April Spotlight: Michelle Jarney
April's Spotlight shines on Michelle Jarney, Vice President of Leadership Coaching Services. Michelle shares her professional journey to NYCLA and her perspective of the organization's evolution over the past 12 years. She also shares her passion for travel and her second full-time job as the mother of an active and adventurous middle schooler.
Q: Why education?
A: I have always been interested in education because I see it as access to opportunity. As many at NYCLA know, my parents survived the Holocaust as children. They witnessed how completely and quickly their families’ circumstances changed. Later, as adults they each immigrated to the United States with relatively few material possessions. They were, however, well-educated and that was crucial to their ability to build their lives here.
My parents worked hard to make sure that I received a high quality education, emphasizing its value as something that could never be taken away. I was amazingly lucky that they were able to send me to the schools they did – but that’s what it was on my part– luck. I got interested in education to take luck out of the equation. All kids deserve the kind of education I was lucky enough to get.
Q: Tell us a little about your professional background before NYCLA.
A: I started out in public television because I was invested in the mission of Sesame Street. After I finished graduate school at Teachers College, I engaged in a lot of freelance work for Children’s Television Workshop and WNET/Thirteen. Eventually however, I needed a more stable job and the healthcare that came with it so I took a job at the Dalton school. There I had the privilege of working with amazingly talented colleagues who were pioneering ways to leverage technology for student learning.
After two years at Dalton, I was able to find a position that epitomized the idea of education as access to opportunity. As the Director of Education for the Union Square Partnership, I built a public-private partnership that focused on leveraging the resources of the wealthy and vibrant neighborhood around Union Square to support Washington Irving High School where the overwhelming majority of students were living below the poverty line. This was a multi-faceted initiative that brought together arts and cultural organizations, theaters, tech companies and other industries in support of students.
Q: You’ve been at NYCLA for 12 years now. How have you seen the organization change and evolve in that time?
A: We’ve moved far beyond where I would have envisioned when I first joined NYCLA. Back then, we were focused on both supporting and pushing the NYCDOE toward a new mindset around school leadership. I think we were only supposed to last for around three years and then potentially fold into the DOE. Then three years became five and instead of disappearing into the NYCDOE, we became a truly independent organization with aspirations reaching much farther than the five boroughs. Now, we truly are a national organization with an impact that can be felt far and wide. At the same time, I think our values and our approach to the work are the foundations upon which we’ve been able to build. So in some ways we haven’t changed that much. For example, we’ve always been an organization that invests in the development of leaders as the catalyst for organizational change.
Q: How have you developed as a professional in your years at NYCLA?
A: There was a saying that we used to hear a lot at NYCLA, “The learning is the work, and the work is the learning.” This really resonates for me, as I’ve learned so much during my time here. Most of my learning came from (and continues to come from) doing the work with my colleagues - getting feedback, making mistakes and then trying to learn from them. At the same time, I also benefitted from incredible modeling on the part of brilliant facilitators, talented designers, super-efficient project managers, profoundly insightful coaches, and amazing managers. Speaking of amazing managers, Claire’s leadership was integral to my learning for all the many years we worked together. I grew a lot because she made sure to share her thinking, took care to elicit my input and often allowed me to take risks.
One thing I truly love about NYCLA is the value we place on learning in the service of continuous improvement. We raise the bar and push ourselves. While that can be difficult it’s one of the things I think we should be most proud of as an organization.
Q: You’re the proud mother of a young daughter. Tell us about her.
A: Sophie is incredible. She has a wide variety of interests (as anyone with access to my calendar can see) and it’s not like she gets interested in one hobby and then drops it after a while. She maintains interest in it and then adds more things to her schedule. Her after school and weekend activities now include tennis, swimming, horseback riding, marine biology, singing, piano, play practice, and occasionally Brownies. It’s a second fulltime job just to keep her schedule and coordinate the corresponding wardrobe changes.
Q: You’ve traveled a lot - what has been your favorite destination?
A: It’s hard to choose just one place. As a child my parents would take me out of school for long trips throughout Europe or to see family in Australia. On the way to Sydney or Melbourne, we would make stops in Hawaii, Fiji, New ZeaIand, etc. I also traveled on my own for a year between college and graduate school. That included two cross-country drives, long stints in Seattle and Israel and some adventures along the way in places ranging from Finland to Greece, Slovakia and Hungary.
I’ve always liked road trips – the longest one I ever took lasted about a month. Our route went across Canada, down the US west coast into Mexico, and then back across the US south and up the east coast. I also like opportunities to immerse myself in different cultures. In high school I had the opportunity to study in China for a month. In college, I lived for several months in Seville. The coaches inspire me with their travels and adventures. I keep saying to Howie that we should plan a big trip soon.
Q: Do you have any hobbies or interests that people might not know about?
A: I love games. Howie and I used to participate in a regular pub quiz team when we lived in Brooklyn. Nowadays, I make do with the Sunday puzzle in the NY Times magazine. It sometimes takes me a couple of days but it makes the commute more bearable.
March Spotlight: Jana Carlisle
March's Spotlight shines on Jana Carlisle, Chief Strategy Officer. In her interview, Jana describes her commitment to working to improve outcomes for underserved students, as well as the aspects of NYCLA that appealed to her and her excitement for the organization's future. She also tells us about her kids and her hobbies of writing and dancing.
Q: It's our favorite question to start with. Why education?
A: I went into education from a social justice standpoint. I believe that education is the great equalizer and the one thing that can truly help move people out of poverty. I come from a family that prioritizes social justice and democracy – providing equity across the board. I went into public policy to discover how one can create equitable outcomes and change life trajectories
I was also surrounded by educators growing up, as my dad works in higher education and my mom works in K-12. I also have one sister who is a teacher. Early on, I had deliberately chosen not to be an educator myself after seeing how K-12 work can eat someone alive. It’s a lot like social work in the sense that the job is never done and the expectations are incredibly high. After receiving my MS in Public Policy, however, I gravitated back to working in and on behalf of K-12 education.
Q: Why NYCLA?
A: I was drawn to NYCLA by both the mission of the organization and the description of the role. I was only looking at organizations whose missions focused on correcting inequities for kids of color. NYCLA stood out as an organization focused on school leaders, a group that has been missing from education reform conversations over the last 8-10 years. The role intrigued me because of its focus on strategy development. My experience has been that a lot of organizations, districts, or schools have a charge, but don’t know how to move that charge forward. I liked that NYCLA recognized that strategy and implementation go hand-in-hand. I enjoy articulating and making sense out of things, seeing patterns and aligning priorities. I pride myself in being able to see the forest for the trees.
Q: You have a multi-faceted role at NYCLA. Of all of the work that you do, what type of work do you most enjoy?
A: Balance is important to me and I am not at my best when I am only doing one type of work. I most enjoy a combination of writing and relationship management. I enjoy synthesizing information and crafting storylines. I also like to be out representing NYCLA and talking to people about our work and potential partnerships.
Q: As NYCLA continues to innovate and expand in its second decade, what are you most excited about?
A: I am most excited about the incubation and innovation that we are doing. NYCLA staff are very deliberate about thinking through what the next steps for the organization are and what kinds of programs, services or tools we should develop to meet the leadership needs across the country. The challenge, of course, is making the space and creating the time for us to be able to innovate and reflect.
Q: You relocated last year from Seattle to New York. What drew you back to the city that never sleeps?
A: While I am not a native New Yorker, having grown up and attended college in Michigan, I have spent the majority of my adult life in this state. So I would say I’ve come full circle.
I moved to the city right after college. Then I moved up to Rochester where I spent 25 years, but frequently visited the city as my children’s paternal grandparents and aunts and uncles live here.
I have always felt more at home in New York State and have a greater affinity with the people. I feel like I am better understood here. I always felt I would return to the city at some point because I appreciate its culture and vibrancy and all that there is to access here.
Q: You have three children who are now young adults. Tell us about them.
A: My kids are all very different.
My youngest is Isabelle and she is currently a freshman at Oberlin College. She has declared a geology major but also has an interest in teaching. She has numerous hobbies, including playing the harp, acting, and practicing Aikido. She’s worked with younger kids in these activities, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she married her love of science with a teaching career.
Jared just turned 21 and is a junior at the University of Washington. He is studying computer science but probably won’t stay in that field, because it is a bit too narrow for him. He will likely go into law or some kind of policy work that will allow him to draw on the problem solving of computer science. I told him that while he looks for the job of his dreams, he can always code instead of waiting tables and he’ll earn more money.
