NEW YORK — "You really should get a coat rack," Ira Shankman playfully tells Benjamin Shuldiner, as he drapes his long dark overcoat across his lap. Mr. Shankman, a retired principal, has stopped by to see his protégé, the 26-year-old principal of Brooklyn's brand-new High School for Public Service.
The suggestion is as close as Shankman gets to criticizing Mr. Shuldiner, one of five principals Shankman mentors for New Visions for Public Schools, an academic-reform organization hired by the city to create and oversee innovative small schools.
Clearly the two men share a friendly, respectful rapport. When Shuldiner is momentarily called out of his office - a former classroom furnished with "cheap stuff from Staples" - the more seasoned educator begins to whisper his praises.
"He's still idealistic, not jaded, and he's already making a difference in students' lives," says Shankman, speaking almost like a proud father. "The kids are receptive to his ideas, engaged, stimulated ... the fact that he's running a 95 to 100 percent attendance rate attests to something."
Here, in this socioeconomically depressed area near the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a crossroads for Latinos and African-Americans, such an attendance rate is no small feat. Especially considering that students at the High School for Public Service, which occupies seven classrooms on the third floor of the decrepit George Wingate High School, are dealing with "every problem stereotypical of inner-city kids," according to Shuldiner.
The school is a dream realized for Shuldiner and his friend Marisa Boan, whom he met in 2000 when they were both pursuing principal certification at New York's Baruch College. Back then, they teamed up on a 20-page proposal to create their ideal school, which they described as "a city upon a hill" - a school where caring would join with rigorous academics and community service.
Two years later, when they heard that New Visions had been given a $50 million donation from Bill Gates to start eight new city charter schools, they couldn't dust off that graduate-school proposal fast enough. Of 55 proposals submitted, theirs was one of eight chosen.
Today, despite dangers on the streets and difficulties at home, kids at their school not only show up for classes but seem to genuinely enjoy being there. They don't even grumble about clocking their required hours of community service (50 per year) by helping at nearby fire or police stations, tutoring children in math at a local recreation center, or reading to kindergartners across the street. Seventy of them even showed up on a recent Saturday to fix up their school for "New York Cares Day."
"Many kids here know that this school could be their last hope," says Shuldiner, who grew up in Manhattan, attended Harvard as an undergrad, and later taught history at England's prestigious Stowe School and then at Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School. "In spite of some of their families, they wash their own uniforms and get themselves here. They might mess up, but still they know deep in their hearts that this could be one of the only places in the world that really cares about them."
Caring about kids is something that Shuldiner and staff appear to have mastered. Key to their ability to foster a nurturing atmosphere, says Shuldiner, is the school's small student body and tiny facility. With only 100 students and classrooms all on one floor, he says, it's easy to become well acquainted.
Ms. Boan, who is the school's dean as well as a teacher, knows the kids so well that she takes attendance visually. A parent coordinator on staff stays in close touch with parents. And Shuldiner often visits students' homes.
Big-heartedness was high on Shuldiner and Boan's list when looking for teachers. In the days leading up to their school's opening, they put a lot of time into recruiting faculty who would be the right fit - educators who not only care deeply about kids, but who are also smart, passionate, energetic, and creative. Their efforts appear to be paying off.
"Parents have told me their children have changed, that they're not mean anymore," says Shuldiner, who insists on keeping his hand in teaching by offering an ethics class. "This has so much to do with my staff. They are supportive and hold high expectations."
For all the credit he gives to his staff, Shuldiner also acknowledges that he's played a large part. "I treat the kids with respect," he says. "They know I care about them. They want to be here."
His youthfulness, he adds, works to his advantage. At 26, he is the youngest high school principal in New York state and possibly in the US. "People can't help but think about my age when they first meet me," says Shuldiner. "But the kids seem to enjoy it. And their parents have come to see me as young and energetic and passionate in a world that really needs that."
For now, no one seems to mind much if they can't hang their coat in his office.
And Shuldiner has other things to think about - such as selecting students for next year's ninth grade from a pool of 926 local kids who have already applied.
Clearly, word is out about the High School for Public Service, and no one could be more pleased than its principal.