Five Blue Ribbons, and 'No Excuses'

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What does it take to become a Blue Ribbon school? "Not making any excuses," said Jack Spatola, principal of P.S. 172, Beacon School of Excellence, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Beacon was one of five New York City Schools that were awarded Blue Ribbon status by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Thursday, meaning it is a national school of excellence.

The designation recognizes public and private elementary, middle and high schools that are either high performing or have improved student achievement to high levels, especially among disadvantaged students, according to the Department of Education.

The four other schools in New York city that were awarded Blue Ribbon status Thursday are:

Only 305 schools in the United States were granted Blue Ribbon status this year, and 19 of these are located in New York state.

Beacon, which has 599 students, pre-K to 5th grade, is at 825 4 Avenue, in District 15. The school is known for its high scores and a teaching style that is heavy on student discussions.

Mr. Spatola answered a few questions Thursday about the school's recognition. Here is a lightly edited and condensed version of the interview.


Did the award come as a surprise?


No, no, no. I guess all other schools like 172, we were informed of our high performance by someone from the office of the commissioner, of the state Education Department. They asked if it would be okay for them to submit our school as a nominee. They also asked us if we were willing and ready to go through the high level of scrutiny to respond to specific questions, but also opening up our, quote-unquote, books. And we said 'fine.' ...

They were basically looking for best practices. In other words, What is the mindset? What are the structures and the systems that you put into play that produces or generates such high academic performance? Particularly as they said to us, it’s really unique in your school in that you have a very, very high needs population both in terms of the poverty level, as reflected by the percentage of students who are eligible for free lunch as well.

About 34 percent of our student population are English language learners and 24 percent have an I.E.P., Individual Education Plan, special education. In other words, children with educational challenges. And yet, you continue for years and years and years on a consistent basis to achieve such high levels of performance, in the state E.L.A. and math tests and science and social studies.


What are some of the things that you’re doing right?


I think we’re not making any excuses. I think we’re looking at every challenge as an opportunity to learn and to show how good we are. That translates into providing our best effort. I think that has been a mantra; it’s been something we believe in. You don’t just talk about it. You live it.

They say to me that I’m there in the morning, I’m there at dismissal, I’m in the classrooms, I’m everywhere. Basically, I take it as a compliment only because you need to be a model. You need to live what you think and what you say.

I do believe very, very much that not only does everybody have potential to excel, but that everyone, given the resources and given the time, will excel. To me it’s not a matter of 'will this child be able to perform at standards or above standards.' To me, it’s a matter of 'do I have the resources?' The resources are there...

My school is a Title I school where we have 90 percent of our students eligible for free lunch. That generates half a million dollars more than if we were not. That provides the funds in order to be able to group and to individualize specific instruction and support services. To that extent, the resources are there.

The other thing is basically the time. The time not only in the time in years and months, but time for us to learn and to specifically determine benchmarks. Our expectations are very clear. Not only for the end of the year, but every two months. Every one of our learners, everyone, whether he is a gifted child or he is a child who is truly struggling to get to standard, has an educational plan. Meaning: where is the child at.

After I assess the child, we get together in terms of determining a particular plan which is constantly reviewed and revised to accommodate the needs of the particular student. And then we adjust to make sure that those expectations that have been established are accurate and real, and then readjust it so as the time goes by the end of the year if we are not 100 percent of the time on target, we are close to it, all the time. That, then, is reflected in those exams. It’s really what I call a comprehensive laser beam approach to learning.


What does this award mean for the community?


The parents got it before I got it. At dismissal time they were talking about it. Some of the parents said, ‘It’s great. It makes us very, very proud. We knew who we are and what our school is, but it’s nice for everyone to recognize it,’ they said.

I think it’s what I thought would be the real value of entering this competition, if you want to call it as such. In the context that it makes me extremely proud, No. 1, of the work and the efforts that we continuously generate, we put out...

It means another affirmation that anyone and everybody, if you work hard and you are not ever tired of learning, of trying, of correcting yourself in order to be able to meet a particular benchmark or a particular point at a particular time in your day or your week or your life, whether it’s at work, whether it’s in personal life, or it’s in learning how to read a higher level text -- you’ll be able to do it.