When we opened Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS) in New York City—a grade 6–12 school-more than six years ago with our first batch of sixth and seventh graders, we wanted to do something different. We wanted: A student population that is socioeconomically and racially diverse

  • A school where kids are not separated into tracks, which can make it difficult to ensure equity across the entire student body 
  • A curriculum focused on real-world, relevant experiences for students that are based in their local communities rather than textbooks
  • A teaching staff that is creative, collaborative, and committed to student-centered instruction
  • A culture where continuous improvement is the norm—not something forced from the outside

Since we opened our doors, each year we have retained more than 90 percent of our staff, maintained an exceptionally high attendance rate, and received more than 2,500 applicants for approximately 150 seats.

Collaboration Is Key

In educational circles, the word “collaboration” is often talked about, but because of various challenges confronting schools, it is seldom fully embraced and implemented effectively. At MELS, collaboration is “baked into” all that we do. We have been very intentional about creating the structures to support collaboration at our school, from the design of curriculum to the ways in which we structure time for planning and teacher teams.

Our teachers work together in grade-level teams to plan interdisciplinary units that not only develop students’ ability to make connections across subjects, but instead build community among our staff and lead to more thoughtful, engaging curricula. We believe that thoughtfully designed group work and hands-on activities build student engagement, challenge students to think deeply about the material, and prepare our kids for the real world.

Upon visiting our school, you can see a team planning grade-wide trips to Forest Park to forage and build shelters in the woods; student groups presenting their findings on the human impact on the ecosystem of Jamaica Bay; English, social studies, and math teachers planning together to teach students about the rise of the labor movement and the current issue of workers earning a livable wage; and students circled up debriefing their community-​building initiative. At MELS, collaboration is about more than just “getting along.”

Co-principals Model Teamwork

We believe it all starts with our leadership model. We operate as co-principals, building on other models of effective co-leadership we have witnessed in the past. While our co-principalship is not solely responsible for the culture of collaboration at MELS, it is a significant part of the equation. From the beginning, the two of us have operated as the only two administrators in a school of 830 students. Every day our staff and students see the two of us, as co-principals, modeling teamwork as instructional and operational leaders.

Since we opened, we have built structures that support our work together. We share a very small office that was designed for one principal; we share a joint email account in order to communicate as a united voice; and we discuss all important decisions (which often leads to long conversations after work to examine all perspectives on an issue). We believe this “double examination” forces us to analyze issues much more deeply and leads to more thoughtful decisions.

Although it often takes more time, our thinking and revision together strengthens every aspect of our school in a way that is much different than, say, an assistant principal working with a principal. It is not just a structure that we attempt to model, but a way of thinking—that we value one another’s input and have absolute trust in one another. In addition to these small structures, we work daily in all conversations to ensure that parents, students, and community members see the two of us as equals in much the same way that we want our collaboratively taught classrooms to communicate with one voice.

Evidence of Success

Last June, our original seventh-grade class graduated 12th grade, and based on New York City Department of Education statistics, we were the second unscreened school in New York City in a decade to achieve a four-year graduation rate of 100 percent. Plus, we were thrilled to have 98 percent of those graduates accepted into college.

As an unscreened public school (we do not look at test scores for admission), we serve an incredibly diverse group of students from approximately 25 different elementary schools.

The New York City Department of Education has named MELS as a Showcase School, EL Education recognized MELS as one of 12 Mentor Schools across the country, and The New York Post named us one of “the best New York City schools no one knows about.” We are proud of our success. While the accolades are nice, they’re not the reason we go to work every day.

Just a Number 

While significant accomplishments such as graduation rate and college acceptance rate are incredibly important for our school, they alone do not make our school a great place for students and teachers. A number is just that—a number. While we will always shoot for a 100 percent graduation rate, there’s more to success than just the numbers. What’s harder to convey-but is significantly more important-is the experience that people have within your school.

  • Are students happy to be there? 
  • Are they challenged in ways that make them not just better learners and students, but better human beings? 
  • Do staff members feel that the work they do has meaning and is focused on a coherent vision? 
  • Does the staff enjoy committing so much time and energy to what is exhausting and occasionally frustrating work that is often undervalued by society?

In our experience, the only way to accomplish all of those things is to embrace a collaborative model of school leadership, which can help ensure that the school’s culture and mission are sustained and improved over the long term.

Fighting for Proper Recognition 

From the beginning, there have been those outside of our school community that have expressed their skepticism as to whether a co-principalship could function effectively. Honestly, there are still some who doubt that shared leadership models have a place in large, urban school systems. The New York City Department of Education, for example, has yet to officially recognize both of us as principals. However, we believe that co-principalships can be exceptional models for school leadership, and we are awaiting approval of a proposal we submitted to the New York City Schools chancellor to officially recognize our co-principalship. We believe that if public schools are truly to be a catalyst for change, then we must embrace innovation and avoid being a system billed as “one size fits all.”

Since opening, our school has proven successful. Our staff retention rate is high because our staff recognizes how sustaining collaboration can be in a profession with incredibly high turnover. Our first graduating class was successful because they invested in their community and have developed the important life skill of knowing how to work with others. For schools with a core value of collaboration, a co-leadership model truly supports that work. 

Damon McCord and Patrick Finley are co-principals at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in New York City.

Making It Work

Tips for Operating with Co-principals

  • Create a “veto” clause. If either principal feels strongly enough about a decision, that individual can veto the other person.
  • Learn what type of leader you are and what type your “co” is. It’s important to recognize each leader’s “default” responses to various scenarios.
  • Analyze your working and interpersonal relationships. This is someone you’ll probably spend more time with than any other person in your life.