Emma is the eldest and is living with me after recently graduating from Brown University and searching for a career. She is interested in war studies and the anthropology of war from a political science standpoint and the role women have in peace making. She has just been accepted to a war studies master’s program at Kings College of London.
I think I am most proud of the fact that they are all strong writers, which didn’t come easily, but is very important for their future success.
Q: You’re an avid reader. Who is your favorite author and why?
A: Ann Patchet. She is an incredible story teller. She excels in her level of detail and the craft of writing as well. She takes really disparate topics and makes you interested in the characters as well as the stories, which always have very surprising twists.
Q: Do you have a favorite title of hers?
A: Bel Canto.
Q: Rumor has it you are a former dancer. Is there a particular style of dance that you most enjoy?
A: I have an aversion to formal dance instruction now because I spent so many years in toe shoes and dancing the Nutcracker, but I like the freedom of going to a club and dancing to 80s music, jazz or Latin. However, I am taking adult beginning tap right now and am having a lot of fun with that too.
Q: Do you have any hobbies or interests that people might be surprised by?
A: I really enjoy writing creatively and I wish I had more time to put ideas together outside of work. I actually wrote a blog over the 8-9 months of my transition from the West Coast back to New York. That was really fun because I got to update people, including my extended family, and interject my sense of humor and perspectives during what would’ve otherwise just been a very stressful time.
February Spotlight: Ruby Fernandez
February's Spotlight shines on Ruby Fernandez, who was recently promoted to Associate Vice President of Equity. Ruby shares the influences behind her commitment to education, the interesting story behind her journey to NYCLA, her passions for fitness and fashion - and so much more.
Q: Your commitment to effective school leadership is palpable, so we have to ask. Why education?
A: To answer this question, I have to go back 60 or so years. My grandmother took a taxi from the city Accra to a rural part of Ghana where I’m from to visit family members. She left her belongings in the taxi. Extremely upset, she rushed to a nearby police/sheriff station to report the loss. After calming her down, a police officer asked my grandmother to identify any plate numbers or written marks on the car in an attempt to recover her valuables. Unable to do this, she buried her face in her palms and began to sob. I can still see disappointment in her eyes as she recollects the story. She told us, “From then on I made a strong and lifetime commitment that all of my energy will be focused on ensuring that my offspring and descendants would be educated—not for life’s material gains but for the sense of self-worth, pride, liberty and independence that I couldn’t have.”
Additionally, my mom was a teacher in Ghana and my community-or village- was filled with people who taught; you were being educated in school, in church, in the neighborhood. My life’s purpose has always been centered on education; a tool for empowering myself and others.
Q: We hear you have an interesting entry story. What did your journey to NYCLA look like?
A: I joined NYCLA after many dots were connected throughout the years. It started with a personal friend and colleague relentlessly pushing me towards NYCLA because she believed my vision, passion and experience were in great alignment. I was reluctant at first because my knowledge of NYCLA was limited. I put the thought out of my mind until I interned at the NYCDOE’s Division of Leadership. I was asked to conduct a review curriculum from the lens of the leader -- assessing what worked, what didn’t and provide feedback for effective design of ARIS content. I virtually interacted with NYCLA folks during that time. Shortly after, I had a great conversation with Courtney Welsh, NYCLA’s former COO, which led to a deeper curiosity to learn more about the organization. I also met Ilene Friedman, who exquisitely facilitated a meeting I was part of in Massachusetts, and our work together absolutely piqued my interest and desire to be part of this organization. Then I met Irma. When you get an opportunity to hear Irma speak from the heart, her pull is infectious. All of these experiences showed me that NYCLA’s vision were so in sync and aligned with what I hope to contribute professionally and made it clear that this is where I belonged. I haven’t looked back since.
Q: Your role has continued to expand and evolve over time. What are you most excited about or interested in moving forward?
A: I am most excited about my work with school leaders and the organization’s equity initiative because they are deeply personal for me. My upbringing, background and experiences fit the profile of students that are perpetually in what Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to as the essential below. I am excited that we have people and partners engaged in continuously making our mission/vision explicit and are thinking about the types of tools and resources essential for leaders to do the work well for kids who typically don’t get the best of things. We have grown as an organization to a place where we can move equity to the front and center and to look at existing curricula and national standards to identify opportunities to make greater contributions to the field. I am also excited to tap the talents of NYCLA’s New York City Network as part of this transformative effort. It’s awesome that NYCLA is in this time and space that we’re capitalizing on our history of innovation and transforming our work and contributions to the field.
Q: You have a passion for equity, which may be understandable being an African American educator, but can you share what drives that passion that may not be so obvious?
A: I can answer this from two perspectives. On a professional level, as a new teacher I had the students that no one wanted. I replaced a teacher who had a nervous breakdown and never even returned for her personal belongings. I entered the space with a commitment to work in a way that would get results and have kids have positive self-perceptions and see themselves as scholars. Throughout my leadership career, I’ve always served kids who are/have been historically underserved and held adults in their lives accountable for working together to ensure success amongst this group. This extended beyond staff to include parents, guardians, and communities. I would make home visits and call parents at work until they worked with us to develop expectations and support their kids’ social and academic development. Every time I work with APP participants or any other NYCLA clients, I am reminded that they will or currently do hold seats at schools and in districts whose scholars are dying for effective leaders. To know that I am partnering with leaders to disrupt institutional racism is a stance that absolutely fuels me.
On a personal level, I am the first person in my family (both maternal and paternal) to acquire a college degree; I come from a broken home; economically, I am from the low social- economic status; and I am a nervous tester who felt disenfranchised in American schools. Everything about me as determined by western social values indicates that I shouldn’t be where I am. As an immigrant child from Ghana, I faced many struggles common to other immigrant children. The obstacles of trying to communicate effectively while still learning the language without being criticized or teased, combined with the pressure of fitting in to a new culture, stunted my learning process between the ages 11-20. These experiences as well as others left an indelible imprint that shaped my life’s journey and choices as an advocate for children.
Q: You are the proud mother of two boys, Mecca and Wisdom. Tell us about them.
A: While I love the girls in my life, I always knew I wanted sons. Their entry into this world has completely shifted my purpose. What I hadn’t anticipated was needing to think about caution. This has created a fire in my belly and intensified the contributions I want to make in this world. When Mecca was born, the nurse said that in her 20 plus years, she’d never seen a baby come out so peaceful. He is very emotionally intelligent and attuned to his surroundings. He is now in 7th grade. In my town there are two schools, Pre-K to 6 and 7-12. I’d have been anxious to walk in to the big scary high school, but in his reserved and intuitive way, he handled it perfectly. And then there is Wisdom. He is a reminder that the universe has a great sense of humor and is me all the way. He is very curious but also very aware and has an interesting equity lens. Sometimes the questions he asks are hard for adults to answer. His questions about fairness and why things are the way they are often stop you, and make you pause and think about things that adults typically overlook or are uncomfortable talking about.
Like my husband, my boys are both musicians. Mecca is a trumpet player and Wisdom is a piano player. So there is a lot of noise in my house but it is beautiful noise that I love and treasure. I adore what they add and what they represent in my life and how they shaped me as a mom and person.
Q: What was the transition to the US like for you? Is there anything you want to add in terms of educational expectations or experiences?
A: My upbringing has been culturally rich. I am one of 84 grandchildren on my father’s side. In the region of Ghana where he comes from, the royal stool actually sits at my house. He was supposed to be chief but passed the baton to his first cousin when he moved to the United States. So each time I visit, I have the benefit of seeing culture at play and seeing leadership that is non-traditional, by western standards. I would sit at the chief’s feet and observe his leadership behaviors, from quietly making moves to calling community leaders together to problem solve. I learned a lot from these visits and this is part of my foundation as a leader.
Despite the limited material resources, I didn’t know I was poor until I moved here. I no longer saw myself, my value or my song in the fabric of education, like they were in my previous life. My education from ages 11-20 was a compliant exercise. I was lucky in that I had a couple of amazing teachers who had Cynthia Pond’s temperament. It took that type of person to push me to actualize what I’m intended to contribute to this world. I also had a father who would not accept any nonsense from me or my teachers, and he had high expectations but would also advocate for me in a way that got results. My experiences in Ghana and the United States are what helped me envision the kinds of conditions that I could be part of creating for kids with similar demographics.
