Primary Directive

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

Conversation, in fact, is a big theme at P.S. 50 these days. Yet some parents and teachers view Mitchell as "less accessible" than her predecessors, says Nichelle Rice, who served as P.S. 50's union representative until last spring. Especially in her first year, Mitchell said she wanted her interactions with the faculty to be primarily "in professional development and in classrooms," which she tries to visit every day.

Echoing a key Academy theme, she says, "One of the most important things to me is that teachers know . . . what my values are."

A monthly doughnuts-and-coffee session with teachers—strictly voluntary— may be helping Mitchell bridge gaps. "What's come through," concedes Rice, "is that she's still thinking like a teacher. She's not just thinking like an administrator."

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

Just as Mitchell has embraced the department's mantras, Daria Rigney, one of 17 instructional superintendents for Region 9 and a booster of Mitchell's performance so far, has helped launch a retraining effort. In addition to having sent teachers to classes at Columbia's Teachers College, Mitchell is dispatching them to P.S. 126, in Chinatown— a District 2 success story—which Rigney has turned into a laboratory for her half-dozen "high-needs" schools in Region 9. (Under a recent reorganization of the massive school system, District 2 has been absorbed into Region 9.)

P.S. 126 now hosts teachers from schools like P.S. 50 for three-day exchanges. P.S. 50 teachers sit in classrooms and learn how to foster conversations and critical thinking, how to guide groups of children engaged in different activities, and how to assess their performance.

This is not the first time teachers have gone on such exchanges, said Rice, describing the "drive-by" nature of past training efforts at P.S. 50: "They'd throw a book at you and expect you to learn it overnight." Now teachers are given the time to perfect new approaches. Nola Cooper, who has been teaching for 15 years—not all of them at P.S. 50—and who attended a three-day exchange at P.S. 126 last year, agrees, saying, "This is the most professional training I've received since I began teaching." Cooper, who teaches kindergarten, says she welcomes a shift away from the scripted curriculum of yore, when even the questions for students and the writing topics came from a manual.

There's some evidence that whatever is happening at P.S. 50 may be working. Test scores at the school have improved overall. On city and state tests, whose results were released in June, of all P.S. 50 students tested in grades three through six, 29.6 percent scored in the top two levels in reading, an 11-point jump from the same period last year, and the best result since 2000. Fifth-grade scores soared, with over 40 percent scoring in the top two levels, a 29-point jump over 2004. But fourth-grade scores declined 7.7 percentage points. The gains were enough to take P.S. 50 off the list of "schools in need of improvement."

Test scores have yo-yoed in the past, and they will need to stay up if P.S. 50 is to avoid the threat of restructuring, which could result in either the phasing out of the school or dismissal of half its teachers. At the same time, Mitchell's job often resembles ER triage. The test improvements could threaten money they're allotted for needed tutoring programs. And to pay for three reading specialists and an extra science teacher, Mitchell had to give up the paraprofessionals who worked in the kindergarten.

Now, just as Mitchell is focusing the P.S. 50 curriculum on writing, circumstances outside her control—new directives, the mayoral race—could further roil the school. But all that faded into the background when P.S. 50 recently hosted its first "curriculum evening." By six on an October evening, the cafeteria was filled with families who listened to announcements from the PTA and from Mitchell over a chicken dinner before going on to the classrooms. Over a quarter of the kindergartners showed up with their parents, crowding into one classroom to sing songs and play word games. "These curriculum nights will help," says Carmen García, one of only four parents who showed up in Broder's class with their kids—he now teaches fifth grade. "If they can hold on to the kindergarten parents," she says with a wistful smile, maybe by the time those kids are fifth-graders, "more of the parents will still be coming."

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