"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.