Q: You are highly driven and focused at NYCLA. Yet you have a very full life outside of work, including maintaining lifelong relationships with your girlfriends. How do you find time for everything?
A: I know that the way I talk about my work and life makes it all seem doable, but I don’t do it alone. I am incredibly blessed to have parents that provide me with amazing surround care. The fact that I pursued advanced academic degrees and still had a healthy life is all due to their love and support. They helped me when I had a newborn baby and was going through an aspiring principals program which required me to be gone all day. My parents give to me in order for me to give to others. They are able to provide a level of care for my children that allows me to be present wherever I am because I know I don’t have to worry.
In regards to my girlfriends, I collect great women in my life. They provide me with surround care as well. The concept of family is different for me than most other people. It’s an open door and there is reciprocity between us all. There are weekends when I would have all of the kids at my house and other times they would be at a girlfriend’s house. My boys have spent summers during APP in North Carolina and other states. I can pack them up and send them to my girlfriend’s house and know they are safe and having fun. That level of community and care taking is important to me.
Q: How do you maintain your friendships despite time and space?
A: Culturally, where I come from rituals are very important. Rituals are what keep you connected, focused and balanced. My drives home are long traffic-ridden experiences that I use productively; that’s my time to connect to my friends. We Skype, Facebook and Facetime regularly. We also take turns on different birthdays to travel to celebrate one another. This year, on my birthday, I had seven of my closest girlfriends at my house. We take the time each year to talk, decompress and fill each other in ways that when we go out and have to expend, we have something to contribute to the world. There is a mutual understanding that I need to be fed and you’re responsible for feeding me the same way I am responsible for feeding you. I seek out spaces personally and professionally that fit this mentality.
Q: You’re a fitness enthusiast. What are your favorite ways to exercise?
A: I enjoy all forms of exercise. The work that I am passionate about is ‘expensive,’ in the sense that it requires me to expend a lot of energy – emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, physically. I have to come with it, and in order for me to do so, I have to take care of myself. Exercise is how I find balance. I love yoga, running, boxing and spinning – every so often I treat myself to Soul Cycle – but I am really big on Bikram yoga. Yoga allows me to ground myself.
Q: Folks at NYCLA are always impressed by your fashion sense. Where does your love for shopping come from?
A: I love to shop and I prefer to do it alone. When I am really in my zone, I can’t have anyone around. I actually picked up my shopping habit in Italy, where my mother lived for 18 years. I would save my money from my summer jobs and when I converted it to the Lira, I was like a millionaire. I would go with empty luggage and my friends and I would travel up and down the boot of Italy and just shop. Those Italian shoes, bags and clothes are irresistible!
Q: Is there anything that your colleagues don’t know about you that they’d be surprised to find out?
A: People would be surprised to know that I can be a tad bit shy and hermitic. As much as I am out, doing and being, I guard my alone time very protectively. It’s part of my ritual. To make sure I had time for myself, I used to carve out hours between 4 and 6 AM as my free time. People used to think I was crazy but it’s become an importantly sanctuary for being present in all I do. Every so often I ask for a Sunday by myself and my support system would make sure that I get it. It gives me the opportunity to think, read, write, listen to music, and just renew.
December Spotlight: Ann Wiener
December's Spotlight shines on Ann Wiener, veteran NYCLA coach. Ann shares work-related insights including her advice for new principals and her commitment to educational equity. However, the real excitement lies in her adventures outside of work, from international travel to her experience as a race car driver.
Q: Why education?
A: I grew up in an era when women either became nurses, secretaries or teachers. And since being a nurse or a secretary didn't appeal to me, there was no question where I would end up. I was also bossy as a little girl and loved instructing my peers. In fact, as the main babysitter in my neighborhood, I set up a school in my family’s basement where I would get up in front of a blackboard and teach groups of children.
Q: What motivated you to become a NYCLA coach after retiring from the NYCDOE?
A: The week after I retired, I was sitting in my pajamas at my computer googling Peace Corps opportunities and thinking about Sierra Leone and other exotic places. I got a call from a colleague at the NYCDOE asking if I would be interested in coaching new principals in new schools and was persuaded to go for an interview that very same afternoon. I was excited by the prospect of working with so many exceptional people and the unique nature of the organization. I’ve always been drawn to different ways of thinking. My school in central Harlem had a social justice theme that pushed the boundaries in a lot of ways for the neighborhood and the kids. I thought that joining NYCLA would give me the opportunity to use that experience in helping principals open new schools that maybe went against the grain, were closely connected to their neighborhoods and had a greater chance of success.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you would give to a brand new principal?
A: Keep your focus on the kids and families. Try always to figure out what is best for them and keep that at the center of what you do, even if it means at times bucking the system. It's not easy. A lack of equity exists because of the way our system is structured. Kids of color, English language learners, transgender, gay or lesbian kids have a tough time. Determining how to navigate is difficult if you're not white and middle to upper class.
Q: You're known as an international traveler by your colleagues. What has been your favorite destination or your most memorable travel experience?
A: That’s really hard. Antarctica was awesome in the truest sense of the word. We arrived to a place where it was all white and the sun never went down. There were no bright colors, but it was so amazingly beautiful. And yet you saw the icebergs melting and you had a sense of the transitory nature of what we are experiencing today. The area hadn't changed for millennia but was changing now and wasn't going to be the same in a couple of years.
Q: What is one place you haven’t gone that you are itching to go to?
A: I would like to see the Northern Lights, probably from Iceland. Also, having been in Antarctica where it is light for 24 hours, I would like to experience what it’s like to be in a place where it is dark for 24 hours.
Q: We’ve been told that you have volunteered abroad quite often. Can you tell me about a memorable experience?
A: Before I became a principal, I traveled with a colleague to Cambodia where we worked in a rural school that was supported by a nonprofit foundation. We stayed in the guest house of the Cambodian woman who ran the foundation, so this experience was truly immersive. Every morning we would get up before dawn and travel by tuk tuk to the schoolhouse which was utterly dark. The foundation had, through some very strategic planning, procured solar panels for one of the buildings so there was electricity and computers in that one building. We would set up and out of the darkness would come our class – they were never late. It was very much a model of teachers lecturing and kids taking notes. However, our lessons were much more interactive. We actually taught English by having the kids take photos and write about them. They also participated in scavenger hunts where they’d find artifacts in and around the school and then describe the objects in English. A positive outcome of our work was that three of the Cambodian teachers visited us after school and we talked about strategies that we used to engage students that they could adapt in the future.
Another great addition that resulted from our work was the start of field trips. We discovered that down the road from the school there was a very interesting silkworm museum that was established by the tourist department and local weaving businesses. So we arranged for our drivers to transport the students to visit this museum. The youngsters took pictures and asked questions in English – slowly, but they did it – and shared their experience with the younger students at the school. We eventually took many groups of students to the museum. The tourist department got very excited about it because the tourists loved it. We shared our strategies with the principal and teachers so that they could expand their field trip offerings to their students.
Q: You were once a race car driver. Tell us more about this.
A: When I was a Ford Fellow at Harvard, I had a boyfriend who was in the law school and both of us were passionate about sports cars. We pooled our money and bought a Jaguar XK 120. It's very racy and goes very fast. It's also very temperamental but my boyfriend was a good mechanic. We used it in three ways, actually. First, I would use it as a tool for keeping order in my fourth grade class. I would take kids for rides on Fridays if they behaved during the week. Second, we would pretend to be a young newlywed couple looking for our next car – I even had an engagement ring that I’d wear. We would take our Jaguar to look at exciting Lamborghinis and Ferraris that were posted in the newspaper. My boyfriend was a smooth talker and we would usually get to test drive these cars. Third, we would compete at the car races at Lime Rock. My boyfriend souped up the car and I would drive. I actually beat Robert Redford in a race once! He was a better driver and had a faster car, but was having engine troubles that day.
Q: What other hobbies and interests do you have?
A: I love theatre and volunteer as an usher. This is a good way to see a lot of interesting shows. I like to bike ride, without a helmet.
One of the aspects that I love and appreciate about life is the mystery and the unknown. This is a curious concept because ambiguity is hard for me. When I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, the hardest part was not the diagnosis, and not what I’ve been doing to respond to the diagnosis, but the time in between when I had to figure out how I would face it and how I would handle my family.
Q: Like many NYCLA staff members, you have a deep commitment to educational equity. How has this informed your work over the years?
