Half a Century of Order and Discipline for a Junior High Principal

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WNYC's Yasmeen Khan Hear some of Madeleine Brennan’s reflections on leading a middle school, starting with what it’s like to work with young teenagers.

For nearly 49 years, Madeleine P. Brennan has woken up at 4:30 a.m. to arrive to the job she loves hours before the first bell.

She has been the principal of I.S. 201, Dyker Heights Intermediate School in Brooklyn since March 1963, making her likely the longest-serving principal in the country. She started as a New York City teacher in 1946.

Over the years, she has educated tens of thousands of children, molded hundreds of teachers, and promoted dozens of administrators who have fanned out throughout the New York City school system.

So a visit to her school, tucked between single-family homes near the Verazanno-Narrows Bridge, is in some ways like going back in time. She continues to run the school like she did from the beginning, before grades six, seven and eight were called “middle schools” or “intermediate schools.” At Dyker Heights, a junior high school is still a high school experience in training wheels for young teens.

There are five bands and an orchestra. There’s a chorus, a yearbook, a science fair and an annual musical, all maintained against a tide of budget cuts, through the help of donations by local politicians.

Here, there is order and discipline. Staff members are dressed in business attire.

"I’m strict, they know it," she said of the children, teachers and parents that she works with. "I’m strict with the teachers— you do a good job, that’s all I ask of you. The kids know they are here to work. And the parents know -- I want you to be a parent and learn to say no to your child. You find it hard to say no? You should know better."

But firmness doesn't work unless caring underscores it, Mrs. Brennan said. And that, in the end, is what Mrs. Brennan believes makes her school work.

"I am blessed with an exceptional staff," she said. "They are dedicated and hardworking, but what I like most is their concern for kids. They try to find out why a kid acts the way he does, and then they work on that problem."

To hear and read more about Mrs. Brennan's experiences, listen to the audio posted above, and read the full story.