Carey Swanson

Academic Director at Exceed Charter School

TFA Corps ‘01, South Bronx NYC

After completing her Teach For America commitment in the South Bronx and teaching at a charter school in Harlem, Carey heard of the impact Explore Charter School was making in Brooklyn and applied to joined the team as a fourth grade teacher in 2004.  Before long, she took on the role of Mentor Teacher/ Enrichment Coordinator, which enabled her to work across the school in a leadership capacity. She is a graduate of the Columbia University’s Summer Principals Academy at Teacher’s College and is currently the Lower School Academic Director at Explore Charter School.

Q:  Please describe an important piece to making a successful school.

“Based on my past experience, I’ve learned it takes a committed group of people to make the school run.  I think it’s more about that commitment, dedication, and ownership over your school, than any program, structure or building.  I’ve also learned how great it is to be a part of a real community school.”

Q:  What makes Explore different from other schools?

“The level of commitment.  As a network, we are completely supported with the resources to succeed, but people are constantly doing things outside of their job description just to help or to pitch in.  It is very typical to hear a second grade teacher talking to an eighth grade student about how they are transitioning. There is a huge variety of people willing to pitch in, and their level of commitment stands out.  It makes us unique.”

Q: How does your school work as a team to make decisions?

“There is a school-wide approach to making decisions, rather than a top down approach. We do this because we want teachers to have a voice, particularly in decisions that affect them. We have a Teacher Advisory Board, which is a group of teachers that self-select to meet every three weeks to talk with leadership about school-wide issues. We also recently started a wide variety of task forces which are staff groups who meet after school to discuss current school-wide decisions, and decisions that impact next school year.” 

Q: What is your support system like as a leader within the network? 

“In general it is a very supportive environment, not only of the leadership team but the entire staff. We are able to draw on support from the other schools in the Explore Schools network, and the Explore Schools home office, but also the Explore leadership team receives a lot of support from one another.”

Q:  What are the challenges of transitioning from a teaching position to a leadership role?

“It is definitely interesting to step into a leadership role where you were a teacher, but the most challenging aspect is going from having 20 kids that you call your own to having 500 kids that you feel very responsible for. My responsibility as a leader is to help teachers create a supportive academic environment rather than to create the environment just within my classroom. It is a broader role, but it affects so many kids.” 

Q: How do Explore’s assessments impact the work you do on a day-to-day basis?

“What we have done, and what we try to do is look at what the kids need to know to be successful and incorporate that into good teaching. For example we have a huge emphasis on guided reading, and our guided readings are done with actual books, not test prep books or multiple-choice passages.  We have done a lot of work on what makes a child successful on the state reading test and have simply incorporated those things into authentic instruction using engaging texts and styles that kids connect with. Our assessments provide us with a lot of data and our goal is to use that data in a way that feels authentic, relevant and interesting.”

Q:  What kind of qualities do you look for in a teacher?

“We look for someone who is action-oriented, goal-driven, but also reflective and actively thinks about what they can do differently and how they can improve their class to achieve 100% academic success. Personal motivation plays a large role in success at Explore Schools. A strong spirit of collaboration is necessary as well. In a lot of schools the expectation is that you are on your own within your classroom, but that’s not the case in our school. We need people who won’t just share materials with other teachers, but who will truly collaborate with their peers.”

Q:  What should a parent looking to enroll their student know about Explore?  

 “At Explore we have a low teacher to student ratio coupled with a strong staff to address the needs of a child in the best ways possible. Our K-8 model and mission are focused on giving our students what they need to go to an exceptional high school the entire time they are at our school. We also have a high level of accessibility. Parents have ample opportunities to access the school through school-wide events, and through direct means; our teachers carry cell phones and are available if parents have questions or if they need help with their child’s homework.”

Q:  What does 100% student achievement mean to you?

“100% student achievement from a leadership perspective is doing what it takes to meet the specific individual needs of students.  It doesn’t look like ‘I taught that standard.’  It looks like ‘who mastered that standard, and what do we do to address the needs of the kids who didn’t get there?’  It means looking at kids as individuals and teaching as a puzzle to be solved by teachers. The 100% goal changes the feeling of teaching because you are constantly looking at what else you have to do, and what you have to add to what you are already doing.”