The Power of Leaders

Anyone who works in education knows that great principals can have a significant impact on their students. Yet, in Washington right now, school leadership preparation is under attack. The Trump administration has proposed eliminating Title II, Part A, the very program that sends funds to states to support and train teachers, assistant principals and principals. Their reason? They say there is not enough evidence that these programs work.

So we decided to go into the schools of a few of the principals who have gone through the NYC Leadership Academy’s Aspiring Principal Program. We wanted to hear directly from students how their principals -- Wanda Vazquez, Dr. Reginald Landeau, and Seung Yu -- trained by our research-based standards-aligned program, have made a difference in their lives, and what these principals have been doing to affect students.

The answers we got were moving and more definitive than we could have expected. We will celebrate these and all of the educational leaders we have had the privilege to work with over the last 14 years tonight, June 14, at a special event featuring Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina and former Chancellor Joel Klein, at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, from 5 – 7 p.m.

Building students as leaders

Our first stop was El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a small high school in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Principal Wanda Vazquez has worked there for 18 years, six of them as principal. When we asked students if and how they have grown since starting at El Puente, several of them said they used to not care about school and struggled. Most El Puente freshmen arrive having scored well below proficient in math and ELA on city and state exams. By the end of her second year at the school, one student, Samantha, had gone from a C to a B+ average. What made the difference? “You have teachers here that don't just let you sit there and fail,” she said. “They're like, ‘Come to tutoring. Let me find out what's going on. Is there something in your household, or something in school?’”

Wanda explains that ninth grade English class is about “getting students comfortable in developing their voice and in reading literature by people like them.” Said Christopher, a junior, “Our teachers challenge us to always ask question, to always form our own opinions instead of have someone else do that for us.”

It’s all part of the school’s mission to prepare students both intellectually and social-emotionally for college, careers, and life. Not doing both, says Wanda, “Is a failure to our young people and to society at large.”  

In their classes and in advisory groups, students are given space to talk about things happening in their communities and at home. “When they leave here, they're going into communities that are under police surveillance. They're going into communities and places that may not be ideal. We want is to ensure that they can move out of a space of experiencing it to move into a space of, ‘I can have some impact on what programs are created for my community.’”

Cheyenne, a senior graduating this month to study history in college, said when she got to El Puente, “I didn't really know that I had certain things about me that were special. Wanda said, ‘You are very special, and you're gonna do special things in the world.’ She always gave me that stool to speak on and make sure my voice was heard, but also to make sure that I'm hearing everybody else's voice, too.

“She said, ‘Now it's your turn to teach that, to make sure you pass it on.’”

Establishing systems and structures to support student growth

At George J. Ryan Middle School 216 in Fresh Meadows, Queens, students feel a real sense of community. “We can communicate with each other and help and support each other,” said one 8th grader, Makhai. The principal and the teachers, she added, “speak to students and understand what we are going through and try to help us.”

She credits the school with getting her on the path toward her long-held dream of becoming a singer. Since starting at Ryan, she said, “I have become more confident. … We’ve learned that no matter where you are, what place you are in, you always have the opportunity to grow and unlock things you didn’t know about yourself.” She will attend LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts in the fall.

Ryan’s principal, Dr. Reginald Landeau, has taken a systematic approach to transforming Ryan from the worst school in his district to one of the best schools in New York City. When he became principal in 2004, Dr. Landeau broke the school of 1,427 students into three academies. “Those academies became smaller learning communities, which right away started to improve camaraderie among students and teachers and led to people knowing each other,” he said. He then led his staff in writing their own curriculum and creating a system for regularly adapting it. “I believe in sustainable growth,” he said. “When you push people hard, and you also celebrate the success together as a group, then people are willing to be pushed even harder.”

In 2015, the school was in the top 1 percent of middle schools in New York City for student progress. 

Believing that if kids aren’t happy, they will struggle to learn, Dr. Landeau has also led his staff and students in creating a number of after-school cubs – chess, guitar, robotics, software engineering, boys’ and girls’ clubs, a club for girls focused on math and science “because we know that there are not enough women working in those fields,” he said.

To further help students to feel comfortable with staff, he has also prioritized hiring teachers who reflect his extremely diverse student body. “Unhappiness comes when people just don't understand who you are,” he said. “We have adults that look like our students, that understand the different ethnicities and religions.”

Remembering how shy she was in fifth grade, Gabriella, a 7th grader, said after two years at Ryan, “I feel like I can speak in front of the class, no problem. With these teachers and Dr. Landeau and the vice-principals and the staff, I feel like I am smart. The school feels like almost a home.”

Tackling inequities with care

Seung Yu knew that the computer science field was filled with inequities, from the gender imbalance to the limited number of computer scientists of color. His mission when he founded the Academy for Software Engineering, an unscreened high school in Manhattan, five years ago was to “open up as many opportunities so that kids can really showcase what they are capable of doing,” he said. The only way the imbalance in the field will change, he said, “is if we believe that we are cultivating that in our young people.”

The school’s primary strategy for doing this is encouraging students, showing them that the adults at the school care and are there to support and challenge them. “For us to ever dismantle any of the inequities, we have to know who our young people are, and then think about what opportunities are being presented to them.”

One senior, Eamon, said that in middle school, he would lie awake for hours dreading going to school the next day. At AFSE, he said, even though he wasn't always the best math and science student, “I have teachers who are supportive and reassuring and make sure that we know that all of us can succeed. Because of that I've become a better student.”

And it’s not just what the teachers are doing. Added Eamon, “If I go to school and I have a problem, I can talk to Mr. Yu, and I feel like he will actually try to solve it. He will actually care about me as an individual.”

Principal Yu explains that to be successful, students need to be invested. “If you don't give students a reason besides academics, they might not want to come to school,” he said. “When students walked into our doors, the first thing we were going to do is to surround them with as many cheerleaders and fans who are going to get them to the finish line.” He does that, for one, by working with iMentor, which matches each student with a mentor who is with them from 9th grade through graduation. And by maintaining an advisory program. “We make sure that we're always monitoring and speaking with students so that they know that we know what's happening in your life, and so we can create the conditions that are going to allow you to be successful.”

That works has rubbed off on students. “I'm hopeful for the future because of my time here,” said senior Jun Jie. While he says he was an introvert when he first transferred to the school from Germany as a sophomore, his leadership, internship, and public speaking experiences through the school “have made me feel I'm a part of our society, that I can do whatever they can do.”

The school’s supportive environment has also made a big different to students’ academics. “If you look at my transcript, it starts low, and then it goes up,” said Jorly, a senior. “if someone like Mr. Yu comes to you and tells you why school work is useful, then you're motivated to do it.”

The students say they feel Principal Yu’s passion every day, whether he’s asking how they are in the hallway, or emailing them inspirational quotes every morning. “I feed off that energy, that passion, and I think it helps carry me through the day,” said senior Joshua, who was one of ten high school seniors to win a New Visions scholarship that will support his tuition at Baruch College. “I know that he cares, and so I have to care too.”

The stories of these students and their principals are featured in The Power of Leaders, the NYC Leadership Academy’s new short film to premiere at our celebratory event today. It will be available online soon.

About the Author — Jill Grossman

Jill Grossman is Senior Director of Communications and Research at the NYC Leadership Academy.

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