It's a typically hectic day at Waterside School for Leadership, a public middle school in Rockaway Park, New York. By early afternoon, Waterside founder and principal Linda Munro has spoken to a group of sixth-graders heading to Fordham University to get a firsthand look at college about how to comport themselves, sat in on a class to assess teacher-student interactions, joined a discussion about the math curriculum for the 2011-12 academic year, conducted a conference call with a principal from another school, met with the parent of a struggling student, and helped out with lunch and recess duty.
In some ways, a career in public education seems to have been Munro's destiny. Before her parents moved the family to New York from Grenada, Munro's father was a principal and her mother, a teacher. Still, Munro came to Duke thinking she would go on to law school. During a political science class focusing on urban politics, Munro was struck by how often the problems that minority populations face always came back to their lack of opportunities to receive a good education. She'd experienced the disparities firsthand, when in sixth grade she was identified as an academically gifted student and was tapped to go to a private school.
"It was a totally different world," she says of shifting from a public to a private school. "The expectations were miles apart. At the private school, the question was where you were going to college, not whether you were going. I went from being in huge classes to being one of twelve students in an English class, and everyone— teachers, guidance counselors— knew me by name."
For her political science class, Munro wrote a paper describing how the U.S. public-education system fails to equip individuals with the skills needed to effect change in their communities and to make informed decisions around issues that have a direct impact on their lives. Her professor challenged her "to put my money where my mouth was," says Munro, and persuaded her to apply to Teach For America after graduating. Munro was assigned to a second-grade class at Public School 6 in Paterson, New Jersey, and discovered that she was where she belonged. After her TFA stint ended, she taught middle-school science and math at a Bronx charter school while earning her master's in education leadership from Columbia University's Teachers College.
In 2008, she joined the NYC Leadership Academy's Aspiring Principals Program, a fourteen-month leadership-development program to prepare participants to improve academic achievement in New York City's low-performing public schools. With input from mentors, fellow teachers, TFA colleagues, and parents, Munro submitted an application to the New York City Department of Education's New School Initiative, which puts an emphasis on interdisciplinary study, project-based instruction, and real-world experiences. She and her staff opened Waterside's doors as an alternative to the struggling local middle school, PS 225 Seaside, which is phasing out its operations. Before the school opened in the fall of 2009, Munro personally visited the home of every incoming sixth-grader to introduce herself and her vision for academic success.
"Middle school is a time of transition," she says. "Students still have a sense of wonder and excitement about education and discovery. It's also a time when parents are stepping back and students begin to decide for themselves whether education is important for them. I want to encourage that curiosity and help them embrace academic achievement so that they go on to success in college—and beyond."
Linda Munro '02
Raising Education Expectations
August 1, 2011