Over the past few years, BES has expanded our support for leaders founding schools with models that reflect their communities’ values and respond to their unique needs.
Antoinette Kane is one such leader. Having grown up in New York City’s foster care system, she is more than familiar with the inequalities encountered by students of color in low-income communities. After attending a new charter high school in her neighborhood, she received a full scholarship to Bard College, where she rented her first apartment in nearby Poughkeepsie. Antoinette noticed that the community, composed of mostly of people of color, lacked quality educational choices and opportunities for social mobility within their own city. Antoinette took part in the 2020 BES Fellowship to found and lead Little Water Prep, a K-5 public charter school opening fall 2022 in Poughkeepsie, NY.
We recently spoke with Antoinette to find out more about Little Water Prep and what makes it different from other public schools available to Poughkeepsie students.
What is Little Water Prep?
Recently, we’ve been thinking more about what Little Water Prep isn’t. Our school isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience. It isn’t compliance-based nor is it aligned to the status quo of how public schools have operated for decades.
Our school community will be like water, taking on new shapes and molding to the needs of our students and families. We recently held a community workshop where we heard families’ ideas for programming and what they want to see in classrooms. There is so much potential for us to tap into our community’s imagination as our school develops and as we make decisions about the school, together. Our goal at Little Water Prep is to see our students as trailblazers and not just future adults who will enter the workforce.
How are you working with families to design Little Water Prep?
A theme emerged as we began our community engagement efforts in the early design stages – families want to be involved in the decision-making at their school. We began action planning with parents so they could see how their voice is having impact at every level of the design process. This helped us form a decision-making collective of stakeholders, with three major buckets: curriculum development, extracurriculars and after-school programming, and community partnerships.
Our family collective is currently tackling things like sports and classroom design. Families have expressed that they want their students to be exposed to sports like bowling, that aren’t typically offered by schools located in communities of color. Other families are working to create sensory-friendly classroom designs. This opened my eyes to the effects of my classroom decorations when I was a young teacher!
How would you describe your school design and curriculum?
I am currently creating a hybrid humanities-style curriculum just for our school designed to expose our students to accurate and relevant history and various cultures so that students are able to embrace lines of difference and realize the connections in all living things.
We’re creating our own unique curriculum because we want to be intentional about what students are learning and what they may need to unlearn. For example, in my K-12 experience, I never really learned about Africa. It seemed like an imaginary space, and when I did hear about Africa, it was not painted in a positive light or I only learned about the continent in the context of slavery. I think about what that can do to a Black student’s understanding of themselves, and what misconceptions will grow in students who are not African or Black. So, our first Kindergarten unit is intentionally “All About Africa,” and intertwines project-based learning, identity development, art, and humanities, so that our students will be immersed into learning about the continent of Africa and what makes it unique.
Going back to thinking about what our school isn’t – we aren’t a school focused on compliance and punishment. For example, our students will wear uniforms, but if they are out of uniform, they will not receive an infraction. Similarly, the way that we interact with parents will not be punitive. We will think about how we can create restorative spaces for parents in a way that will help them understand our expectations with regards to uniforms, attendance, and other school policies.
Additionally, we aren’t a school that believes in disciplinary measures that are dehumanizing. We believe that a student’s engagement in learning starts with relationship-building. I created a positive recognition behavior response system to help students understand how to make positive decisions as individuals and build skills that they will need to have when they leave the classroom. Instead of tracking student responses to narration and sitting on the carpet, students will have individual choice charts related to academic and communal choices. We don’t want students to internalize seeing themselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but instead we focus on how our choices are positive or harmful to the community. For example, if a student performs an act of kindness, they might earn a Water Drop that gets added to the Classroom Ocean to show the importance of individual good deeds.
We will train our teachers in the performance of teaching. We believe that if you make learning immersive and make students a part of it, they will be engaged instead of unfocused. We will also implement restorative practices throughout the day, such as yoga, meditation, and ways to teach self-care practices to our students. We will also end each day with a reflection circle, which is a space where students can give public apologies and build a sense of accountability.
What have you been most proud of in the school founding process?
I can’t really say I’m proud of anything right now until I see children in the building, but I am proud that I didn’t give up when things got tough. Micro-moments make me proud when there is so much unknown. For example, I went to another organization’s event and I met a child who is enrolled in my school. I was able to talk to a future student! It is unique for children to already see their principal in their community.
This work is deeply personal but can also be incredibly challenging. What keeps you going during this time?
Many families and community members have been conditioned to think that they don’t have power. They might not know they have choices in their children’s education, and the status quo doesn’t allow for social mobility and awareness-building. It’s going to take a long time to repair the lack of trust in the education system.
During the challenges of rebuilding that trust, I remember that this struggle is not about me. I focus on Little Water Prep, a school that will exist and sustain after I am gone, and what I can control, such as our curriculum. I do this not for me, but for our future students. That was my mindset as a teacher and when it comes to education as a whole.
Learn more about Antoinette Kane and Little Water Prep on their website.