Salem Gregory spends her days juggling meetings to review attendance data, supervising social workers and guidance counselors, and making sure her students have what they need.
But she’s not a principal. She is a community school director responsible for tearing down the physical health and emotional barriers to learning her students face. And thanks to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expansion of the program, more leaders like her are stepping into schools this year.
Gregory, who technically works for the school’s nonprofit partner, Wediko Children’s Services, acknowledges it’s a big task. “It takes a while to get a system set, and a lot of the first year is just figuring it out,” said Gregory, who has been on the job at M.S. 363 Academy for Personal Leadership and Excellence in the Bronx for two years. But, she added, “it was exciting to start something new in tandem with the school.”
For this edition of “How I Lead,” we asked Gregory about how she became interested in the job, and what she considers the biggest misconceptions about how community schools work.
What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?
I have always been drawn to working with students and families. In high school and college, I was actively involved in a variety of community service and volunteer projects. Spending two summers at the Wediko summer residential program in 2009 and 2010, I received exceptional training in working with students with severe social, emotional and behavioral issues. I was able to meet great people who introduced me to the field of social work, and I was drawn to exploring human behavior within the various environments they inhabit.
Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I _______.
Greet students in the morning. It helps keep me grounded in the work and sets a positive tone for the day.
How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?
Wediko supports students where they are in a variety of ways. One is through our milieu approach. We are often in the hallways during class transitions, in the lunchroom, speaking with students as they arrive and depart, and in the classrooms supporting small group and individual instruction. This enables students to gain trust and build rapport with other adults in the building who are not their teachers, and for the Wediko counselors and clinicians to become seamlessly integrated into daily structures and routines of the school day.
In some key ways, you share the role of leading the school with the principal. How do you split leadership responsibilities?
The principal and I communicate regularly. We have set weekly meeting times, as well as informal check-ins as needed. While I support the academic and instructional pieces and play an integral role in this process, Wediko is the “go to” for anything relating to social/emotional programming, and managing all community partnerships within and outside the building.
What’s the biggest misconception about the community schools program?
It is not a one-size-fits-all program. There are so many community schools across the city with a variety of strengths, assets and areas of development. Oftentimes it is easy to lump schools together within a certain category.
What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
We’ve had the opportunity to partner with the Bronx Adult Learning Center to support two evening ESL classes for adult learners in the building. It’s been a great opportunity to engage with the surrounding community in a different way, and expand the supports we can offer in the school.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.
Running the “Parenting Journey” group for a small group of parents was a very memorable experience for me. While I am not a parent myself, facilitating conversations around parents’ own experiences growing up, their relationships with their own children, and sharing hopes for the future completely changed the way I think about parenting and what it means to be a parent. The women I worked with were incredibly resilient, funny and faithful. I can only hope to have their strength and wisdom if I ever become a parent.
What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
While this is not directly related to education policy, federal immigration policies have impacted our families. We have continued to develop the school as a safe space for everyone and communicated regularly with families regarding these changing policies and increasingly unfamiliar system.
We have been able to partner with community based organizations specializing in immigration law that allow parents and families to know their rights and seek resources for support.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Stay connected to people. Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best.