Years ago, I read a wonderful analogy by researcher Deborah Wenger. She writes, “Imagine two stone masons cutting blocks. When asked what they are doing, the first one explains that he is cutting a perfectly square block; the other says he is building a cathedral.” Her thinking applies well to the work we are doing at Harlem Village Academies. Two schools may look the same, but an astute observer will see that what one is doing is in fact completely different from the other.

At HVA, we pride ourselves in developing the kind of educational experience that inspires students to dream big. Our students are not just attending classes; they are learning to become leaders. Our teachers are not just imparting information; they are empowering students to become critical thinkers, coherent writers and confident speakers. Our principals are not just managing staff; they are creating the most joyfully rigorous schoolhouses imaginable. As a community, we are building a cathedral of learning.

And in order to do that, all members of our community have a shared vision and a shared understanding about what really matters in the lives of students and their teachers.

Our teachers aim to cultivate wide-awakeness in students, so that they pay close attention to their world, noting problems and seeking solutions. Our students are immersed in conversations and projects that are rich and engaging. At HVA, students know that their teachers think they are smart when they ask good questions, not simply when they answer questions.

Along the way, we want our students to become adults who make good use of their leisure time to read the newspaper, to vote, to care about public libraries and the quality of education in their neighborhoods, to become involved in fighting poverty, to take an active interest in the arts, visit museums and attend concerts, to discover and pursue their own passions.

In E.B White’s classic novel Stuart Little, the mouse approaches a sorrowful-looking superintendent of schools who explains the problem he is having finding substitute teachers. The mouse offers to substitute teach and arriving in the classroom he quickly dismisses the lesson plan for the day and instead asks the students one question: “How many of you know what’s important?”

All members of the HVA community would raise their hands.


Shelley Harwayne, one of the most prominent education leaders in the country, was the founder and principal of the renowned Manhattan New School, Superintendent of New York City’s District 2, and has advised schools and districts throughout the world in teacher development and instructional leadership. She is a founding faculty member of the Progressive Education Institute at HVA.