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To fill budget gap, principal jumps back into gym teacher role

Students who failed gym last year at the High School of Law Enforcement and Public Safety have an unlikely teacher in their makeup class this summer: their principal, Diahann Malcolm.

For 90 minutes on each of the school’s 27 days of summer classes, Malcolm is setting aside her considerable administrative duties to coax coach potatoes and class clowns into breaking a sweat.

Malcolm began her career three decades ago as a physical education teacher and she falls easily back into the role each day, donning a Nike tracksuit and showing off her own athletic abilities, honed through decades of distance running and competitive rope-jumping.

But it was budget cuts, not her love of fitness, that pushed Malcolm back into the classroom.

HSLEPS doesn’t look like a school in fiscal distress. The school occupies its own 7-year-old, six-story building in a low-slung section of central Queens. Inside the sun-drenched, colorful space, there are two large gyms, a library with a balcony overlooking Jamaica, a mock courtroom, gleaming science labs, and rooms of computers on every floor.

But like all city schools, HSLEPS is contending with its third straight year of budget cuts. Several years ago, Malcolm said, she could pay four teachers to offer summer classes. Now, she can only afford two.

Last year, when Malcolm crunched the numbers, she realized she would no longer be able to pay her gym teacher during the summer.

But because the state requires seven semesters of physical education, failing gym can easily trip up a student’s path toward graduation. Malcolm desperately wanted to offer the class but could only do so if she taught it herself — so she did.

This year, the school received roughly the same amount of summer school money as last year, about $26,000, but had more students who needed summer classes. The decision to repeat her instructional role was a no-brainer, Malcolm said.

“There was no question in my mind,” she said. “This subject is just as important as anything else.”

Malcolm’s roster contains 50 students, the maximum allowed; about 30 show up each day. On the third day of summer school this week, Malcolm carried an armful of folders filled with memos and to-do lists that required her attention. But at 9:45 a.m., she set them down on a table inside the third-floor gym and picked up colorful jump ropes instead.

Showcasing skills developed as a member of the Double Dutch Divas, a two-decade-old traveling troupe of rope-jumpers, Malcolm led students in a set of jump-rope drills designed to raise their heart rates quickly. (The school’s co-ed double dutch team, which Malcolm has coached, is the reigning city champion.) Next, she promised them, the class would start practicing basic volleyball maneuvers. They had already completed one of two written assignments for the class, an essay on the sport’s history.

Students gave Malcolm high marks.

“It’s better. She’s athletic, and more outgoing,” said junior Sheirra Brown.

Estimating that about 70 percent of the students in the class would pass at the end of the summer session, Malcolm said, “Those are 35 more kids I feel good about.”

But taking time out to teach means other responsibilities get pushed aside, at least for an hour and a half every day. Two floors below the gym, Malcolm’s desk is piled with binders of lesson plans that need to be inspected for each teacher, a checklist of compliance items that need to be completed, and a budget that has to be hashed out by the city’s deadline next week. She knows she has to cut at least one teacher loose and maybe two, but she hasn’t finalized those decisions.

“That’s what I should be working on,” she said.

The Department of Education says it doesn’t have numbers about how many principals take to the classroom during the summer or the school year. But officials noted that many of those who do are motivated, as Malcolm was, by a love of teaching, rather than simply budget woes.

A little over 200 of HSLEP’s 520 students are registered for summer classes, in math, history, English, and gym. Some students are also completing credit recovery courses — which the school calls Intensive Credit Units, or ICUs — in classes they came close to passing last year but ultimately failed.

Malcolm also saves money by having a history teacher, Gareth Robinson, do double duty, taking on both the global history and U.S. history classes.

“We’re fortunate that we have someone with the knowledge base to be able to teach both,” she said. “That’s a real bonus.”

But even with the extra efforts, Malcolm said, the school’s summer program doesn’t meet every student’s needs.

“If they would give me another $10,000, I tell you, I could make some stuff happen here,” Malcolm said. She said a top priority would be to offer a week of preparation for students retaking Regents exams that they failed in June. Right now, the school can only provide two days of review.

A handful of teachers plan to return early from summer break to offer those review sessions, and others will volunteer their time to grade exams at the end of the summer, Malcolm said. She said their dedication is part of the reason she doesn’t mind spending more than 40 hours in the classroom this summer and additional time preparing and assessing her students.

“I like to model from the top,” Malcolm said. “If my teachers can go above and beyond, I need to be able to also.”

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