A: I have a commitment to education as a mother and an educator. I have five kids, three biological and two adopted. My two adopted children are African American. In the 1970’s this meant that we weren’t welcomed in many places. For example, when my son was in high school, he was assigned the least experienced college counselor, because the assumption was that as an African American he was not going to college. Happily when I went in and spoke to the principal she became his advisor. I also saw firsthand how difficult early childhood trauma is to counteract and how it narrows opportunities for people. The school I started was comprised mainly of poor students of color – many Dominicans whose fathers worked very hard but were in the drug trade because that was all that was available to them. So my commitment to my school was to make sure that kids and families had a broader view of what their future lives could be. That meant not getting pregnant for girls; it meant for boys not getting arrested. It meant finishing high school and going to college. We were the first inclusion school in the city and maintained a deep commitment to providing all students with the skills to navigate high school and advocate for themselves. In my 15 year tenure, only one student went to jail and he is out and stayed out after that. Only one of the girls had a baby; she went back to school, graduated in five years instead of four, earned her college degree, and is now an adjunct professor at a community college.
Q: How does this commitment to equity affect your work as a coach?
A: With the exception of one, all of the schools that I’ve coached have been low income ones serving mostly students of color. In my coaching, I really push principals to look at the data. Who’s doing well, who’s not doing well? What’s the make-up of your staff? How do you sensitize and make sure that teachers understand the kinds of situations that impact their students and then hold them accountable? Principals always need to focus on the kids and instruction, and challenge the teachers when they blame the students for poor performance or behavior. They need the support to do this successfully. Topics I focus on with my coaches include: prevention of discipline issues; mediation instead of suspension; working with families; understanding the effects of poverty, especially generational poverty, on students. I ask principals to think about how they inspire, support and push their staff and their families to give hope, skills and vision. It’s a scary time we live in and education is the only way out that I see for most of these youngsters. So if we can’t take equity on with all of its complexities and its power, the way racism, power, and privilege is engrained in our system and benefits people like me, we’re going to get a society that is less and less equitable and, probably, more and more violent.
Q: Is there anything we haven’t asked that you’d like to share?
A: One of the most interesting experiences was around community organizing. I was elected head of the Greenwich Association for Public Schools at a time when the community was interested in starting a K-12 sex education program. Greenwich is a somewhat liberal town but not one that had thought about the implications of having a sex education program. They hadn’t thought about curriculum and that it would include demonstrations of condoms to middle schoolers, for example. It was a five-year, intensive process of building community support and defining what we wanted to do. We worked with bigger organizations to develop curriculum, train teachers and to identify speakers who weren’t too radical for the community. This work required a great deal of public speaking which I’d never done before. I’ve really mined this experience a lot in my life. Additionally, it was just the era of when Post-It’s were coming in, thank heavens!
November Spotlight: Michael Kim
November's Spotlight shines on Michael Kim, Director Leadership Development. It is the ideal time to get to know Michael better, as November marks his 8th year with NYCLA. In the interview, Michael shares the story behind his commitment to education, his passion for community service, and a variety of hobbies and interests.
Q: What motivated you to pursue a career in education?
A: I didn’t know that my career would end up in the education field. However, throughout my life, the importance of education was stressed by my parents. Similar to other immigrants from South Korea, they sought a new start and a better future for their family. School was the top priority and my mom was the biggest advocate for ensuring that I received the education I needed and deserved. For example, she pushed back when my elementary school in the Bronx tried to classify me as an ESL or ELL student despite being born in the US; I even got placed in the "top/honor track" until I left after the 6th grade. Despite the robust elementary school experience, my parents were concerned about the school options in middle and high school so they decided to move to NJ so that I could access better school offerings than in the Bronx. In the end, despite my growing interests in the sciences through high school and college, I really relished the opportunity to change the narrative for kids who weren’t able to “escape” their circumstances and help create more equitable access to a quality education.
Q: Why NYCLA?
A: After college, I served as an AmeriCorps member in Patterson, New Jersey at JFK High School where I was tutoring students and supporting their School-Based Youth Services Program in developing workshops for teens, coordinating community service trips, etc. While I really enjoyed working closely with students, I wanted to step back a little and gain insight into how organizations/programs operate. I saw an opening at NYCLA on Idealist.org for a Program Assistant and realized it was the perfect opportunity to gain the experience I was seeking. More importantly, it afforded me the opportunity to return back to New York City and help realize the promise of public education for others.
Q: What do you most enjoy about your role?
A: I enjoy working day in and day out with such dedicated and bright people as well as knowing that my work is ultimately in service of students. I remember that when I started, Claire and Michelle sent me in the field for a couple of days just to see coaching in action. While I expected to dive head first into the administrative work necessary to run a program, Claire and Michelle wanted me to experience at the school level, what this is all for in the end. That was really instrumental for me – to understand the why before the what or the how. As I’ve grown into my role of primarily supporting coaches, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know them with all their unique quirks and personalities. One thing that has stood out is their common pursuit and attitude toward learning and to improving and refining their practice. It has been a model for me throughout my time at NYCLA, and has fostered in me a love of learning.
Q: You have a history of volunteer service. What experience do you most enjoy and why?
A: I think the most powerful experience was visiting New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. It was my senior year of college and a group of my friends and I (about 25 in total) spent our Spring Break volunteering at the New Orleans Mission, which was an organization mainly supporting the homeless community. Their facilities were hit hard by flooding and wind damage so there was a lot of cleaning, building, and repair work that needed to be done in order to reopen as an overnight shelter. During our stay there, we also had the opportunity to drive through a part of the lower 9th ward and I still vividly remember the devastation. That’s never left me – I’ve been able to go back a few times after college to help out but the city still has much to improve (especially in terms of education).
Q: What motivates you to serve your community so regularly?
A: I think it goes back to my parents. I never felt like someone in extreme need or someone who was less privileged. My parents demonstrated for me since I was a young child the importance of giving back and helping those in need whether it was through church activities or encouraging me to seek out opportunities through school. In addition, community service experience is life changing in it of itself and becomes something reinforcing – it stays with you.
Q: You’ve taken a series of culinary courses recently. What would you say is an essential skill for an aspiring chef?
A: My wife is a big foodie and cook, so this has motivated me to step up my culinary game. I found the course on knife skills and techniques beneficial for starters. You have to understand the basics. Lots of unnecessary injury and wasted time can be avoided once you know how to use a knife correctly. It also saves money to buy a whole chicken or fish and cut it up yourself! I would also recommend culinary courses because you get a walkthrough of the steps in cooking various dishes and learn just how important the preparation aspect/stage is to success of a meal.
Q: You’ve been married for almost two years now. What has been your biggest takeaway from married life?
A: Before I answer this question, I have to say that one of the best pieces of advice I received was from Alex Negron. At a celebration for another coworker who was about to get married, he shared that you should never stop dating your spouse. I always remembered that and took it to heart – it’s a lesson that I’ve applied to my marriage. In terms of a takeaway, one result of dating and being married to Sang was that I began to travel within the US and internationally. Beyond just gaining exposure to different cultures, sights and sounds - and of course different perspectives - I’ve really learned to appreciate and enjoy life more. I’ve learned to slow down and savor both the major events and seemingly trivial moments.
Q: Do you have any other hobbies or interests that folks here don’t know about?
A: Playing basketball is one of my favorite things to do in my free time. More recently, cooking has been something I look forward to doing as well.
Q: So which is your favorite basketball team?
A: My sports loyalties are interesting... the only local team that I support is the Yankees (growing up a Bronx boy). In basketball, I am a fan of the Portland Trail Blazers. I know that may not sit well with Knicks/Nets fans but when I was growing up, I followed the Chicago Bulls during their 90's run with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. I continued to follow Pippen after he left Chicago and when he eventually landed in Portland, I became a fan of the team and stuck with them since. I was not a huge football fan when I was younger so I can’t say I root for the Giants/Jets but definitely cheer the New Orleans Saints after seeing and experiencing the impact the team had on the city especially post-Katrina.
October Spotlight: Gerry Falchick
October's Spotlight shines on Gerry Falchick, Director of Human Resources. Gerry stepped out of her role as "interviewer" and answered numerous questions about her work here at NYCLA, her love for New York City, as well as her favorite hobbies and travel destinations.
Q: How did you end up in Human Resources (HR) and how did you know it was the right fit for you?
