Episode 1- Project Based School Start-up in NYC!

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In this episode, I interview Babur Habib, the co-founder of the Portfolio School in New York City. We discuss how he started the school, the successes and challenges that they faced during the process and their vision for the future. 

Transcript

Erin Starkey:
Welcome to Reimagining Schools, a podcast by the Edupreneur Academy. My name is Erin Starkey, and I started this podcast in order to give information to other fellow edupreneurs about starting schools. In this first episode, we’re going to talk to Babur Habib, who is the co-founder of the Portfolio School in downtown Manhattan. We’re going to talk a little bit about what it took to start a school and how he started in a much smaller space and worked his way to a larger location. Hopefully, that will answer some questions for those of you that are interested in starting a new school, but there is a lot more information on our website available to edupreneurs at EdupreneurAcademy.org, so please feel free to reach out and ask for more information.
Erin Starkey:
I appreciate you taking the time to do this. Can you tell us a little bit about your Portfolio School here in New York City?
Babur Habib:
Yeah. We’re a five year old K-12 program. In fact, we start with preschool level. We are very much a project based learning school. The idea is that we want to have kids have context with their learning, and so we focus on academic rigor, but we also focus on them applying what they’re learning. The difference between when they learn something and when they, time-wise and physically, when they apply that knowledge, is very, very short.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah.
Babur Habib:
Yeah.
Erin Starkey:
Great. It’s a beautiful facility here. Did you guys start here or did you start smaller? How did you begin?
Babur Habib:
We started smaller. We had just a 2,000 square foot [inaudible 00:01:55] campus space that we rented from a preschool there in Tribeca. We started with seven kids. Two years later, we grew out of that space and into this one.
Erin Starkey:
So seven kids. Did you just have one teacher at that time?
Babur Habib:
Yes, we had our founding director teaching [inaudible 00:02:21], our head of school and one teacher.
Erin Starkey:
[inaudible 00:02:35]. What would you say that parents and students like best about your school?
Babur Habib:
What parents and kids love about school, I think the kids love about school is this idea of application, this idea of making their own projects. Their favorite ones has been what we call Learning is Delicious, where they build ice cream.
Erin Starkey:
Oh, that’s great, yeah.
Babur Habib:
An ice cream machine, and they will make three flavors of ice cream. Through that lens of making ice cream and an ice cream machine, they learn about CAD design. They learn about fractions and how to apply their math skills. They looked at the studies of cultural significance of ice cream across the world, the commerce of how when we were first able to make ice on an industrial scale, how do you actually build a commerce, form a business around that. We looked at all these different aspects.
Babur Habib:
The kids love that idea of they go out [inaudible 00:03:39] and do something with it. That’s one thing parent’s really appreciate it for. They get to see kids just learning their math skill, reading and writing skill, but in fact there’s an exhibition at the end of every year. They get to see all the work that they did around it [inaudible 00:03:58].
Erin Starkey:
[inaudible 00:03:58] that’s great. [inaudible 00:03:58] ice cream.
Babur Habib:
Exactly, yeah. Yes.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. What early challenges did you face when starting a school?
Babur Habib:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think there is a number of challenges. If you’ve been putting a school together in a city like New York where real estate is a big concern, that was a big concern. Hiring the right people, who’s going to be your team, myself and my co-founder, we were not… Our background was not education. We were never in schools except for when we were in school.
Erin Starkey:
Right.
Babur Habib:
It was, from getting the space, getting the teachers, getting the check marks from the state, there are a number of things that have to line up where you can actually then open the school [inaudible 00:04:49]. I think my suggestion when anybody is thinking about that is that there’s going to be a number of challenges, and it depends on exactly what specifically you are looking to do, but if you break it down into smaller pieces, really understand what that specific problem you’re trying to solve, then they’re mostly solvable.
Babur Habib:
We started to look into building a school January of 2016, and we opened in September. Everybody told us it will take you two years to do it, so you have to take that with a grain of salt and keep at it.
Erin Starkey:
Were there any specific resources that you found [inaudible 00:05:38] the challenges that you faced [inaudible 00:05:43]?
Babur Habib:
