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Principals outline the strategies they used to save their schools

Long before there were federally funded “turnaround” schools, Nyree Dixon was turning around Brooklyn’s P.S. 12. When she became the Brownsville school’s principal in 2006, barely a fifth of the elementary school’s students were passing state exams and the school was being considered for closure.

Since then, P.S. 12 has seen a jump in test scores and has stayed off the city’s list of schools on the chopping block. Dixon attributes the improvement to changes in the school’s culture and instructional practices.

She joined Deidre DeAngelis, principal of New Dorp High School on Staten Island, on a panel during the conference on alternatives to school closures that several advocacy groups organized Saturday. The pair discussed the strategies they used to help their once-failing schools stay open and, in New Dorp’s case, turn into a model of successful school improvement for the city and federal education departments.

Those strategies — adding tutoring, offering more teacher training, connecting students and teachers, and engaging families — predate the structural and human capital changes the Obama administration has mandated for failing schools. They suggest that strong leadership is enough to change a school’s course — a view that a top Department of Education deputy shared at Saturday’s conference.

“Nothing that happens in Tweed is going to move student achievement as much as 95 percent of things that happen in a school building,” said Marc Sternberg, the deputy chancellor in charge of closing and opening schools. “Where there is a great school leader, great students and great teachers will follow. If there isn’t that person who can galvanize a team and bring folks together around a common vision, the school is not going to move forward.”

When Dixon was assigned to P.S. 12, she said, the school had just been labelled a school under registration review (SURR), a state designation for persistently low-achieving schools. She created an after-school tutoring program that helped boost the school-wide passing rate on state exams — this year, nearly half of students received a score of 3 or 4 on the math exam, and 35 percent received a 3 or 4 on the reading test. She also added extra training for math and literacy teachers. And although it has been tough as the school’s budget tightens, Dixon said she has also built “crucial bonds” to the neighboring community, IN THE FORM OF?

“Community engagement means putting yourself in front of parents,” she said. “We host community events. We work with the [nearby] charter school.”

DeAngelis, who became principal of New Dorp High School in 1999, also stressed family engagement in her presentation.

If a principal does not invest time in parent outreach, she said, “it’s time to move on. You need to have a passion for working with families. Otherwise why do this job?”

DeAngelis detailed how student achievement rose after the school created eight specialized “small learning communities” to give the school of about 2,700 students a small-school feel, using funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Teams of New Dorp teachers studied student performance data and recommended that the school add mock Regents exams, send parents a report on student progress, and tweak the curriculum to target areas where students struggled most, such as grammar and sentence construction in English.

The best thing the DOE can do to support principals, according to Sternberg? “Get out of their way and allow them to do their work.”