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The Shaliach For School Reform

The Shaliach For School Reform

The Chabadnik city school headmaster is on a mission to revolutionize public education.

Shimon Waronker. JW/Michael Datikash
Shimon Waronker. JW/Michael Datikash

Shimon Waronker, headmaster of Brooklyn’s New American Academy, repeats two phrases a lot: “Prussian industrial” and “divine providence.”

“Prussian industrial” is shorthand for what he sees as the “tyrannical” model — a legacy of King Frederick the Great, Ellwood Cubberly and Horace Mann — that is at the core of America’s troubled public school system.

And divine providence? That’s the explanation this 43-year-old Chilean-born baal teshuvah, U.S. Army veteran and father of six gives for everything, from finding a perfect school facility just blocks away from his Crown Heights home, to being taken under the wing of former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, to the fact that “770” — a portentous numeral for Chabad-Lubavitch Jews — keeps popping up in his work.

Four years ago Waronker, a graduate of Klein’s New York City Leadership Academy for new principals, landed on the front page of The New York Times for — through a mix of personal warmth and counter-insurgency tactics learned in the Army — turning around the South Bronx’s Junior High School 22, one of the most gang-plagued schools in the city.

In 2010, he helped open the New American Academy, an innovative public elementary school he designed with classmates from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education — and which he hopes will help launch a revolution in public education, not just locally but nationally.

Across from Lincoln Terrace Park, in a spacious, brown-brick, modernist building it shares with another public elementary school, the New American Academy, also known as P.S. 770, serves an overwhelmingly low-income, African American student body. Among its unique features:

♦ Each class has 60 students and four teachers, who work collaboratively, guided by a master teacher.

♦ Children stay with the same group of teachers for six years.

♦ Teachers earn salaries that are 38 percent higher than at other Department of Education schools, but pay is determined through a “career ladder” combination of merit and seniority.

♦ Teachers assume mentoring and supervisory roles, reducing the need for administrators.

“To me it’s really important that we move away from teacher as solo practitioner,” Waronker says. “As a team, we can help kids more, and for a team to stay with the same children over an extended period of time is beneficial, because many children live with a grandmother or aunt or in foster care or a single-parent home. They don’t often see adults collaborate for their benefit.”

Remarkably, given the contentiousness of school reform efforts, Waronker has earned the admiration both of union leaders, like Randi Weingarten, and school reformers like Klein, who is no longer with the Department of Education but still serves as a mentor for Waronker and recently attended his son’s bar mitzvah.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Klein described the New American Academy as “a very interesting and creative model,” adding that he gives Waronker “enormous credit for being innovative, visionary and willing to think very hard and put into practice a whole paradigm.”

Describing Waronker as a “man of deep moral commitment,” Klein said, “I don’t hear him making excuses; I just hear him getting the work done.”

Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and former president of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, told The Jewish Week her union “totally embraced” the New American Academy “because it’s about the how’s: how we actually increase teacher capacity to do the jobs we’re asking them to do for kids, how we create conditions that maximize a learning process for creativity, discovery and inquiry, and how we do teacher preparation in an ongoing career way that respects teacher professionalism.”

Noting that school reform requires “flexibility on all sides, not just the teachers’ side,” Weingarten says, “People try to put the union and teachers in a box, as if we don’t care about ingenuity and creativity. This is an example that shows that myth can’t be farther from the truth.”

It’s 8:30 on a Monday morning, and classes won’t start in earnest for another hour.

Half the students are exercising outside with an aide, while the other half are eating breakfast in the cafeteria. The teachers are in the midst of their daily 90-minute planning meetings.

Waronker, who has just discovered that one of his teachers got married over the weekend, rushes downstairs to congratulate her. Smiling warmly, Waronker pulls up a child-sized chair next to the hijab-wearing teacher and inquires about Muslim wedding traditions, marveling over similarities to Orthodox Jewish weddings, like no mixed dancing.

Once the children settle into the classrooms at 9:30, there will be no time for chatting: for most of the day, the students are grouped by skill level — each group is called a “university,” with names such as Fordham, Columbia and Howard.

