STATEN ISLAND, NY — Ask anyone who knows Dr. Kenneth Byalin to describe him and they’ll all use the same words: Innovator. Visionary. Pioneer.
And all of his invention, those affected by it say, is fueled by his seemingly boundless compassion.
Byalin, 79, founded the first charter school on Staten Island, the John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School, in 2009, offering students facing emotional challenges a rigorous curriculum in a fully integrated setting with college and future success — for the first time ever — as realistic goals.
Over the past 13 years, his concept has blossomed into the four Staten Island schools comprising the Integration Charter Schools (ICS), serving 1,300 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. In addition to Lavelle Prep, the New Ventures Charter School is a transfer high school, the Lois and Richard Nicotra Early College Charter School provides an accelerated pathway to higher education, and the Richmond Preparatory Charter School fully integrates students on the autism spectrum.
The schools staff 19 mental health professionals, boast a graduation rate of 100% — and an impressive college acceptance rate of 100%.
As he eyes retirement at the end of June, those close to Byalin, ICS’s president, say ICS wouldn’t exist if not for his drive, and it wouldn’t be a success without his heart.
“I call him a social justice warrior,” said Mary Cottingham, a senior vice president and founding educator at ICS. “He’s one of the most compassionate individuals I’ve ever met.”
Cottingham echoed Byalin’s own words when she noted that he can be very, well, direct.
But that’s part of his appeal, she said. “He can be rough around the edges because he’s so honest. He has a tremendous amount of integrity,” she said, adding with a laugh: “I only quit once.”
Byalin’s strength was tested in the early 2000s, when he first sought support for a state Department of Education-funded charter school that would blend general education students fully with those with disabilities. No separate basement classrooms. No parallel curriculum. Complete integration.
The concept was unheard of.
“Separating people with disabilities doesn’t prepare them for integration in society,” Byalin said, proudly noting that today, across the four schools, in every class, every program, “there’s no difference in the academic performance or expectations. All of our kids are preparing for college.”
Back then, Byalin, of West Brighton, had recently retired from 30 years of working the field of mental health, many as a manager for the New York State Office of Mental Health, and many in private practice. I have started one nonprofit to aid artists with mental illness. Another foundation secured aid for homebound seniors with mental illness and families caring for adults with mental illness.
He envisioned a charter school incorporating small class sizes, low administrator-student ratios and plentiful mental-health support in a safe environment.
General education students, now 60% of the enrollment, would benefit greatly from the charter school model, he had the foresight to envision.
The life lessons those students pick up along the way, a result also envisioned by Byalin, are a testament to ICS’ success, educators say.
“They learn empathy, compassion, collaboration, teamwork,” said Jenna Curran, principal of Lavelle Elementary school, the component of Lavelle Prep serving students in kindergarten through fifth grade. “Students have the tools to navigate differences. It really empowers them.”
Byalin, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University, a master’s in social work from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Carleton College, has received accolades throughout his career, including receiving the Louis R. Miller Leadership Award in 2018, presented annually to a businessman who is also a community leader.
Yet, throughout his career, recognition was never his goal, colleagues say. Byalin was always motivated by kind-heartedness, especially for children facing challenges.
“At the core, his energy is all about compassion and caring for others,” Cottingham said.
Cottingham, and her colleague, Theresa Peterford, vice president of education for ICS, both stressed that Byalin’s management style is wonderfully unique. He isn’t easy to describe, they said, because he’s both a leader and a team player.
As a manager, Peterford said, he’s known for his open-door policy and eagerness to listen to others’ ideas and suggestions.
“He allowed us, as founding teachers, to really come to share ideas with him, even if the ideas are crazy,” Curran said. “He empowered us, as young teachers, to really just go for it.”
In fact, when ICS moved into its sparkling new location at Corporate Commons 3, Byalin opted to forego the large corner office befitting a president, instead placing his desk out on the floor among his staff.
“His space is in the open, for everyone to speak to him,” Peterford said. “That tells a lot about him, about his leadership style. He’s very immersive.”
Byalin recalls the skepticism he has faced when pushing for the Island’s first charter school, seeking to level the playing field for an underserved population. Yet, the support among the Island’s political leaders was always strong, he recalls.
“The obstacles that we faced, wonderfully, were not on Staten Island,” he recalls. “Every elected official supported us.”
He recalls a conversation with one particular state education commissioner who was suggesting the school have a much smaller percentage of students with disabilities. Her concern was that general education students would not want to attend the school if that number was higher.
“Nobody with a disability could ever be a role model for a person without a disability,” Byalin remembers the commissioner saying, to his disgust and disbelief. Byalin notes that, at the time, David Paterson, who is legally blind, was the governor of New York state and had appointed the commissioner.
In reality, when the first school opened with an open lottery enrollment system, 75% of students were general education and 25% had special needs, more in line with Byalin’s proposal.
And interest in enrollment continued to grow. By the school’s third year, the number of special education applicants had doubled, and the number of general education applicants had gone up 600%, Byalin said.
Facing retirement and looking back today, Byalin struggles to put his finger on exactly why he identifies so strongly with kids who are disadvantaged or struggle with learning challenges.
“How did these become my people?” he asks rhetorically. Perhaps, he said, it’s because he has struggled himself.
Shy, anxious and hot-tempered as a teenager, Byalin, who is now a Zen teacher in the lineage of Bernie Glassman, said he remembers having a difficult time fitting in.
“Adolescence was not my favorite part of life,” he says. In recent years, through research into autism, he began to suspect that he, himself, might be also on the autism spectrum.
Asked what he’d change about his career if given the opportunity, he says he’d change nothing, yet wondered aloud: “What could we have accomplished if we started this charter school in 1985?”
Would more students have been served? Doubtful, I have conceded. Staten Island wasn’t ready yet.
Cottingham says Byalin’s retirement, which will be celebrated at a party on June 24 at the Staten Island Zoo, is bittersweet. “We’re happy for him and I’m excited to see what the future holds, but we’re going to miss him terribly,” she said. “He’s the heart and soul of this place and he created it from scratch, and we all came along for the ride.”