On Friday, Aug. 28, One City Elementary School signed a new lease for a building on Madison’s southeast side, double the size of its former Fisher Street location.
Just four days later, after a long weekend of moving, elementary-age students started their 2021-22 school year in a new building, with a new principal Faren D’Abell.
Students used desks and chairs loaned from the previous tenants, cubicles were converted to classrooms, and staff scattered hand sanitizing stations around the first floor.
The upcoming year, D’Abell said, is about adapting.
The student population of One City had outgrown its location, D’Abell said. The school — which opened in 2015 as a nonprofit public charter school for preschoolers and has grown to include elementary age students and eventually students up to the sixth grade — used space in the basement of Mt. Zion Baptist Church for the overflow.
Now preschoolers have essential space to socially distance at the Fisher Street location, and the elementary-age students at the Coyier Lane have 26 acres and two miles of trail to hike and bike.
Starting the school year in a pandemic gave D’Abell the opportunity to demonstrate his ability to adapt and to experience something he loves about education; a challenge.
“It was both a challenge and it’s something that’s novel,” he told Madison365.
Before turning to academia 17 year ago, he worked as an operations director and as a radio journalist for National Public Radio, he said in both of his previous careers he got bored.
“Doing the same thing over and over every day is something I’m not interested in. As for education, even as a teacher it was very interesting to me because I was able to have a new job every day basically,” he later added.
He worked in Chicago and Detroit before being hired at One City in June. For the next roughly eight weeks he and staff members met virtually planning three different school years: all virtual, all in person, and a combination of the two.
One City Elementary surveyed parents and families to see what would work best for their 170 students. Ultimately, they decided for a combination — roughly 70% of elementary students are attending classes in person, and 30% are virtual, D’Abell said.
For the 38 remote learners, there are 26 mentors who help students either one on one or in mini-groups.
This allows for a quick transition to all virtual in the case of a COVID-19 scare — which the school has had one, D’Abell said.
To begin most mornings staff and students bike the paths surrounding the former American Family Insurance building.
The three-story building located at 450 Coyier Lane, has more than 26,000 square feet; with at least five classrooms, eating space, a staff area, a special education room, nurse room, a multiple purpose room and more.
Through a connection with the city of Madison, One City Elementary School has acquired dead trees to use as part of the outdoor play. The trees, some of them as wide as five-feet, are configured in a way so students can use it as a balance beam, sitting circle or free play.
The most memorable moment of the year so far; he said, was the first day of school. After students had been home with their families for extended periods of time because of COVID-19, D’Abell said students were excited to see their friends and teachers.
“There were just huge smiles,” he said.
Although Sept. 1 was D’Abell’s first day of school at One City, it is not his first day in academia.
He grew up near Chicago where he got a good education, he said but it wasn’t until college that he had a Black teacher.
“Education wasn’t really on my radar,” he said.
It wasn’t until his mother, who worked at a Juvenile Detention Center in the suburbs, asked him to volunteer. He created a six-week curriculum for the incarcerated youth to teach them how to tell their story through radio.
“It was really about the kids,” he said. “They were kids that were kind of throwaways and they were responding, they were engaged, they were inspired and it was something to see them be able to find something that they loved and something that they could pursue was really enriching for me.”
After that, he took a position with Academy for Urban School Leadership, whose initial mission was training teachers to teach in Chicago Public Schools and eventually morphed into transforming schools that were continuously failing.
The program only accepts 5% of applicants.
D’Abell went on to be a founding teacher, International Baccalaureate (IB) coordinator and principal of Frazier International Magnet School, Chicago’s first 90/90/90 school (90%+ students receiving free and reduced lunch, 90%+ being members of a minority group, and 90%+ meeting and exceeding state standards). While D’Abell was principal, Frazier International was honored with the prestigious National Blue-Ribbon Schools Award, Madison365 previously reported.
D’Abell then went on to be the principal at National Heritage Academies in Detroit and then consulting work at Purdue University before coming to One City.
He said as a principal he ensures students feel heard and prioritizes meeting with students each day.
“I spend time with kids every day; I teach every day,” he said. “I had kids come into my office and I’m teaching every day. I’m working on a book right now on spotted hyenas with five kindergarten students right. Principals who say they don’t have time to spend with kids are choosing not to spend time with kids. prioritize. I prioritize spending time with kids and staff.”