Feature stories

No room for failure at HS for Public Service

Cara Metz

Building a school community where everyone has a voice are Chapter Leader Jason Zanitsch (left) and Principal Benjamin Shuldiner, with students Jevian Joseph, 12th-grade class president; Latisha Blackburn, student government vice president; and Kadheem McLeod, student representative for the 9th and 10th grades.

Cara Metz

What responsibility do alcohol companies have when they advertise in poor neighborhoods? Students Shenel Gunnis, Amaya Santos, Damon White and Kyrstal Chapman discuss the topic with Zanitsch. For a recent community project, the students counted the number of alcohol ads in various Brooklyn communities and made a short, award-winning film, “Out of Control,” about teens and alcohol abuse.

Other key ingredients

• Students log 50 hours of community service a year (hence the school’s name); and some go far beyond that, with 500 to 600 hours by the time they graduate. This out-of-classroom work — whether tutoring younger kids or working in a hospital or homeless shelter — makes the students feel good about themselves and more invested in their education and community. “The job of humanity is to help one another, and schools are an important place to learn that,” Principal Shuldiner said. “We’re about creating better citizens and helping students become leaders.”
• Creating a culture of success and support within the school. “Where kids are not succeeding, they are supported by other students who are not succeeding — and vice versa,” said Shuldiner. “If you’re not doing well, you’ll hear it from your teacher, then your advisor,” said student Damon White. Added student Shenel Gunnis, “And you’ll hear it from your friends. We’re down each other’s back about getting your homework in and doing your work.” The school features a strong mix of support and accountability — for everyone.  
• “Our focus is always on what’s best for our students,” said Chapter Leader Zanitsch. “Partnerships come easy when all the stakeholders are focusing on that goal.”

Collaboration takes many forms and involves all members of the school community at Brooklyn’s HS for Public Service, one of the six schools that won partnership awards at Teacher Union Day on Nov. 7.

“It’s one thing to be a small school; there are lots of small schools,” said Benjamin Shuldiner, the school’s principal. “But there’s something special here.”

The 400-student school in Crown Heights was founded eight years ago by a group of educators that included Shuldiner, who had been teaching but would become principal, along with an assistant principal, a teacher and a guidance counselor. The team members had all worked together at Erasmus HS and had a shared vision for a school that would feature public service.

Teachers at the school, located on the Wingate HS campus, have as much say in hiring as administrators.

“We have a hiring committee and the principal is one voice on the committee,” explained Chapter Leader Jason Zanitsch. Students also have input, rating the guest lessons that prospective teachers are required to do, he said.

Professional development likewise is a product of teamwork. The school has a committee for professional development so teachers decide what they want to learn.

At a recent student retreat, kids looked at “what’s stressing us and making it hard to learn,” said Kadheem McLeod, a student representative for the 9th and 10th grades. The students suggested that their mastery projects (the big projects that are due each semester) should not be due at the same time for different subjects. Within a week, that change was made and due dates will now be staggered.

On the second day of the student retreat, parents joined students and created new promotional brochures for the school. “It’s one thing for us to create brochures, but parents really know what other parents are looking for,” Zanitsch said.

This degree of collaboration grew over time, Zanitsch pointed out. “Ben was only 26 when he started this school, and as he’s grown into it, he’s seen that the more ownership he gives to the staff, the better the school functions,” the chapter leader said. “It’s the same for teachers — the more ownership I give to my students, the better they do.”

Students at the HS for Public Service are doing extremely well by all measures. Last year’s graduation rate was 98 percent — higher than the rate for many specialized high schools. The school has received nothing but A’s on its School Progress Reports. It had a 100-percent college acceptance rate for its students last school year and little teacher turnover, Zanitsch said.  

But most telling of all, the school has an engaged student body and high-energy teachers and administrators who go the extra mile to see that students succeed.

“I think this school is great because teachers here really care about us and want us to graduate,” said Latisha Blackburn, a 12th-grader and vice president of the student government. “Teachers will stay here until all kinds of hours to make sure you understand everything.  It feels like another parent.”

Student Amaya Santos agreed that the school feels supportive, saying, “There’s room for growth and change and never room to fail.”

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