A: I ended up in HR by accident many moons ago. I was looking for something I could do part-time when my children were young, and I found a job with a staffing agency and that served as my entrée into the HR world. I was fascinated by HR and followed the path of education and certification having decided it was a calling that I wanted to pursue full time. HR aligned with my background in organizational psychology and my personal need to make a difference.
Q: Your HR experience has primarily been with large hospitals. Why did you make the switch to education?
A: Education has been a personal passion for a long time. When my family lived in Florida and my kids were young, they went to private school solely because they couldn’t get a good public school education. However, I was a product of the New York City public schools. The difference between our experiences was staggering. NYCLA’s mission struck a chord for me from the get-go because we could impact the leaders that drive needed change. I thought it would be great to work for an organization that was part of this solution.
Q: How is your work here different from your prior experiences?
A: I enjoyed my time in health care very much, but it is a different type of environment and I was working in large organizations with anywhere from 600 to 19,000 employees. In fact, New York Presbyterian was the second largest employer in the city outside of government agencies at the time that I worked there as Director of Recruitment. After 5 years, I joined colleagues with an HR consulting practice to get exposure to different work environments and a broader scope of practice within the HR spectrum. While consulting, I advised, facilitated, and collaborated in developing processes, practices and policies always walking away before the loop was closed, not knowing whether these strategies worked, what challenges arose or what changes were required. I needed to find a home that could give me a sense of mission and purpose that aligned with my beliefs and gave me the chance to assist in adjusting and closing the loops.
Q: You have a comprehensive role at NYCLA, aspects of which remain a mystery to most staff members. What aspect(s) of your role do you enjoy the most?
A: Probably, the more collaborative and integrated aspects - organizational development, employee relations, performance management and recruitment - but I do like the analytical aspects of compensation and benefits. As a department of one I get the full spectrum and of course variety is "the spice of life" which works well for me.
Q: Do you have a favorite interview question to ask potential employees? If so, what is it and why?
A: As you might expect, I have a few and ask almost every prospective employee to tell me about his/her most significant professional accomplishment. The answer they choose and the way they express it tells a lot about what they think is important.
Requiring an example of how they have navigated through ambiguity is also very relevant for us.
Q: You’ve had to screen and interview candidates for all level and roles at NYCLA. If you could identify specific trait that’s necessary for a successful fit with NYCLA, what would it be?
A: There are more than a few. You need to be able to identify and articulate a sense of purpose for the work that you do. You also need to be a quick learner who can navigate through ambiguity; a flexible problem solver; and have the ability to synthesize and make meaning of complex information. I could go on but I will stop here.
Q: You’re a born-and-raised New Yorker. What do you love about the Big Apple?
A: Honestly, I love almost everything about New York. I could work for the Chamber of Commerce and have "I ❤️ NY" tattooed on my forehead in invisible ink. The diversity, art, architecture, culture, pace, and ohhhhh the food - I probably should’ve said food first - all this makes NYC the best place to live for me. Here's an "only in New York" example. I had to meet someone for a ballet performance at Lincoln Center. Having arrived early, I wanted to kill time so I took refuge in a nearby Pottery Barn. My browsing was accompanied by the salsa music playing in the store with my feet picking up the rhythm, tapping and moving to the music. Shortly, thereafter a salesman noticed and asked me to dance and even more notable three other couples joined us in dancing around Pottery Barn. No cover, no minimum and just delightful and spontaneous. That’s a quintessential New York moment.
Q: We know that you are a proud grandmother. What is the primary difference for you between being a parent vs. a grandparent?
A: Kids are a means to an end, the end being the grandkids. All the joy, no pain and minimal work. I loved them as babies, and at 10 and 12 love seeing them grow, flourish, and engage in life.
Q: We know that you love to travel, especially with your family. What has been your favorite travel destination?
A: I love Italy. If I had to pick a specific part of Italy, that would be tough. Rome has my heart but the towns on the Amalfi coast have some of the most breathtaking scenery that I’ve ever seen. I would retire there if I could bring those grandkids we talked about.
Q: Is there somewhere you are still itching to visit?
A: Probably New Zealand but they'd have to make that train ride shorter.
Q: Do you have any hobbies or interests that others might not know about?
A: Dance is a passion, dare I say a compulsion, and for the first year of high school I attended the High School of Performing Arts (where the movie Fame was set) way before the knee problems. I attend all kinds of dance performances but mostly contemporary, jazz and ballet. I was lucky enough to see Mikhail Baryshnikov perform as well as Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn when I was very young. It was an incredibly emotional experience and one that I will never forget.
September Spotlight: Sarah Stevens
September's Spotlight shines on Sarah Stevens, Director of Client Services. Since a young age, Sarah knew that she would live a life of public service. In her interview, Sarah shares the motivation behind her commitment to education, what her path to NYCLA looked like, as well as some interesting stories and lessons learned throughout her experiences in the performing arts.
Q: Why education?
A: That’s an easy one. Both of my parents are teachers and -I may be biased but I’m sure there are hundreds of people out there who would agree with me – they are two of the best teachers I’ve ever witnessed. My mom taught first and second grade and has been a reading specialist for the past 20 years. She has essentially taught thousands of people to read. My dad taught high school music for 30 years, and for the last 10 has been the head of a music department at a small liberal arts university. He has been an incredibly influential man in many people’s lives. I knew that I belonged in the education world based on growing up in that type of household. My parents also expressed the importance of giving back to the community and public service was engrained in myself, my brother and sister from the start. We have all found careers that allow us to give back in some way.
Q: Your early career was focused on the arts. What did your path to NYCLA look like?
A: Before moving to New York, I was a high school music teacher with a focus on voice, choir and musical theater. I left the classroom thinking that I wanted to go into the nonprofit performing arts world. I came to New York City to pursue my Master’s Degree and started immediately working with a community-based organization that partnered with public schools to provide music education. In this work, I was exposed to the limited arts education opportunities in many city schools, and knew that public education would be my focus. I later took a job at the Brooklyn Philharmonic where I opened their comprehensive afterschool arts education academy. I served as the program director and oversaw 25 teaching artists who taught everything from theater and voice to yoga to robotics. This work prepared me for my role at Change for Kids, a hub for arts organizations and community-based organizations to provide longstanding support to elementary schools. The organization operates on an adopt-a-school model and I developed the process for selecting the next school that the organization would “adopt.” I knew that for the partnership to make a difference for kids, we needed a strong school leader who would be a great steward of the numerous free resources that the partnership would offer and who would push forth a shared vision. Once the model and evaluation systems were in place, I thought that Change for Kids was in a healthy state and I could move on. I saw the opening at NYCLA and school leadership just made sense to me. The principal interview process that I led at Change for Kids underscored the fact that the leader is the lever for change. I saw the difference between an average, or below average leader, and an incredibly thoughtful, strategic, mission-driven leader who could change outcomes and opportunities for kids. I knew working for NYCLA would give me an opportunity to help strengthen school leadership across the country.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your work here at NYCLA?
A: I love the people that I work with. I was confident in my ability to transition from the arts world to a focus solidly and squarely on education, but it was a particularly smooth transition because of our team. I enjoy how much we push each other and expect nothing more than high-level, high-quality work.
Q: NYCLA is focused on innovation and expansion of our client work. What are you most excited about or interested in?
A: There are two ways I can answer this. I am most enjoying our work with the Iowa State Education Department because it is a statewide initiative that helps principals really think about leveraging and developing their school leadership teams. It is an expansive project that resulted from seeing the teaming model incubate in New York City and learning how to coach and support teams in Rhode Island. I am also excited about our new organizational structure. Having a group of people around the table who are really thinking about what the next decade looks like and NYCLA’s sustainability is really interesting to me. I’ve somehow been inserted into strategic planning in every organization I’ve ever worked in and so I enjoy that process, but I also think that we are making really important decisions right now that will move the organization forward really rapidly.
Q: We know that you have a significant background in music and dance. Who were your greatest influences in these areas?
A: This is cheesy because it all stems back to my parents. My dad is a music teacher and both of my parents are musicians so I grew up in a very musical household. My dad was a huge influence in me becoming a musician – he was even my high school choir director. American jazz and musical theater were always playing at home. Besides my parents, I would have to say that my collegiate choir director, Craig Johnson, was a great influence on me. He is the most sensitive and brilliant musician. He understands the pairings between words and a melody like no one else. Craig is now a Grammy award-winning acapella choir director and I am grateful to have studied under him.
