What makes a school great? A great school is not defined just by what's behind the walls, but the relationships forged within them. The principal, teachers, staff and equipment are important but most significant are the rapport and bonds created between the teachers and students which are based on trust, understanding, respect and sense of belonging to a community. Students won't learn if they don't relate to or connect with the teachers at least to some degree. Most of us don't remember how to do trigonometry and don't use it in our everyday lives, but I bet we can all remember that special teacher or staff member who made a real difference in our lives.

Here in America we're at a crossroads in regard to teaching methods and how to prepare all of our youth for college and careers. We can embrace alternative teaching models and technical schools or continue down the path of the “dumbing of America” by forcing students to memorize and regurgitate excessive amounts of information just to pass a test. They don't gain any real-life experience, sense of a meaningful pathway or leadership skills which are crucial in life. EPIC North High School definitely embraces a more interactive learning style and challenges students to think independently and dream big. EPIC North is a competency-based school which utilizes a project-based learning model and aims to balance academics with social and emotional development.

How EPIC North is different and how it all started

The founding principal, David Weinberg, a graduate of Harvard's School Leadership program and a diehard Celtics fan, comes to us from Massachusetts. While there, he was a high school social studies teacher, principal and most recently assistant superintendent in the Chelsea, Massachusetts public school system. Being passionate about teaching and getting students to desire to excel, he was displeased with the rigid constraints of the public-school system there. When the opportunity became available for a fellowship for Expanded Success Initiative (ESI) in NYC, he applied and was accepted. The program awarded grants to select city schools to help them develop programs to improve college and career-readiness rates for black and Latino students, but essentially the program is for every student. In 2014 Epic North High School opened in South Richmond Hill, along with 2 other schools with similar models for learning (Epic South and Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice).

The high school experience reimagined at EPIC provides social and emotional support along with interactive academics. The students must work toward 66 attainments, both academic and social, and have each one signed off by a staff member. There are four core values employed in the teaching and learning model: competency-based, culturally responsive, human-centered and integrated. From these core values stem empowerments for students to have input into decisions of their learning and lives. Both staff and students are encouraged to collaborate on the design of their projects and build relationships that go beyond “the golden rule” of treating others as they want to be treated. For example, the core value of Cultural Relevance encourages the teachers to take into account the students' cultural references into all aspects of learning. This is just one example of how the school takes learning to a whole new level and personalizes the education of each and every student.

Students each have Core advisors who are so much more than the guidance counselors that every other high school has. The advisors become a very important and integral part of the students' life at EPIC. They are there to help with everything from social and academic issues, college and career goals, to having another friend to talk to. According to the students' handbook ““CORE is a tight-knit group of approximately twenty students and two adults who will maintain their group status throughout the EPIC school experience. CORE has the dual goal of creating a comprehensive support system and accountability structure for students within the context of a consistent community.”

Within the teaching community and an organization called Competency Works, EPIC North is quite the celebrity. During any given week, EPIC North usually has several visitors from other schools and states to observe firsthand the project based, self-paced learning model in action. Students are encouraged to interact with the guests and the guests with the students. Visitors may attend a students' presentation and then join in by asking questions at the end. They have had observers from as far away as California just to see the learning model and get advice on how to implement it into their own school or district.

The person most responsible for holding this EPIC “family” together is Principal David Weinberg. He deeply believes in each and every student and encourages them to do their best and to follow their dreams. You could not ask for a more caring, dedicated and selfless person to run this school. From Summer Bridge, to Core, to off campus student bonding trips, this school is unique and a true diamond in the rough. It would be wonderful to see more of our schools implementing this model. His open-door policy extends to both students and parents alike. He truly makes you feel like part of a very special community and we're privileged to have him at EPIC North High School.

For more information, visit: epicschoolsnyc.org/north and competencyworks.org (article “High Expectations of EPIC North” by Chris Sturgis)