Primary Directive

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

Mitchell needed all the point-ers she could get when she took over P.S. 50. The 1970s-era building is so poorly designed that the best views of the East River are just outside the stairwells. Little student work graces the dark cinderblock halls. In some classrooms, teachers complain that the ambient noise emanating from the FDR Drive sounds like a lawnmower.

Mitchell began by asking the building custodians to replace the windows, which were so scratched and dirty they had turned opaque. Together with her husband, Louis, some friends from the Academy, and a handful of parents, she scraped and repainted many public areas in the school.

Mitchell also had to cope with problems left over by her predecessor. On July 1, 2004, her first day on the job, Mitchell discovered that most of her office equipment was broken or useless. In the weeks before school started, she also had to resolve chaos in the back office. Classroom assignments for the fall were in disarray, and pupils' portfolios had disappeared, making it virtually impossible to hold back students who had failed the state tests.

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

Teachers' class preference lists had also vanished. Mitchell inherited several union grievances. For example, Steven Broder, a sixth-grade teacher with 14 years' seniority, filed one when he learned that not only had his request for a third-grade assignment been denied but that he would have to leave his classroom. Over the years, Broder had transformed his side of a cavernous classroom, which he shares with another teacher, into a cozy space with colorful rugs and pillows and a small reading room complete with bookshelves and a sofa covered in a hand-crocheted purple afghan. "I drove her crazy," recalls Broder. He finally agreed to teach sixth grade last year; in turn, Mitchell let him keep his classroom.

Another problem involved the residual effects of an old feud that effectively left Mitchell without a key administrator. Mitchell recently hired two interim acting assistant principals; one of them, Mable Elliott, a veteran dance teacher, seems to be a favorite among P.S. 50 parents.

Indeed, Walford was not universally loved. Some protested his removal less out of loyalty than from outrage at the way it was done—without consultation with teachers or parents. Meanwhile, many parents feared the further deterioration of standards. Under Walford, discipline problems had soared. In 2004, P.S. 50 had 106 suspensions, more than seven times the school's suspension rate in 2002 under Walford's predecessor.

Mitchell, who often patrols the hallways in three-inch heels that make her look six feet tall, says she was determined to restore discipline. Some parents found her "intimidating" at first, says Nancy Rivera, a mother who served as PTA president last fall.

Mitchell's new rules also infuriated some parents. She eliminated classroom birthday parties, substituting group celebrations every other month. She outlawed junk food and confiscated contraband. Mitchell, who says she believes in "intrinsic motivation," also banned incentives like stickers and candy for good behavior. While she issued about 15 suspensions last fall—for infractions like fighting and bringing weapons to school—Mitchell says the suspension rate has since dropped.

It may help her that she drives to work every morning with her husband. Louis Mitchell is one of the first African Americans to work as a character designer for Sesame Street, and the regular presence of "Mister," as the kids call him, has helped to endear her to them. During an all-school assembly last spring, Louis Mitchell drew and talked about his own struggle to break into the largely white world of character design.

His presentation drew cheers from the kids, but only a handful of parents attended. In a school at which 94 percent of the children are eligible for free lunches, parental involvement was at a historic low.

After a year on the job, Mitchell appears to have won over many parents. Early last month, 400 families and teachers attended a P.S. 50 get-to-know-you dinner. "At first I thought people came to eat," says Karen Behagen French, a mother who acknowledges that she had a rocky start with Mitchell last year. "But then they stayed and listened to the program. This principal is trying to do not only for the children but for the community."

Adds Carmen García, who has two kids in the school: "Now my kids like school. It's a better, more caring atmosphere."

This year's PTA has five officers, up from two last year. And about 25 parents showed up at the first PTA meeting, more than double the turnout of most events last year. Mitchell has also won praise for organizing monthly curriculum workshops for parents and kids; to boost attendance, she serves dinner and schedules PTA meetings on the same day.

A placard with the question "Is there etiquette to having a discussion or conversation?" hung prominently in Steven Broder's classroom last spring.

It took on new meaning when a girl in Broder's class came under suspicion of stealing—an incident that infuriated her classmates because, as they put it, it "reflected badly on the class." The kids called a meeting and confronted the girl. In the end, the child admitted to the thefts, says Broder, and it was a catharsis for everyone.

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