Primary Directive

A new principal's tour of duty, from Bloomberg's 'academy' to P.S. 50

When Rebekah Mitchell, 31, a kindergarten teacher for all of eight years, became the principal of P.S. 50, a failing elementary school in Spanish Harlem, in July 2004, she expected a tough challenge.

The concrete building even looked forbidding, sandwiched between the Metro North housing projects on First Avenue and the FDR Drive. And it had spent years on a downward spiral. Under three different principals in just five years, the school was flunking: One-third of its children tested "far below" standards on math and literacy tests. Administration was so chaotic that key student records disappeared. Teachers described a curriculum that, in recent years, was alternately "rigid and test-oriented" and "incoherent."

Discipline was lax; pupils were as likely to be roaming the halls as sitting in their classrooms—that is, when they weren't watching SpongeBob videos, a ritual so common that some teachers nicknamed the school Cinema 50. "There were no rules. There was always fighting," says Paris Scott, a sixth-grader. "It made it hard to learn."

Reading is fundamental: Rebekah Mitchell
photo: Christopher Smith
Reading is fundamental: Rebekah Mitchell

Yet Mitchell's appointment prompted teachers and parents to protest the sacking of Lyle Walford, P.S. 50's interim acting principal for just over a year. "The hardest thing," recalls Mitchell, "was seeing the picture of the children beneath a sign that read 'Princ-I-Pal,' like he was their friend. I felt worried about the kids—how much they had been caught up in the politics."

As Mitchell soon learned, the controversy at the school, where 96 percent of the students are black or Hispanic, had taken on racial overtones. Walford, who is black, was a "black power" kind of guy, according to one parent, while Mitchell is a white woman.

P.S. 50 is a microcosm of the school system—the result of inept administration and teaching, inadequate facilities and parenting, and seasonal curriculum changes that emanate from the New York City Department of Education and often lead to more confusion than enlightenment. While P.S. 50's most recent test scores increased, along with those of other city schools, that improvement follows years of dismal results. In 2004, over 80 percent of the school's students scored at the bottom two levels of city and state literacy tests, up from about 75 percent in 2003; math scores, with just under 70 percent of students scoring in the bottom half, showed some improvement from 2003.

Now the Bloomberg administration is pinning the latest hopes for school reform on the ability of newly trained principals like Mitchell, many of whom are younger and less experienced than their predecessors, to transform the system.

Mitchell was handpicked by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to be in the first graduating class of the controversial New York City Leadership Academy, launched in 2003 to alleviate a chronic shortage of qualified principals by training some 600 new recruits by 2006. Two years ago, Klein was visiting P.S. 109, a failing school in Flatbush, when he stopped by the kindergarten classroom of Rebekah Marler (Mitchell's name before she married last fall). Mitchell found herself in a wide-ranging conversation about everything from charter schools to "balanced literacy"—a key part of Klein's plan. Before he left her classroom, he recruited Mitchell to enroll in the Academy, a privately funded institution with a $75 million budget for its first three years—much of it from the business community—that combines management training with the school system's latest ideas on instruction.

Mitchell has been on a fast track since leaving her native Florida, where she taught and served as a union leader until the late 1990s, then enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. After graduating, Mitchell was recruited to help form a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and two years later she joined P.S. 109.

"After five minutes in the classroom, I knew she had what it takes," recalls Faith Love, a member of AUSSIE (the Australian United States Services in Education), who was a P.S. 109 education consultant at the time. Mitchell was able to defuse tension in a classroom—using routines like music and morning meetings—where fighting had been the norm, says Love. Mitchell understood "the importance of community building," she adds, especially among children with difficult home lives.

Love encouraged Mitchell to demonstrate her methods to other teachers and urged the district superintendent to "fast-track Mitchell to a principal position."

In 2003, Mitchell joined 90 aspiring principals in the Leadership Academy's first class. Unlike the white male principals who dominated the city's schools for years, two-thirds of Mitchell's classmates were women, and many were—like their students—black or Latino. The new recruits were also more than a decade younger than current principals, whose average age is 52.

The class was put through a corporate-boot-camp-style program that featured speakers like former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who hammered home the importance of regular performance evaluations and professional development. The Academy also built on a grassroots leadership training program pioneered in 1987 in Manhattan's District 2.

The Academy has won praise for teaching the nuts and bolts of union contracts and budgets. But critics, including District 2 veterans, charge that the Academy and its first CEO, telecom exec Robert E. Knowling Jr., initially skewed too heavily toward corporate training. Knowling resigned in April and was replaced by Sandra J. Stein, the Academy's academic dean, who had helped design the District 2 program.

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