Q: Are there any principles from your music background that you’ve applied to your work here at NYCLA?
A: I was actually just talking to a colleague about this. My favorite part about performing is the rehearsal process, because you see the learning in real time. When you are singing in an ensemble and learning new music sometimes there is typically something really hard that you all have to learn to accomplish (hard harmonies, hard rhythms or something very complicated.) If you leave that and come back a week later with fresh eyes, something falls into place and you can figure it out. The same is true for the design process. It is an iterative experience and while it might take us a really long time to get to a place where we think we’ve got something really good, the commitment to developing high-quality instruction and learning experiences is very similar to the dedication it takes to master a piece of music.
Q: What was your favorite/most memorable performance?
A: There are a couple that stand out for me. I have had the great pleasure of singing with incredible choirs all over the US and even in Europe, and it’s almost impossible to articulate the joy and satisfaction of so many of those experiences. Singing in the catacombs of the national cathedral stands out as a moment when every singer and audience member had goosebumps from the beauty of the sound of the room filled with 45 voices. A few funnier examples are when I was really little, I got to be one of the orphans in the Austin, TX production of Annie that runs all summer in a historic outdoor theater. The reason this is so memorable is because I begged my mom for a perm before the audition so that I could look more like Annie. I had the curly red hair and I had been tap dancing for years. Unfortunately I was 7 or 8 at the time, and they needed a middle-schooler who could actually perform fulltime for 7-8 weeks. Oddly enough, my sister is a professional actress and performed in Annie exactly 20 years later on the same stage. I also played the witch in “Into the Woods” in high school and forgot all of the words to my song. My dad was the director of the orchestra and I remember him looking up at me and willing me to remember my words for just one night. It didn’t help. Those kind of memories stand out the most.
Q: You mention being from Austin. Tell us more about your city-of-origin.
A: That’s right. I am a born and raised, fifth-generation “Austinite.” A large section of downtown Austin used to be my great, great-grandparent’s dairy farm. There is a house on the land where the old farmhouse used to be that is three miles from the University of Texas and it was the house that I lived in all through college with a bunch of my girlfriends. It’s an amazing city, with the best food (breakfast tacos and queso) and amazing culture, but it’s no longer the same small town that I left ten years ago!
Q: What was the biggest transition that you had to make in moving to New York?
A: New York is one of those places where it either suits you or doesn’t – my sister moved here and left a year later vowing never to return. I knew pretty quickly that I loved it here. The diversity of people, cultures, food, and experiences drew me in right away and I knew I would be here for a while. If my husband and I ever left, we would definitely miss the diversity that you can only find here.
Q: You just recently celebrated your first anniversary with your husband. What can you tell us about married life or your spouse?
A: Married life is great! And while he might not agree, I think I’ve learned to admit when I’m wrong at least SOME of the time. That’s progress! My husband is an incredible partner. He is generous, loving and kind. We are both highly driven, and highly outspoken in what we need, want and believe in. I think that’s what makes it work. It’s amazing having a partner who pushes you to always be better than you were the day before.
Q: Do you have any hobbies or interests that others might not know about?
A: In the past two years, my husband and I have become avid hikers. I love the Hudson Valley region and we are out in the mountains most Saturdays for hours.
August Spotlight: Alex Negron
As NYCLA’s programs are in full swing this summer, so is our Information Technology (IT) Department – the team that makes it possible for NYCLA to perform so effectively. We sat down with Alex Negron, NYCLA’s Director of Information Technology, who has been implementing tech solutions for our staff since the organization was founded. Learn about Alex’s career path, why he has stayed at NYCLA for so long, his perspective on parenthood, and much more.
Q: What drew you to the technology field?
A: When I entered high school, I had no real direction for what I would study in college. In my Junior and Senior years, I was fortunate enough to participate in the NYCDOE’s co-op program in which students attended school for one week and worked the next week in an internship. This program exposed me to opportunities that significantly impacted my career trajectory. I was first placed in the DOE’s Division of Instructional Technology office doing administrative work. This internship provided me with a direct link to the inner workings of a DOE technology department and sparked my interest in this line of work. Senior year, I was reassigned to a different DOE office without a technology focus. However, the office manager there worked with a friend of hers as an outside technology consultant. She asked me to call him when there were numerous problems and he ended up becoming my mentor and guided me in the right direction. When I graduated high school, I was hired by the same office as a part-time technology specialist as I pursued my degree at Queens College.
Q: How did you end up at NYCLA?
A: When Mayor Bloomberg came into office, there were numerous staffing changes within the DOE. As a result, I was reassigned twice, first to the Parent and Community Partnerships office as their website manager and next at a high school doing basic tech support. I wasn’t happy in either of these roles and felt limited in my ability to grow as a professional. That is when I learned about NYCLA and submitted my resume.
Q: How have you seen the organization change technologically throughout your tenure?
A: NYCLA was fully dependent on the NYCDOE for a long time because our technology was all under the DOE umbrella. This drastically limited the capabilities and resources that were available to us. Those who worked here during that time also remember that the DOE server was prone to issues that could have us completely offline for days at a time. I take great pride in the fact that I can now offer numerous technological solutions to the NYCLA team and that our server has not gone down once over the past year for any prolonged period of time.
Q: What has been your greatest challenge at NYCLA, and how did you overcome it?
A: When I joined NYCLA in 2003, I was a 23 year old, fresh out of college. My team members and I were the youngest members of the organization. As such, we were often referred to as “the boys.” While this may have seemed endearing, we were offended by it. I spoke with the CEO at the time and she presented me with the opportunity to speak to the staff. This was a difficult conversation, but I think that it helped to change how I was perceived by my colleagues.
Q: What has made you stay at NYCLA for all of these years?
A: NYCLA’s vision resonates with me on a very personal level because the organization impacts the lives of students like me. I was that inner-city kid from a low-income community who spoke only Spanish and attended low performing schools. I was able to succeed because I had a couple of educators who helped me along the way, who believed in me and who understood the weight I carried with me to school every day, from the challenges of living in a community plagued with drugs and violence and a lack of resources and opportunities for its youth. NYCLA’s social justice approach to the work has effected students like me on such a large scale. I am lucky to work at an organization where I can pursue my passion for technology and contribute to a cause that I passionately believe in.
Q: Do you have a vision for the organization, moving forward?
A: These days, everything is cloud-based which allows for simplicity of use and access for everyone. We are starting to use One Drive for people’s personal documents which means that staff members don’t have to use thumb drives or email themselves documents when they need to work from remote locations. Eventually, I’d like to get the S drive on the cloud. I still have some hesitancy there due to security reasons. Local servers are still the most secure places to store financial documents and human resources information. I want to make that move when everything is seamless and consistent so that our full staff can have complete access to all shared materials regardless of where they log on.
Q: Your role requires you to be on top of the latest industry trends and changes. How do you stay current?
A: Beyond the blogs and publications that I read, my greatest support comes from a group of peers who I studied with in college. We are all in various industries and we stay in touch to bounce ideas off of one another, troubleshoot together and see what each person is using in their industries and how that is applicable to our fields.
Q: As an IT professional, you are required to assist numerous users at a variety of skill levels with a myriad of questions. This would prove frustrating to some, but you always approach the work with a positive attitude. How do you stay so up-beat?
A: That’s simple. I love technology and I love helping people. Everyone has a full plate with so many things to worry about. For example, a password might be the last thing you are thinking about when you are under a serious deadline and I am more than happy to help in those circumstances. I think a lot of IT professionals are perceived as grouchy or rude – like you see the comedy skits which I feel give IT people a bad name. At the end of the day, IT is a customer service industry. If you are bothered by people asking you questions, then you are in the wrong field.
Q: Anyone who has walked by your desk sees the many photos of your two young sons. What surprised you most about being a father?
A: I will never forget the experience I had when I held my first son for the very first time. When the doctor handed him to me, I had never before been filled with such happiness and such fear at the exact same time. It was so overwhelming that it brought me to tears. The fear really surprised me because up until that point, I was excited to be a dad but it suddenly hit me that fatherhood is so much more than playing ball at the park. I was looking down at this tiny human whose life I was totally responsible for and I thought back to my own experiences and how I wanted to be sure to provide him the best life that I can.
Q: You clearly have a busy life both in your role at NYCLA and as a parent. What do you do for fun?
