have a navigation app? If you have a method of transportation and a navigation app, what are your gateways to the destinations?

We began our journey a few years ago.

Fortunately, we had a reliable vehicle in our school’s HARLEM (Honor, Absolute Determination, Responsibility, Leadership, Excellence and Mission-Driven) values and in our school’s pillars (College, Leadership and Service). We also had a trusted navigation app in’s 11 Principles.

To be a school community focused on character, we had to strategically uncover multiple gateways to reach and surpass our goals.

  • We chose to start a daily advisory program in which our HARLEM values were explicitly taught in a small group setting by a trusted adult.
  • We created an athletic program through which our scholar-athletes were required to submit an academic and values-centered progress report in order to participate in each game.
  • We also built an athletic program through which scholars earned points for baskets, touchdowns, goals and demonstrating our school’s values on the field and court

Our academic program has teachers ask, “What does it mean to be a hero?” Students reflect on a book’s central characters, and their responses are rooted in our HARLEM values.

The gateways we developed include disciplinary practices that, instead of being exclusionary, are inclusionary and grounded in reflection and repairing harm. These practices see disciplinary infractions as opportunities to embrace our scholars and reteach our HARLEM values through restorative questioning. We use community-building circles where scholars reflect on our HARLEM values while also building a sense of belonging and community.

Some mornings, when traveling to my school, I travel along the path I know and I arrive at my school early and without incident. Other mornings, I explore a new gateway. While I prefer the path I know best, I acknowledge it is only when I explore a new gateway that I see New York City and its surrounding communities from a new perspective. I, like my school, am better equipped to tackle challenges when I have a variety of tools available to me.

If your school’s destination is to be a school community focused on character, find a vehicle. Ask: What are your school’s values? On your journey, the 11 Principles will be your navigation app. Select multiple gateways, and view incidents, new and unexpected gateways on your journey as opportunities to view your school and your surrounding community from a new perspective.

Meghann Persenaire

Meghann Persenaire is the assistant principal at St. Hope Leadership Academy, a 2016 National School of Character in Harlem, New York.

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