Primary Directive

A new principal’s tour of duty, from Bloomberg’s ‘academy’ to P.S. 50
By Andrea Gabor

The Village Voice
November 8, 2005

When Rebekah Mitchell, 31, a kindergarten teacher for all of eight years, became the principal of P.S. 50, a failing elementary school in Spanish Harlem, in July 2004, she expected a tough challenge.

The concrete building even looked forbidding, sandwiched between the Metro North housing projects on First Avenue and the FDR Drive. And it had spent years on a downward spiral. Under three different principals in just five years, the school was flunking: One-third of its children tested “far below” standards on math and literacy tests. Administration was so chaotic that key student records disappeared. Teachers described a curriculum that, in recent years, was alternately “rigid and test-oriented” and “incoherent.”

Discipline was lax; pupils were as likely to be roaming the halls as sitting in their classrooms — that is, when they weren’t watching SpongeBob videos, a ritual so common that some teachers nicknamed the school Cinema 50. “There were no rules. There was always fighting,” says Paris Scott, a sixth-grader. “It made it hard to learn.”

Yet Mitchell’s appointment prompted teachers and parents to protest the sacking of Lyle Walford, P.S. 50’s interim acting principal for just over a year. “The hardest thing,” recalls Mitchell, “was seeing the picture of the children beneath a sign that read ‘Princ-I-Pal,’ like he was their friend. I felt worried about the kids — how much they had been caught up in the politics.”

As Mitchell soon learned, the controversy at the school, where 96 percent of the students are black or Hispanic, had taken on racial overtones. Walford, who is black, was a “black power” kind of guy, according to one parent, while Mitchell is a white woman.

P.S. 50 is a microcosm of the school system — the result of inept administration and teaching, inadequate facilities and parenting, and seasonal curriculum changes that emanate from the New York City Department of Education and often lead to more confusion than enlightenment. While P.S. 50’s most recent test scores increased, along with those of other city schools, that improvement follows years of dismal results. In 2004, over 80 percent of the school’s students scored at the bottom two levels of city and state literacy tests, up from about 75 percent in 2003; math scores, with just under 70 percent of students scoring in the bottom half, showed some improvement from 2003.

Now the Bloomberg administration is pinning the latest hopes for school reform on the ability of newly trained principals like Mitchell, many of whom are younger and less experienced than their predecessors, to transform the system.

Mitchell was handpicked by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to be in the first graduating class of the controversial New York City Leadership Academy, launched in 2003 to alleviate a chronic shortage of qualified principals by training some 600 new recruits by 2006. Two years ago, Klein was visiting P.S. 109, a failing school in Flatbush, when he stopped by the kindergarten classroom of Rebekah Marler (Mitchell’s name before she married last fall). Mitchell found herself in a wide-ranging conversation about everything from charter schools to “balanced literacy” — a key part of Klein’s plan. Before he left her classroom, he recruited Mitchell to enroll in the Academy, a privately funded institution with a $75 million budget for its first three years — much of it from the business community — that combines management training with the school system’s latest ideas on instruction.

Mitchell has been on a fast track since leaving her native Florida, where she taught and served as a union leader until the late 1990s, then enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. After graduating, Mitchell was recruited to help form a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and two years later she joined P.S. 109.

“After five minutes in the classroom, I knew she had what it takes,” recalls Faith Love, a member of AUSSIE (the Australian United States Services in Education), who was a P.S. 109 education consultant at the time. Mitchell was able to defuse tension in a classroom — using routines like music and morning meetings — where fighting had been the norm, says Love. Mitchell understood “the importance of community building,” she adds, especially among children with difficult home lives.

Love encouraged Mitchell to demonstrate her methods to other teachers and urged the district superintendent to “fast-track Mitchell to a principal position.”

In 2003, Mitchell joined 90 aspiring principals in the Leadership Academy’s first class. Unlike the white male principals who dominated the city’s schools for years, two-thirds of Mitchell’s classmates were women, and many were — like their students — black or Latino. The new recruits were also more than a decade younger than current principals, whose average age is 52.

The class was put through a corporate-boot-camp-style program that featured speakers like former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who hammered home the importance of regular performance evaluations and professional development. The Academy also built on a grassroots leadership training program pioneered in 1987 in Manhattan’s District 2.