A: My two passions are surfing and photography. With two young children at home, I am surfing less these days, but have been able to pursue my photography more seriously. I had my first photo exhibit recently and I actually sold out of all of my prints. It was an incredibly validating experience. I hope to have another showing in the winter.
July Spotlight: Cynthia Pond
With APP graduation just around the corner, we are featuring Cynthia Pond, NYCLA's Facilitator of the New York City Aspiring Principals Program who has fostered the development of aspiring leaders for 11 years. We interviewed Cynthia to learn more about her.
Q: While it is clear that everyone at NYCLA is committed to education, everyone has arrived in this field for different reasons. So, that being said, why did you choose to become an educator?
A: Honestly, I’m not quite sure if I chose the profession, or the profession chose me. I started working with kids during a high school summer break as an assistant teacher at a daycare center when I was 16 years old. The next year, my English teacher just out of the blue said, “You know what Cynthia? I think you’d make a good teacher.” His encouragement confirmed for me that this was the field to pursue. I was accepted into Hunter College’s Training of Tomorrow’s Teachers program and the rest is history. In almost 50 years I’ve never had a break in service, so that’s how I know that the universe chose me.
Q: Students are very clearly at the heart of your work. What prompted you to move from working with children to adults?
A: It is natural to grow and mature in one’s profession. I always knew that I wanted to push the social justice agenda, and working with kids was already connected to my lifestyle. As I got older, I asked myself, “How can I broaden my touch and impact more people?”
As a teacher, you impact students. As a principal, you continue to impact students but you also build the capacity of teachers. As a superintendent, you continue to impact students and teachers but you also strengthen a district. As a facilitator of APP, I touch the lives of hundreds of students and adults in the country’s largest school district.
At the end of the day, teaching is teaching and the passion for that work remains. I am just teaching a different audience, which allows me to impact and influence the field more broadly.
Q: You’ve had a long, successful career in the New York City Department of Education. How did you end up at NYCLA?
A: I was a NYCLA facilitator for two summers while I was still a NYCDOE principal. When I became a Local Instructional Superintendent, I received a waiver to continue facilitating NYCLA’s summer intensive.
In 2007 when the NYDOE was re-configuring, my superintendent set up an interview with Irma when she was a Director of Achievement Coaches at TWEED. In addition to speaking with Irma, Sandra Stein, NYCLA’s former CEO, happened to be there and she offered me a full - time position at NYCLA. I accepted the job on the spot.
I’ve loved every moment of working here. NYCLA is a great place to work. The brilliance and diversity of personalities and experiences really attracted me to the place. You’re not going to find that anywhere else.
Q: You have a reputation for being hard on your participants. But by the end of the year, without fail, the participants in your strand love you. What do you think endears you to them?
A: It comes from my coaching stance. I don’t coach from afar – I coach up close and personal. This allows me to connect with the participants fairly quickly. I have a knack for studying people and through observation, I learn who the participants are and what they value. I use what I know about them personally and professionally as a lever to shift and support their development as effective leaders.
Q: The participants in your strands have a great time roasting you at the end of the year. Which roast did you most enjoy?
A: Two roasts stand out to me. In APP 6, Tanicia Williams played me really well, even wore my red glasses. APP 8 created a whole Broadway production about their experiences in the summer intensive. That strand had a lot of interesting personalities -- I had a lot of fun with them. It was great to see that the feeling was mutual.
Q: We know that you love to travel. What was your best vacation, and why?
A: Paris. That was my retirement – even though I didn’t really retire – gift to myself. I’ve always wanted to go there, having learned some of the language in my youth. Three family members went with me and we were able to share the experience together.
Q: This month, we are celebrating the accomplishments of the graduates in our lives. What is your greatest accomplishment to date?
A: My son is by far my greatest accomplishment in life. I always knew that I wanted a son, and the universe gave me one. I was very present as a mother and worked hard to support him to be an independent person and to be successful in his education and work life. When he graduated from college in 2010, it was the proudest moment of my life. It reaffirmed everything that I did to help get him to that point. He is now following his own path and dreams as a video producer for a prominent radio station here in the city.
Q: Who has been your greatest influence or mentor?
A: I’ve had many, and they’ve shown up through many stages in my life. However, my parents have been consistent throughout. From a young age, they instilled a love of family, education, and community. I grew up in Brownsville, where they were both community workers. Neither having graduated from high school, they made choices about my schooling that provided me with opportunities to better myself – such as bussing me out of my neighborhood to a better school.
Q: Do you have any hobbies or interests that people here might not know about?
A: I have a lot of interests. Music is probably highest on the list, and I appreciate all kinds. My dad was a musician and exposed me to a whole bunch of genres. I am a big proponent of Brazilian Bossa Nova music. And what is music without dancing? I was a dance major years ago and especially appreciate the art of Salsa.
In addition to music and dancing, I also love movies. I go to the movies by myself a lot to relax and eat Twizzlers.
My newest interest is in wine tasting; I hope to go to Napa Valley to improve my skills as a wine connoisseur.
June Spotlight: Karim Parchment
In honor of Father's Day, we are featuring Karim Parchment, a devoted father and experienced financial expert who serves as NYCLA's Chief Financial Officer. We sat down with Karim to learn more about him.
Q: What was the determining factor in your choice to pursue a career in accounting?
A: I actually focused my academic life on STEM fields. I thought I would become some sort of scientist, but my older brother, who is a big role model in my life, encouraged me to consider accounting. He has had a distinguished career at Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) and told me that many of his top employees had come from science backgrounds. It was his advice that led me to where I am now.
Q: What motivated you to leave the for profit world and join the nonprofit sector?
A: Well, it wasn’t planned. While I worked for PwC, I was assigned a nonprofit client – Legal Services NYC, an organization that has offered legal services to low-income communities for the past 40 years. I was inspired by the dedication of the attorneys to their work. Their commitment to social justice outweighed the financial benefits of joining a for profit firm. When a position opened up, I decided to take it to join a cause that I believed in.
Q: What attracted you to NYCLA and how do you see your contributions to the organization developing in the next five years?
A: First and foremost, I believe strongly in the organization’s vision to achieve equity for all students. Additionally, NYCLA was a diamond in the rough. I saw that the organization had so much potential and knew it would be a fantastic professional opportunity. When I joined the organization, I was presented with the opportunity to create my own finance department.
Even though I am a finance person, I believe that the success of the organization is not judged by its bottom line, but by how well we are accomplishing our goals. Of course a financial component exists and my contributions will continue to expand to ensure that I am managing the organization's resources in the best possible way and making smart financial decisions, which will allow NYCLA to do the critical work necessary to improve education outcomes.
Q: If you had the opportunity to start your own business or organization, what would it be and why?
A: A huge market for financial literacy exists in the United States and I actually do some of this work pro bono. I would start an organization that provides financial counseling and advice to the people who need it most. Around the 2008 recession, I realized just how many people had taken out loans and opened lines of credit without truly understanding their actions. I’ve seen too many people fall victim to lending situations. Sometimes it is as simple as understanding the parameters of a credit report. My organization would help people get good mortgages, and affordable loans.
Q: You were chosen for this interview in honor of Father’s Day. We know that you are a dedicated husband and father to two daughters, ages six and two. Who has been your role model in raising your own children?
A: I don’t have to go far for inspiration, because my father showed me how to be an effective parent. He was there for every athletic event and never missed a parent-teacher conference. It is my goal to do for my daughters what he did for me. Through his mentorship and friendship, I have become successful and I want the same for them.
Q: What is your greatest desire for your girls?
A: That is simple. I want my girls to shatter the glass ceiling. I want them to receive the same financial compensation as men receive for doing the same work. It saddens me that that is not the case for women today. There are too few women in leadership positions in top companies. I want my girls to be as successful as possible with no gender-related setbacks.
Q: So you are a busy man with a full life both at home and at work. What do you do for fun?
A: Most of my time is spent with my kids, giving them the best start that is possible. My wife has a busy schedule as the Assistant Principal at a demanding charter school, so I focus my time on the girls. My six year old, especially, has a busy schedule. She loves to ice skate so you will usually find me at the rink. Beyond that, we spend a lot of time at the park as well as dance recitals. Occasionally I will have time to play a few rounds of golf, a pastime that I enjoy very much.