I think there are folks who were looking to help you. What we found was that both the DOE, the city’s DOE, Department of Education, as well as the state department, we were able… You reach the right person and they’re going to help you figure it out. I would also say that if you have the funds, invest in a good lawyer who will help you navigate the paperwork around opening a school. There’s quite a bit of paperwork and stuff, so make sure that’s not something that [inaudible 00:06:33]. It’s worth it to have a lawyer to do that.
Babur Habib:
Then I would say there is one other piece is that we have a network of schools called Innovative Schools Cooperative, ISC, so check out their website also. There are a bunch of schools that are very, very [inaudible 00:07:04].
Erin Starkey:
It’s got some other people who are further along in the process.
Babur Habib:
Exactly.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah, good resource.
Babur Habib:
They really help.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah, great. Is there anything specific that you wish you had done then that you know now when you were getting started?
Babur Habib:
That’s a great question. Yeah, gosh, many things that I wish I’d known. I wouldn’t say anything specific comes to mind, but just understanding. I think one thing to understand right here is what kind of school philosophy you really are going for. What is your mission of the school, and making sure that all stakeholders, your team, your students, your parents, at least everybody can understand what that is.
Babur Habib:
There was some great advice given to me by [inaudible 00:08:08] who started his school in San Francisco called Bright Works. He said that your first set of parents will come in and disappear, because what you tell them and how they perceive it is very different, but don’t get worried about it.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah, it’s probably easy to get off track of your mission. It’s good to remember to go back to it.
Babur Habib:
Yeah, to come back to it, and I think in terms of educating people, what that is.
Erin Starkey:
Makes sense. What advice, and you’ve already put this a little bit, but what advice would you give to a new edupreneur starting a school?
Babur Habib:
I think my advice would be it’s very exciting. It’s very worthwhile because it’s such an amazing thing to see. When the kids are there, they’re going to be [inaudible 00:09:03] around that. I think it’s just perseverance is very key there. In any startup, I think it’s key.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah, understanding if there’s going to be problems, and then you can find people to help you solve those.
Babur Habib:
Exactly. Yes.
Erin Starkey:
[inaudible 00:09:14] finding solutions, right? What are you plans for the school for the future? I know we talked a little bit about your [inaudible 00:09:23] for networking. Maybe more schools?
Babur Habib:
What we wanted right off the bat, my co-founder [inaudible 00:09:30] and I, we wanted to build something which would not just be a school in Manhattan in New York City, but to take this and really scale it up, this kind of education and scale it up. I think a lot of people talk about project based learning and [inaudible 00:09:46], but how do you do it where parents can see, okay, what kind of progress my child is making, both academically and socially, application-wise and [inaudible 00:09:58]. How do teachers feel good about this work that they’re doing? Projects and very immersive units can be frustrating sometimes on the educator as well. How do you keep them motivated? How do you build enough structure around it that they feel successful?
Babur Habib:
Our idea is to scale it, is to have multiple campuses of our own. We want to also have certain online programs around it as well, but also help other edupreneurs as well. That is part of our mission, so then our curriculum piece, our professional development piece for teachers, all those components we want to see how that can actually have a bigger effect [inaudible 00:10:52].
Erin Starkey:
Great. Gosh, so if there are edupreneurs that are interested in connecting with you to find out more, what would be the best way to reach out?
Babur Habib:
It’s actually an email. My email is Babur, B-A-B-U-R @portfolio-school.com. We also have a phone on our website. Just on our homepage if you go all the way down to the bottom, you’ll be able to see that form.
Erin Starkey:
The website, it’s just portfolioschool.com.
Babur Habib:
It’s portfolio-school.com.
Erin Starkey:
Ah, dash. Very good, okay. Was there anything else you’d like to share about your school or edupreneurs in general?
Babur Habib:
I would just say it’s very exciting. I think there is a fundamental shift coming out of this 18 months of COVID. I think there are ways to actually think about schools and think about learning in different ways and stuff. I think one silver lining out of all of this is the education community, the educator community, the parent community, is very open to those ideas right now. I think it’s a great time to be an edupreneur.
Erin Starkey:
Innovative, yeah.
Babur Habib:
Yes.

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