The Academy has won praise for teaching the nuts and bolts of union contracts and budgets. But critics, including District 2 veterans, charge that the Academy and its first CEO, telecom exec Robert E. Knowling Jr., initially skewed too heavily toward corporate training. Knowling resigned in April and was replaced by Sandra J. Stein, the Academy’s academic dean, who had helped design the District 2 program.

Mitchell needed all the point-ers she could get when she took over P.S. 50. The 1970s-era building is so poorly designed that the best views of the East River are just outside the stairwells. Little student work graces the dark cinderblock halls. In some classrooms, teachers complain that the ambient noise emanating from the FDR Drive sounds like a lawnmower.

Mitchell began by asking the building custodians to replace the windows, which were so scratched and dirty they had turned opaque. Together with her husband, Louis, some friends from the Academy, and a handful of parents, she scraped and repainted many public areas in the school.

Mitchell also had to cope with problems left over by her predecessor. On July 1, 2004, her first day on the job, Mitchell discovered that most of her office equipment was broken or useless. In the weeks before school started, she also had to resolve chaos in the back office. Classroom assignments for the fall were in disarray, and pupils’ portfolios had disappeared, making it virtually impossible to hold back students who had failed the state tests.

Teachers’ class preference lists had also vanished. Mitchell inherited several union grievances. For example, Steven Broder, a sixth-grade teacher with 14 years’ seniority, filed one when he learned that not only had his request for a third-grade assignment been denied but that he would have to leave his classroom. Over the years, Broder had transformed his side of a cavernous classroom, which he shares with another teacher, into a cozy space with colorful rugs and pillows and a small reading room complete with bookshelves and a sofa covered in a hand-crocheted purple afghan. “I drove her crazy,” recalls Broder. He finally agreed to teach sixth grade last year; in turn, Mitchell let him keep his classroom.

Another problem involved the residual effects of an old feud that effectively left Mitchell without a key administrator. Mitchell recently hired two interim acting assistant principals; one of them, Mable Elliott, a veteran dance teacher, seems to be a favorite among P.S. 50 parents.

Indeed, Walford was not universally loved. Some protested his removal less out of loyalty than from outrage at the way it was done — without consultation with teachers or parents. Meanwhile, many parents feared the further deterioration of standards. Under Walford, discipline problems had soared. In 2004, P.S. 50 had 106 suspensions, more than seven times the school’s suspension rate in 2002 under Walford’s predecessor.

Mitchell, who often patrols the hallways in three-inch heels that make her look six feet tall, says she was determined to restore discipline. Some parents found her “intimidating” at first, says Nancy Rivera, a mother who served as PTA president last fall.

Mitchell’s new rules also infuriated some parents. She eliminated classroom birthday parties, substituting group celebrations every other month. She outlawed junk food and confiscated contraband. Mitchell, who says she believes in “intrinsic motivation,” also banned incentives like stickers and candy for good behavior. While she issued about 15 suspensions last fall — for infractions like fighting and bringing weapons to school — Mitchell says the suspension rate has since dropped.

It may help her that she drives to work every morning with her husband. Louis Mitchell is one of the first African Americans to work as a character designer for Sesame Street, and the regular presence of “Mister,” as the kids call him, has helped to endear her to them. During an all-school assembly last spring, Louis Mitchell drew and talked about his own struggle to break into the largely white world of character design.

His presentation drew cheers from the kids, but only a handful of parents attended. In a school at which 94 percent of the children are eligible for free lunches, parental involvement was at a historic low.

After a year on the job, Mitchell appears to have won over many parents. Early last month, 400 families and teachers attended a P.S. 50 get-to-know-you dinner. “At first I thought people came to eat,” says Karen Behagen French, a mother who acknowledges that she had a rocky start with Mitchell last year. “But then they stayed and listened to the program. This principal is trying to do not only for the children but for the community.”

Adds Carmen García, who has two kids in the school: “Now my kids like school. It’s a better, more caring atmosphere.”

This year’s PTA has five officers, up from two last year. And about 25 parents showed up at the first PTA meeting, more than double the turnout of most events last year. Mitchell has also won praise for organizing monthly curriculum workshops for parents and kids; to boost attendance, she serves dinner and schedules PTA meetings on the same day.

