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Julie Conason: Learning Through Relationships

Monday, November 28, 2011 - 11:25 AM

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.

Julie Conason has been the principal of Humanities Preparatory Academy in Chelsea, Manhattan, for four years. With 192 students, Humanities is one of the smallest high schools in the city, and accepts both transfer students and those through general admission. It is part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, an organization of schools that have received waivers from the state to forgo the Regents exams for alternative assessments. Humanities is also unusual in its management and disciplinary methods — and in its success in more than doubling the graduation rate since 2008. Ms. Conason was with the city's Department of Education for 22 years, as a teacher and literacy coach, before being named principal of Humanities. She is 53 and her salary was $142,127 in 2010. This interview was edited and condensed.

Q.

Tell me about the consortium schools.

A.

Consortium schools are something a little bit apart, a little bit special, a little bit different. There’s 28 of them in the state, maybe 30. Most of them are in New York City. We graduate students by portfolio and/or by performance task rather than by Regents.

A lot of what we do and how we operate and what our curriculum is based around those performance-based assessment tasks, and how students gain both the skills and the knowledge to complete that kind of task. We have a deep and fundamental belief that drives a lot of what we do that these tasks are really college preparatory in a way that a standardized test can never be.

Q.

How does that work?

A.

For example, in English, students are doing usually a comparative literary essay of two different works. In history they’re doing a research paper with an original thesis. In science they’ll usually be doing an experiment with an original hypothesis that’s part of a larger class, and writing up their data and their findings.

If you’re doing and presenting a PBAT (pronounced P-bat) — that’s what we call the Performance-Based Assessment Task — you present to a panel that consists of your mentor, another teacher from the school and an outside evaluator. It’s like doing a Ph.D. The students have to defend it and they have to answer questions about it on the spot to that panel and that panel passes them or does not pass them on the PBAT.

Q.

Why did you agree to become the principal at this school when it was offered to you?

A.

What seemed important to me was that I was being handed the legacy of a school that had a special mission, one that was in alignment with my educational philosophy and what I believe, which is that standardized tests are not the mark of how well a student is doing, that learning happens through relationships, the relationships that students build with teachers and with all staff members, and that a school should be your community.

Q.

Unlike many of your peers, you were not an assistant principal before taking this job.

A.

When this job came up, I told Vince Brevetti, the founding principal of the school, who was then the network leader, that I was sort of hoping to become an assistant principal first. And Vince said to me, "This is a consortium school, this opportunity may not come up again."

There are very few consortium schools. If you’re a person who really doesn’t believe that the survival of the schools should live and die by the Regents scores, then a Consortium school is a remarkable place to be able to work and with which to be affiliated. I was told "You might not feel ready to be principal, but this school is here now. You need to take the leap and jump in and take it."

Q.

Did you have to think about it much?

A.

No. I mean, it’s terrifying as a responsibility. But I also knew that the structure of the school was going to help me, the democratic leadership structure and the collaborative decision-making structure. It doesn’t happen 100 percent of the time, but I make an effort not to make a lot of unilateral decisions. So if a staff member wants to make a policy or structural change, it goes to staff meeting and is decided by consensus.

Q.

Where do your students come from?

A.

They come from everywhere. This is one of the most diverse schools I’ve ever worked at. Our kids come from a very rich ethnic and socioeconomic mix. There’s a very, very broad spectrum of kids who come from every kind of family that would make up New York City, and they have a lot of strong friendships across boundaries, across geography. This year we had 37 new 9th graders and 34 transfers. For the 9th grade class, we had about 20 students applying for every opening we actually have.

Q.

What attracts students to this school?

A.

I think they love that we’re a really small school. I think they love the individual nature of education that they’re seeing here. I think they really love seeing how thoughtful and powerful kids are here.

Q.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in your four years as principal here?

A.

I’ve learned a lot about the need in my job of keeping the ship afloat. Often that means operational and budgetary work, and that’s not my favorite thing. What I’d like to be doing more is the part of my job that's about being an educational leader and having discussions with teachers about implementing their dreams for the classroom, about trying out all kinds of teaching and learning strategies.

Q.

What have been some of the pleasant surprises?

A.

There’s so many. The happiest part is being in love with your school, coming in every morning and feeling lucky, feeling that your school is a special place and you have been entrusted with that. I didn’t create this school, but I was entrusted with moving it forward.

It had been through a rough period. When I took on the principalship, the graduation rate from the year before, June 2008, was 41 percent. We brought it back up bit by bit through the dedication and extraordinary hard work of the teachers and staff. The next year it was 63 percent, then 83 percent, and last year it was 95 percent. It’s a pattern of steady growth. Whether we can sustain that track record given budget cuts remains to be seen — we provide a lot of support for students: counseling, after-school tutoring and schoolwork support, and all of that costs money.

Q.

Your school has a set of core values. Tell me about those.

A.

They are respect for humanity, respect for diversity, respect for the intellect, respect for the truth, a commitment to democracy, a commitment to justice and a commitment to peace.

We try not to suspend students, but instead any infraction that a student or staff member commits, in the eyes of students, can be designated a violation of the core values and you can be taken to the Fairness Committee. It’s made up of an equal number of students and teachers. They hear the problem and make some recommendations.

Q.

Give me an example.

A.

If a student is verbally disrespectful of a teacher, that would be a failure of respect for the teachers’ humanity because we don’t treat people that way. The recommendation might be to write a letter of apology. If you’re disrespecting a space, you might do some community service to make sure that space remains in good shape. The student also has to agree that they can live with that consequence, and are willing to complete it.

Q.

How effective is that, that students are hearing from their peers?

A.

A student was being taken to Fairness by his teacher for failure to respect the intellect because he had cut class. One of the other students, who was — let’s just say she was a student from very difficult home circumstances. She looks at him and says, "You remind me of Meursault from Camus’s 'The Stranger.' He, too, isolated himself from the community and didn’t realize the importance of his contribution." I’m sitting there with my mouth falling open, that a kid is saying this to another kid. It’s so powerful coming out of the mouths of students.

We had another one, a girl who was very out of control. Her adviser, whom she had consistently cursed out, had tremendous problems with her, and the adviser was taking her to Fairness.

Another student who’s sitting on the panel looks at her and says: "You remind me of me. I was a girl with a big personality, too. And I learned how to turn that into leadership."

The culture of the school started 18 years ago with the core values. The fact that these have been carried forward creates a strong culture here. Students see it as their responsibility to welcome and be caring for other students here. I’ve never seen these values in action in a school as much as I see them here.

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