Straight shooter

Principal wears multiple hats to run special education school

Principal Ava Kaplan in her office at special education school, P186 in the Bronx.

On a sunny Friday morning, the hallways in a Bronx school buzzed with excitement as students prepared to celebrate their prom in the first floor cafeteria, which had been converted into a disco-themed dance floor.

Principal Ava Kaplan greeted a group of P186’s eighth graders as parents, teachers, and other administrators hovered over them with cameras. Everyone gathered around to cheer the 29 students who, because of serious cognitive and physical disabilities, are part of the school’s alternative assessment program.

Kaplan bent down and waved one hand across her face. “Beautiful,” she said in sign language to a girl in a white lace dress.

The prom is a welcomed break in Kaplan’s busy schedule – running a special education school requires the Bronx native to take on additional responsibilities than a district school principal would because of the extra support her students require inside and outside of the classroom.

Now in her fifth year as principal, Kaplan’s no-nonsense attitude helps her oversee the large special education school, which has five campuses, 542 students, and more than 200 staff members.

The Bronx school is under the umbrella of the Department of Education’s District 75, which encompasses all of the city’s special education programs for students who have autism, cognitive and physical disabilities, hearing or speech impediments, and other serious issues that make it difficult for them to regularly attend a district school.

As principal, Kaplan’s duties often extend beyond the walls of P186. Some days, Kaplan is a social worker; other days, she’s a guardian. And everyday she’s a demanding boss who expects her staff to keep up with the complicated responsibilities that come with caring for some of the city’s most challenged students. 

The annual prom for the school’s eighth graders with multiple disabilities is a bright spot in Kaplan’s chaotic schedule.

“I get choked up seeing how different they look,” said Kaplan, as she observed the students dancing with each other. Streamers lined the walls, and blue and yellow balloons twisted together to make an arch over a table teeming with cupcakes covered in bright icing, swirly rainbow lollipops, and juice boxes.

Kaplan has known most of the students since they were five years old or since they transferred to P186 because they needed the kind of support that wasn’t available in district schools, such as additional teaching assistants who are trained to care for disabled students.

After addressing the crowd of beaming students and parents, the 56-year-old marched back to her office, walking almost as fast as she speaks.

Kaplan thrives on her hectic routine. Her days began around 7am but only end when the phone stops ringing and the stream of emails slows down for the night. She then drives nearly an hour and a half – on a good day with little traffic – to her home in Putnam County.

“I don’t like to be stagnant, I like to always be on the move” said Kaplan, who was raised in a housing project located not too far from the school.

Kaplan has spent her entire 19-year career as a public school educator rising among the ranks at P186. She has a total of 34 years of experience working in special education.

Ten minutes after getting back to her office, Kaplan is already doing three things at once without breaking a sweat. The school’s data analyst searches her computer while Kaplan speaks to Adrienne Edelstein, the District 75 network leader who is in charge of 15 special education schools. Kaplan quickly helps her assistant principal deal with a problem involving a child with severe diarrhea. In middle of this, Kaplan manages to say hello to the students who stop by her door.

“She’s very hands on. If you call her, she’ll be there,” said Don Albright Jr., who is the school’s senior psychologist. He’s worked with Kaplan since she first started as a coordinator at P186. “She knows how to negotiate well,” he added.

As an undergraduate at Lehman College, Kaplan had no idea that her dream of buying a car would lead to her lengthy career in special education. She started out working as a lifeguard at a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed boys.

“I had no idea what emotionally disturbed kids were all about. I came from a stable family,” she said. “I was like, wow, these are kids that the city schools couldn’t handle.” She loved her experience so much that she decided to get a master’s degree in special education.

Kaplan uses her vast experience to help her deal with the variety of problems that comes with overseeing P186. She pays close attention to the emotionally disturbed students.

“I feel like these kids don’t get a fair share for whatever reason, in their personal lives or maybe in school, and they come here downtrodden,” Kaplan explained.

“I get angry too. If someone cuts me off early in the morning, and I haven’t had a sip of coffee, let me tell you, I grow fangs,” Kaplan said, chuckling. “But the point is that everyone gets angry. We give them coping mechanisms.”

Staff members appreciate Kaplan’s high expectations because she sets the same for herself. “She has an open door policy for her students, her staff, and the parents, which is rare for principals,” said Millie Guzman, a school secretary who has worked with Kaplan for over 15 years.  “It’s definitely difficult to run a special ed school.”

Students with special needs tend to have lower test scores than students without disabilities, and District 75 schools can struggle to meet the city’s performance requirements as a result. But they are still encouraged to show progress over time. P186 fell short of that metric when it received a F on its Department of Education progress report in 2010

“Academically, we move the kids along at the rate that we can. It’s a slow rate but I think we’re successful. It’s not shown, unfortunately, on the state exams,” Kaplan said. “But I see what the kids do in the classrooms and it’s phenomenal.”

The school improved its standing in 2011 by receiving a C.

“I like to be numero uno but unfortunately our progress report scores don’t indicate that,” Kaplan admitted, adding that the students perform well in ways that can’t be measured by tests.

But Kaplan, who is a martial arts enthusiast, said that she doesn’t want her role as a principal to take over her entire life.

“When I leave the school building, I separate myself. You have to do that,” said Kaplan, adding that she keeps busy by spending time with her family and taking care of her two dogs and seven cats.

However, by Monday morning, when the first bell rings, the Bronx-native resumes her role as a strong willed principal who doles out tough love to staff members and parents. “You might not like what I say but I shoot from the hip.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”