A placard with the question “Is there etiquette to having a discussion or conversation?” hung prominently in Steven Broder’s classroom last spring.

It took on new meaning when a girl in Broder’s class came under suspicion of stealing — an incident that infuriated her classmates because, as they put it, it “reflected badly on the class.” The kids called a meeting and confronted the girl. In the end, the child admitted to the thefts, says Broder, and it was a catharsis for everyone.

Conversation, in fact, is a big theme at P.S. 50 these days. Yet some parents and teachers view Mitchell as “less accessible” than her predecessors, says Nichelle Rice, who served as P.S. 50’s union representative until last spring. Especially in her first year, Mitchell said she wanted her interactions with the faculty to be primarily “in professional development and in classrooms,” which she tries to visit every day.

Echoing a key Academy theme, she says, “One of the most important things to me is that teachers know … what my values are.”

A monthly doughnuts-and-coffee session with teachers — strictly voluntary — may be helping Mitchell bridge gaps. “What’s come through,” concedes Rice, “is that she’s still thinking like a teacher. She’s not just thinking like an administrator.”

Just as Mitchell has embraced the department’s mantras, Daria Rigney, one of 17 instructional superintendents for Region 9 and a booster of Mitchell’s performance so far, has helped launch a retraining effort. In addition to having sent teachers to classes at Columbia’s Teachers College, Mitchell is dispatching them to P.S. 126, in Chinatown — a District 2 success story — which Rigney has turned into a laboratory for her half-dozen “high-needs” schools in Region 9. (Under a recent reorganization of the massive school system, District 2 has been absorbed into Region 9.)

P.S. 126 now hosts teachers from schools like P.S. 50 for three-day exchanges. P.S. 50 teachers sit in classrooms and learn how to foster conversations and critical thinking, how to guide groups of children engaged in different activities, and how to assess their performance.

This is not the first time teachers have gone on such exchanges, said Rice, describing the “drive-by” nature of past training efforts at P.S. 50: “They’d throw a book at you and expect you to learn it overnight.” Now teachers are given the time to perfect new approaches. Nola Cooper, who has been teaching for 15 years — not all of them at P.S. 50 — and who attended a three-day exchange at P.S. 126 last year, agrees, saying, “This is the most professional training I’ve received since I began teaching.” Cooper, who teaches kindergarten, says she welcomes a shift away from the scripted curriculum of yore, when even the questions for students and the writing topics came from a manual.

There’s some evidence that whatever is happening at P.S. 50 may be working. Test scores at the school have improved overall. On city and state tests, whose results were released in June, of all P.S. 50 students tested in grades three through six, 29.6 percent scored in the top two levels in reading, an 11-point jump from the same period last year, and the best result since 2000. Fifth-grade scores soared, with over 40 percent scoring in the top two levels, a 29-point jump over 2004. But fourth-grade scores declined 7.7 percentage points. The gains were enough to take P.S. 50 off the list of “schools in need of improvement.”

Test scores have yo-yoed in the past, and they will need to stay up if P.S. 50 is to avoid the threat of restructuring, which could result in either the phasing out of the school or dismissal of half its teachers. At the same time, Mitchell’s job often resembles ER triage. The test improvements could threaten money they’re allotted for needed tutoring programs. And to pay for three reading specialists and an extra science teacher, Mitchell had to give up the paraprofessionals who worked in the kindergarten.

Now, just as Mitchell is focusing the P.S. 50 curriculum on writing, circumstances outside her control — new directives, the mayoral race — could further roil the school. But all that faded into the background when P.S. 50 recently hosted its first “curriculum evening.” By six on an October evening, the cafeteria was filled with families who listened to announcements from the PTA and from Mitchell over a chicken dinner before going on to the classrooms. Over a quarter of the kindergartners showed up with their parents, crowding into one classroom to sing songs and play word games. “These curriculum nights will help,” says Carmen García, one of only four parents who showed up in Broder’s class with their kids — he now teaches fifth grade. “If they can hold on to the kindergarten parents,” she says with a wistful smile, maybe by the time those kids are fifth-graders, “more of the parents will still be coming.”

Copyright 2005 Village Voice Media, Inc.