In Principal’s Office, a regular feature of SchoolBook, a city school principal is interviewed for insights into school management and the life of a school leader. What do you think makes a good principal? Join the conversation below.
Sheldon Benardo has been the principal of Public School 86 in the Kingsbridge Heights section of the Bronx for 21 years. He grew up nearby and attended the school himself. The school, with almost 1,800 students, many of whom come from Spanish-speaking homes with low incomes, has earned an A in the last five school report cards.
In an interview, Mr. Benardo, 61, talked about how he got his job through the old political patronage system, but then grew to love it and care about his students and teachers. Good teachers, he said, are the backbone of a good school. Mr. Benardo's base salary was $145,000 in 2010. This interview was edited and condensed.
What keeps this school at this level of achievement when so many around you don’t do as well?
The real answer is getting the best teachers. I spend a lot of my time and a lot of my energy on finding the best people.
You’ve seen a lot of changes in this system. What do you think this current era of management from the Education Department compared with how things were before, in your early days as a principal?
I can only speak for here. I don’t have a broader view. I can only know how my job is today versus how my job was before and the job is so much better. So much better. You are responsible and accountable but now you have the authority to do things that you think are best so it makes you willing to be held accountable.
It used to be we were held accountable but we couldn’t decide who the teachers were. How can you be held accountable when you can’t determine who’s going to be doing what where and when? So I think that Klein empowered principals to the greatest degree.
But you also had to be ready for the consequences. That if your school didn’t succeed according to their metrics, then you were going to have a problem.
What do you think of the city's metrics?
Because we get an A, I think their metrics are perfect. They couldn't be better. I’m sure if we didn’t get that grade I’d have a complaint.
Before the institution of progress reports, how did a principal know how well a school was doing?
There was nothing. You were not held accountable, really. If too many people went to the district to complain about you, you had a problem.
You have a lot of teachers from Teach for America, and you’re a training center for Teach for America. Has that made your school better?
It’s been great in so many ways. First, we’re getting people from the best colleges, which means not only are they well educated but also had other experiences in their lives, because their families are usually well to do, and they're well traveled, they’ve seen different things.
What are you looking for in teachers who come through Teach for America?
I’m looking for people with the right character. When they come from Teach for America, they have often been the top of class in high school. And now they went to Brown University or they went to Harvard. But the might also lack the understanding that the teachers in the school know more than they do and they're used to always having the right answer, and always solving the issue for themselves, and being the brightest bulb, and suddenly they have to understand that having someone else telling them what to do — sometimes it’s hard for the valedictorian from Duke to understand that.
Before I pick from Teach for America, I go through three or four others that I turn down.
How much flexibility do you have in picking your Teach for America teachers?
Some of them are wrong. I’ll tell you a story, a story that embarrasses me in some way. Teach for America sent someone to me, a girl who was blind. She came to the school in the subway, with a seeing-eye dog. You can imagine the obstacles this young woman had probably had to conquer in her life, and I determined that I was going to find this girl a job because I felt she had earned it.
But in the interview, she kept on knocking New York City teachers. I tried to rescue her and I tried to rescue her, and she just wouldn’t be rescued. She just kept on demeaning what they do and how they do it and their level of commitment. Finally I had to throw her out, because it wasn’t a right fit.
So part of me felt terrible that I had denied this young woman an opportunity. But I also have an obligation to the people that are here, that they be treated as knowing professionals and that those who come to this school have to know that they have to learn from the people who are here.
And I quickly disabuse them of the notion that they are Teach for America teachers, that that may have been the mechanism by which they came to this school, but once they’re in this school, they’re P.S. 86 teachers who came through an administrative process helped by Teach for America.
You started your career as a teacher.
I started in this district in Junior High School 80, about a half-mile from here.
I was laid off in ’70s. I didn’t work for a few years. Then they called me back. And I went to work at Joan of Arc Junior High School on 93rd and Amsterdam, as a teacher of the emotionally disturbed.
You went from being a teacher to an assistant principal. Tell me how that happened.
To tell you the truth, in those days, the school system was terribly political that you could not get an assistant principal’s job because you were smart, because you were well spoken, because you were well educated, because you had had great success as a classroom teacher. Jobs were doled out based on political favors.
At that time my brother was in charge of special education in the Bronx. He had so many, so many patronage jobs to give out, so that when the politicians came to him ... and said, ‘We need this A.P. job and that job and that job and that job,' he would say to them 'one of the prices for me doing your stuff is you’ve got to help my brother become an assistant principal.'
And even though I did not deserve it — did not, the truth is the truth — my brother’s influence enabled me to become an assistant principal. That’s just the way it worked. It’s the way it worked.
It’s one of the reasons that the local school boards ended, because it was so disgusting. I saw what some people had to do to get jobs. They had to lick envelopes, campaign for this city council person and all that garbage, and I didn’t have to do it because my brother smoothed the way and he got me that job at P.S. 7 in the Bronx. Just like he got me this job.
Tell me about that.
That was 1991. I was spending the summer on Nantucket. My brother calls me on Nantucket and he says, ‘I’ve got a principal’s job for you. And I said, I’m very happy being assistant principal. I don’t really want the job. He starts yelling at me, ‘I’m doing this, I got you this job, it’s so hard to get. You’ve got to take this job.’
So I say, all right. I’m going to take the job, but I really love the beach — I’m not making this up, I really love the beach, I’m on Nantucket. It’s great out here, I don’t want to miss a day at the beach. You’ve got to arrange it.
You were an ambitious young fellow.
I loved where I was an assistant principal.
He said, 'Listen, I’ll schedule an interview for 9 o’clock and you’ll be out of there by 9:30.' So I flew down from Nantucket, my father picked me up at the airport. I came for the interview with the superintendent.
At that time this school had 2,300 kids. The superintendent had never met me. I come to the interview and he says, 'How’s the water in Nantucket.' I said, 'Nice.' 'Did you go to Newport?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Congratulations.'
That was my interview to become the principal of this school of 2,300 kids. He had never met me, he didn’t know any of my background. He didn’t know what my thoughts were on anything. But that’s the way the system worked then. It was a disgraceful system, but not for me. I was an incredible beneficiary of a corrupt system.
Of course, I wouldn’t be telling you this if I were 15 years younger.
Your school does very well now. The teachers and your parents seem to like you, you learned to speak Spanish so you could communicate with the families in this community. I’m having trouble reconciling the principal you seem to be today with who you must have been when you first took this job reluctantly.
Me, too! Somehow when you’re given the opportunity — maybe that’s why I give people opportunities, because someone gave me an opportunity and I grew into the job. I wasn’t right for the job when they gave it to me. But you get invested in it.
What changed about you?
I would say that it probably happens to every principal, every person who gets this job. You don’t know what to expect because you’ve never done it. You don’t know how it will take over everything about you, emotionally, completely, psychologically, that it becomes more and more important to you. So you’re striving to have only the best people work with you, not necessarily just those who agree with you, but with your philosophy that you need to work hard and you need to do what’s necessary.