Stern, but also affectionate, the teachers constantly probe their students to think, and also to be aware of their behavior, with reprimands like, “You need to turn it around,” “I want to see gentlemen, not little, whiny boys,” “Check yourself: am I in line? Am I quiet? Are my hands where they’re supposed to be?”

For Waronker, it’s important that the children get structure, but also love and respect. Later that day, when a prospective teacher snaps her fingers at the children during a demo lesson, he cringes.

“They’re not dogs,” he complains.

Waronker says he seeks out teachers who work well with others and are able to learn from their mistakes. He is big on mistakes, volunteering a long list of things he did wrong in the school’s first year, including hiring a master teacher who “didn’t know how to collaborate,” as well as hiring teachers who lacked early childhood education backgrounds.

“I came with a lot of hubris from middle school,” he says. “But I realized kindergarten is the hardest grade to teach. It’s the first time a lot of the kids are in school, and they have to be acculturated to an academic environment.”

While it’s too early for 770 to produce test scores, preliminary signs are good: 80 percent of kindergarteners were reading at grade level by December this year, Waronker says, unusual for a Title 1 school. Remarkably, the school manages to operate at a lower cost than other public schools — Waronker says that’s because the model requires fewer administrators and intervention specialists. With the money left over, the school can operate an after-school program that includes martial arts and violin lessons.

The ultimate test will be if 770’s successes can be replicated — or if it can function only under a charismatic principal. Waronker is haunted by the fact that his previous school closed soon after he left; “scalable” may well be his third-most-used phrase, after “divine providence” and “Prussian industrial.”

“I’m very desirous to get another school off the ground so we can show it doesn’t just depend on me,” he says.

How did a Chabad Jew who begins each day with three hours of prayer, Jewish learning and a trip to the mikveh — and who sends his own children to yeshivas — become a champion of public school reform?

Born Simón Bernardo Warren, Waronker spent his early years in Chile, Honduras, Uruguay and Guatemala. His American father, who had changed the family name to sound less recognizably Jewish, worked as a labor organizer, part of a State Department-AFL-CIO partnership aimed at preventing the spread of communism.

The family (his mother converted) was Jewish, belonging to a Reform temple in Guatemala, but not especially observant. When Waronker was 11, his father died, and his Chilean mother moved with Waronker and his two siblings to Rockville, Md. Although he arrived in the United States speaking only Spanish — he still has a slight accent — Waronker mastered English and ended up enrolling in the honors program at University of Maryland at College Park at 17.

He joined the ROTC at the same time, with the goal of becoming a general. Never actually deployed to war, he was eager to go to Panama during the 1989 invasion and to Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

“I wanted glory,” he recalls on a recent afternoon, sitting in the spare, undecorated space that doubles as his office and the school’s conference room. “But I came to realize, whose glory was I looking for? Was it my personal glory, for vanity’s sake or for something higher?”

Searching for meaning, and inspired by his sister’s turn to Orthodoxy, Waronker discovered a spiritual home — and a sense of purpose — in Chabad.

“Was it about just me? Why are we here?” he recalls asking himself. “Judaism has answered that question in a powerful way: to make heaven on earth, to make this a better world. That’s what Moshiach [the Messiah] is about: but we do it, not Moshiach.”

Waronker credits his time in yeshiva — he attended the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J., but is several exams short of rabbinic ordination — with teaching him how to question and learn. “In Judaism, questioning is very healthy,” he says. “When you learn Talmud, they’ll question everything, and it’s wonderful. The Jewish way of thinking is really about questioning underlying assumptions.”

With his brown velvet yarmulke, dark hair, and slightly bushy graying beard, Waronker looks like thousands of other Chabad men his age. However, the idealism and warmth of personality that many of his peers apply to their work as shlichim, emissaries who travel the world bringing Jews closer to Judaism, Waronker channels into his work in a primarily non-Jewish environment.

But he sees no conflict between his religious identity and his career, which he describes as his “life’s calling.”

“We’re all brothers and sisters; we have to help one another out, we need to treat all children equally,” he explains. “Once we get to that level, then we’ll really be living in the times of Moshiach.”

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