Allison Gaines Pell sees herself as a builder, and now that she’s completed her latest project it’s time to move on to a new one.
Pell, who founded Urban Assembly Academy of Arts & Letters in 2005 and steered its growth into one of Brooklyn’s most popular middle schools, announced this week that she was resigning at the end of the year. The announcement comes roughly a year after Pell also oversaw Arts & Letters’ bumpy expansion into an elementary school.
John O’Reilly, who has been a co-director since the beginning of the school year, will take over the helm.
Pell said today that she would be moving on to the Blue School, a growing private elementary school on the Lower East Side that is so far best known as a school started by members from The Blue Man Group. But the school is also steeped in progressive education, a model that Pell is familiar with. Pell attended Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights, one of the city’s most progressive schools, then taught there for three years after graduating from Brown. Pell, a graduate of the city’s Leadership Academy, was a favorite at Tweed and praised as a model candidate from the new brand of young principals in the public school system.
In an interview, Pell said her reasons for leaving had more to do with where she is headed than any difficulties she faced in navigating the bureaucracies of the DOE.
“There is no part of me that’s leaving because I’m not happy,” Pell said. “I enjoy building things and this is an exciting prospect for me.”
The Blue School is currently serves pre-school through 3rd grade and will cap out at 5th grade.
Pell made the announcement on Monday to teachers in a faculty meeting and in a letter home to parents. In the letter, Pell said that her goal from the beginning was to build a collaborative school founded on her own progressive education that could sustain itself whether she was in charge or not.
“When I started the school, I set a goal to build the leadership capacity needed to ensure stability and continuity when I departed,” Pell wrote. “In that way, the school would not depend on any one person or leader.”
The Academy of Arts & Letters, which serves students from four districts, received 1400 applications for 100 new seats last year, according to the school’s educational plan last year. As it has grown to capacity, its progressive approach to education has made it a highly desirable option for young parents in the area’s gentrifying community in and around Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. That same trend took on racial overtones last year, when its expansion plan threatened parents of P.S. 20, an older elementary school that shared space in the building.“I’m really disappointed to see her go,” said David Goldsmith, last year’s Parent Association co-president and a current member of the District 13 CEC. “But nobody would wish her anything but the best because she made huge sacrifices and really created a great school.”
Parents were shocked by the news and some said they were “very upset,” Goldsmith said. One reason for parents’ concern is that Pell led the charge in a bruising battle to expand. Now the school will complete its expansion without her at the helm.
But Pell lauded O’Reilly’s leadership and said she was confident in the rest of the faculty to build on the school’s success so far.
“I know Arts & Letters won’t skip a beat — not with the talent we have on our staff, our leadership, our students, and with you, our amazing parent community,” Pell wrote in the letter.
O’Reilly said he was saddened to hear he would be losing his collaborator of four years but agreed that the school’s status was not in doubt.
“I think we’re going to be fine and we’re going to continue to do amazing work,” he said.