May Spotlight: Regina Schlossberg
As we celebrate Mother’s Day and Teacher Appreciation Week, it only seems fitting that our next spotlight shines on a long time NYCLA coach who is a dedicated mother of four, grandmother of six, and lifelong teacher of many. Regina Schlossberg has advised and supported over 150 principals in her 10 year tenure at NYCLA and has still found the time to spend with her growing family and to partake in her favorite activities.
Q: What drew you to pursue a career in education?
A: As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a teacher. I would literally try to teach everybody everything as a child, even sitting my little brothers down in mock classrooms. I also saw the teaching profession as something to aspire to and viewed teachers as mentors. I will never forget my 3rd grade teacher – I looked up to her so much and even took up playing the guitar because she played.
Q: What motivated you to become a coach after you retired from the NYCDOE?
A: I retired from the NYCDOE for personal reasons. My mother was sick and my father needed my help in caring for her. I knew when I left that I wasn’t done – I still had so much more to give. NYCLA intrigued me because it was, and remains, a learning organization where I could not only support school leaders but I could also have an opportunity for my own personal growth.
Q: You’ve been a NYCLA coach for many years. What do you find rewarding about your role? What has been your biggest takeaway/learning?
A: It is incredibly rewarding to interact with new principals – each one is fascinating. Every school is completely different and comes with its own set of unique challenges and opportunities. My biggest takeaway is that I learn as much from the principals as they do from me.
Q: As a lifelong educator, what is one piece of advice you would give to a new principal?
A: Block out the noise and keep your eye on the target. Stay true to your vision for the school. Remember why you chose this career and if you have to err, always err on the side of children.
Q: We heard that you recently moved from Queens to Long Island to be closer to your daughter and grandchildren. What are you most looking forward to now that you live in such close proximity to them?
A: I love getting to see my grandchildren grow up right before my eyes. They stop by every day before school and we have dinner together at least once a week. Also, my youngest son and his wife also had another child just a few weeks ago, a beautiful baby girl. I travel regularly to upstate New York to be with them and help out.
Q: In honor of Mother’s Day, what is your perspective on being a mother?
A: Being a mother is the most humbling job that anyone could have. Each child is completely different and you have to treat each one as a unique individual with special gifts and quirks. I have twins – a boy and a girl – and they couldn’t be more different. The trick is never to compare one child to the other.
Q: Do you have any special skills or hobbies that people might not know about?
A: I love to golf. I play whenever I can. I am even in a Women’s Golf League in Florida.
Q: We know that you love to travel, and even lived in Israel for six years. What places are still on your “bucket list”?
A: I am dying to go to Southeast Asia. I actually had a trip planned but then Hurricane Sandy hit and I was unable to go.
Q: How do you balance your work, your time with family and time for yourself?
A: I thrive on excitement and have a lot of energy. The crazier my life, the happier I am.
April Spotlight: Liliana Polo-McKenna
For our second staff spotlight, we sat down with Liliana Polo-McKenna, a staff member with a long NYCLA history – having graduated from APP in 2005 and served as a doctoral resident in our work through the Rhode Island Department of Education before joining our client services team as a fulltime employee.
Q: What fuels your personal commitment to educational equity?
A: My brother is a Lieutenant in the United States Army and he is my inspiration for much of the work that I do. Growing up we had very different educational opportunities starting at a very young age, despite attending the same school until 8th grade. When you look at what hasn't worked in our school systems for many years, he is someone whom our system failed. He went to a transfer school and graduated from high school, but at a tremendous personal cost. When I think of school, I have happy memories. That's contrary to his lived experience. I know that I cannot change his relationship with school but I hope to be able to change the conditions that perpetuate that experience for young people, particularly for students of color. I would also say that being personally invested in my work is something I learned from parents. I remember my father telling me that no matter what I did in life, I needed to love and be the best at it. He was a waiter for 30 years and he would pride himself in being the “best damn waiter in the place”. So I definitely have some clear mental models about how I need to engage in the work I do.
Q: Working with students who the system has largely failed can be an overwhelming feat at times. Where do you get that spark to keep pushing forward?
A: My work with students at transfer high schools is grounded in a commitment to those whom often get left out of conversations. Very few people really want to talk about kids who've dropped out of school - it feels like a lost cause.
Last week I spent a day at career day at the school I founded. That was as much about helping young people think about their post-secondary options as it was about me re-energizing and staying grounded in my core values and my Teachable Point of View (TPOV) through those personal connections. It was incredibly fulfilling, and keeping that touch on what matters most is critical for me to sustain myself in this work. Without that, what's the point?
Q: You have been drawn to NYCLA at various times throughout your professional career? What brings you back each time?
A: First and foremost, it’s the people. I work alongside brilliant, interesting, and funny people who push me to work harder and be better in service of the leaders, teams, and schools we serve. Additionally, the way we go about our work aligns with my personal values. We don’t just drop solutions into people’s laps. We work alongside others and our goal is to co-create and make sure that these ideas and practices live well beyond our time there.
Q: We hear that you are quite the traveler, having taken a number of solo vacations in your life. What was your favorite? Where is one place you’d like to visit that you haven’t traveled to yet?
A: The Grand Canyon was my favorite place. It was absolutely amazing. I would love to visit Turkey and Morocco. My husband and I are geeks about exploring ancestry and lineage and sent in for a kit from National Geographic’s Human Genome Project, where they analyze your DNA to determine your ancestry. Most of mine came from that part of the world. I don't know how accurate that is, but it is another reason to experience that part of the world for myself.
Q: What is a hobby or pastime that you enjoy that people might not know about?
A: I love hot yoga. I make sure to go on Saturday’s and Sunday’s. I typically follow it with a frittata and several baked goods. I know this is random and potentially strange, but I like the structure of coloring in coloring books. There is something about coloring between the lines I find soothing. Luna, my 19-month old daughter, likes to color on walls instead.
Q: What are you most looking forward to as the weather changes and we welcome spring?
A: I’m ready to be outdoors without all of the layers. Fresh air is incredibly helpful for both the brain and the spirit and I am looking forward to recharging.
March Spotlight: Irene Rogan
In honor of Women’s History Month, we are featuring Irene Marcantonio Rogan, a NYCLA staff member who paved the way for women’s rights at the local level. Irene fought against firmly rooted stereotypes to become the first female mail carrier in Yonkers and the first female to work behind the service counter at Lafayette Electronics. We sat down with Irene recently to learn more about her.
Q: How did you become the first female mail carrier and what was the experience like for you?
A: I received a high score on the Civil Service test and passed the physical exam, but was placed in an indoor US Postal Service facility. When I inquired about the possibility of delivering the mail, I was told point blank, “Guys will bother you and dogs will attack you.” This wasn’t a rational reason so I threatened to go public with their discrimination. In response I was assigned to a veteran mail carrier who was very set in his ways and stuck me in the hills of Yonkers. They thought this assignment would deter me from the job, but it only made me more determined to succeed. Over time, they opened the position up to anyone who met the requirements. It’s my belief that if you are qualified to do the work, you should have access to the position.
Q: So were you ever attacked by any dogs?
A: Nope. And I was never hit on by any men either, unfortunately.
Q: What drew you to become an educator?
A: I come from a family of educators. My dad was a teacher and assistant principal in a very tough neighborhood and my mom was a lifelong librarian. They treated the teaching profession as something to aspire to, something that really makes a difference. Even as a young girl, I used to play teacher and set up make-believe classrooms. It was my calling.
Q: What has been your fondest memory throughout your career?
A: I worked for 30 years in the same school, first as a teacher and then as an administrator. My fondest memory was having former students, grown up with families of their own, return to my school to work as teachers, paraprofessionals, and even one as a security guard. Many former students came back to the neighborhood and even sent their own children to the school. That’s how I knew the education that had received had a long-term impact on their lives.
Q: What made you move from teaching to an administrative position?
A: To be honest, I never wanted to leave the classroom. Teaching was my passion. I was approached over the years by many colleagues to leverage my skills at the administrative level. When a position opened up at my school, I decided to sacrifice my desire to stay in the classroom in order to have a larger impact on more students.
Q: You have a very full plate, with a busy home life and a demanding workload at NYCLA. How do you fit it all in?
A: I honestly don’t think about it too much. What I am doing matters and is important. I try to find joy in every moment. My kids and grandkids live with me and while the house is crazy, I love all of the time that I get to spend with them. I have very long days and I try to prioritize and keep myself organized as best I can.
Q: Do you have any special skills or hobbies that people might not know about?
A: I have a real passion for photography and I also write poetry.