MPA - 2013
“After having visited many charter schools that break the mold of what’s expected,” says Nora Abramson (MPA 2008), “it doesn’t seem as complicated to fix the problems with urban education.” In her opinion, the “kids aren’t all that different [at public, private, and charter schools], it’s how they are treated.” Abramson is the Manager for Charter School Development at Lincoln Center’s Institute for the Arts in Education (LCI), which is in the process of developing a middle and high school with an integrated arts curriculum that will open in the Bronx in September, 2011. Working with LCI’s Executive Director and its Director of Education, Abramson is managing all aspects of the school’s development, including the drafting of the charter – roughly comprised of both a business plan and a curriculum model, finding facilities, and hiring the principal, teachers and staff. The team has also worked to build an extensive board for the school and are currently raising funds for it as well. “There are a lot of moving parts,” says Abramson, “a lot happening all at once.” Abramson enjoys the diversity of her work. “I love fitting all the parts together to create the school,” she says. “This job taps into the business side of my brain as well as the human interest side.” In a typical day, for example, she might spend the morning “talking to parents who want a great education for their kids, and on the same day negotiate a potential real estate deal.” As complicated as the project might sound, Abramson brings a great deal of knowledge from the charter school movement to her current position. In the beginning of her career she was part of the founding team at a charter management organization (CMO) in the San Francisco Bay Area called Envision Schools. In her role there she spent much of her time studying what works for charter schools operationally and over the two years she was at Envision, the organization opened three new schools. When Abramson came to Wagner, she had a plan to move into the political arena and work to influence education policy. However, after working for the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office and interning on a political public radio show at WNYC while in school, she realized she missed being on the ground in the field. During the summer after her first year in school she participated in the Education Pioneers Fellowship, completing a project for the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence. In her second year of school she did some freelance consulting writing charters for new schools and helping them figure out how to get off the ground. When she graduated she decided to start her own consultancy, which grew the work she had been doing over the previous years. While there was enough project-based work for her to have plenty to do at first, when the economy crashed in the fall of 2008 many of the projects in her pipeline came to a complete halt. The next spring, after having consulted independently for almost a year, she met with the director of LCI, for whom she had been working on a limited basis, to propose coming onto Lincoln Center’s full-time staff to manage its charter school project. Because the arts are something deeply important to her, “it seemed like my dream scenario,” she says, “so I worked really hard to make it happen.” Developing a charter school under the umbrella of Lincoln Center has both its benefits and its challenges. First of all, the team Abramson is working with has been able to take extra time for development. They’ve also been able to recruit a very strong board, which Abramson believes is in part due to Lincoln Center’s brand. She notes that often potential board members are hesitant when a school hasn’t been launched yet. But in this case, “people are willing to take a risk in a way I haven’t seen before,” she says. Abramson has appreciated these aspects of working with Lincoln Center Institute but notes that the collaboration also poses some new and unique challenges for developing a charter school. “As amazing as Lincoln Center Institute is as an organization,” she says, “this is a new project for them. How do you expand an organization’s mission” in the right way, staying aligned with its values? Navigating that at such a large place can be a challenge at times, Abramson points out. Staff at Lincoln Center are “excited to do something new, but the institution has a long history,” she says. “Most charter schools have no history,” much less a “big nonprofit to answer to.” Abramson notes that there is “a lot of pressure to make [the school] great, whereas any other charter school you just hope it simply works!” This certainly keeps her on her toes. “I personally feel a different type of pressure than I did on previous projects, which is hard,” she admits. But keeping things in perspective, she goes on, “at the end of the day, [the students] are children, not data points, so they have to just sit down and learn and you hope they do well. Ensuring that the school’s future students will do well is perhaps one of the most important things to Abramson in her job. “My biggest hope for this school,” she says,” is that it won’t just get kids into college, but help them graduate” from it. Reflecting on the disparities between public and private education in the city, she points out that students in private schools have a lot of resources that influence their ability to do well over the long run – not just financial resources, but “advisory resources,” she says. These students are not only advised on how to make it into college, but they are also equipped with the ability to navigate a college environment. Moreover, “there is a big difference in what you do with your day depending on where you show up to school in this city,” she adds. “The expectations are very polarized. On the one hand, many high school students are simply expected to get through the school day. On the other hand, many school environments focus exclusively on entering their students into Ivy League Schools. Psychologically, those differences in school expectations make a huge difference to students.” Abramson believes a charter school built on LCI’s educational model can also make a big difference. The arts can “capture kids who are not first and foremost academic,” she points out. Furthermore, “the study of the arts can build skills to approach the unknown.” Approaching the unknown is something Abramson must do herself as she continues to bring LCI’s new school to life. Currently she is spending much of her time “answering a lot of big questions,” she says, and “thinking about what’s best for the kids.” As she and her team at LCI continue to do so, it won’t be long until their unknown becomes a reality.