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. Earlier this month, Martha Polin of the Lower East Side Preparatory High School talked about the importance of engaging students. This week, answering questions is Mark Dunetz, principal since 2008 of the Academy for Careers in Television and Film, a high school in Queens that tries to prepare students for careers in film while offering a strong academic curriculum. The three-year-old school of 425 students, grades 9 through 12, will have its first graduation in June. Mr. Dunetz, 36, whose salary was $136,959 in 2010, started as a teacher but left, only to return because he was "hungry to be back in a school full time." This interview was edited and condensed.
Your school is a non-selective school. What does that mean?
Our school has a limited unscreened admissions policy. This means that students who attend one of our public open house events are given preference. We have no access to test scores, attendance, class grades or any other indication of a student’s academic history prior to admission.
In their data, the Department of Education puts you in a so-called peer group with schools that have different admissions policies, correct?
Yes. Admissions policy is not one of the factors that the Department of Education uses to determine which school are peers for accountability purposes. So in our case, we are in a peer group with schools that are entirely selective in admissions, meaning they do a full review of middle school attendance, test scores and class grades prior to making decisions.
Is your school one of what used to be called vocational schools?
We are what’s called a career and technical education school. The difference between us and vocational schools of previous decades is that students in vocational schools were historically not in meaningful academic programs. Our program combines a rigorous college preparatory academic program with a competitive career program. Regardless of whether they intend to pursue a career in television and film production, the next stop for the majority of our students will be a post-secondary academic institution — in many cases a traditional four-year college.
Has New York's system of choice at the high school level served all students well?
Many of the city’s most successful schools are those which have the most selective admissions policies.
One of the challenges that the city faces right now is that an unsuccessful middle school student is more often than not going to end up at a high school that is struggling. In many cases, these are schools that have a disproportionate number of students coming in with the same characteristics — they have had poor attendance, performed poorly on standardized tests and haven’t developed consistent work habits.
The concentration of large numbers of students with these characteristics at non-selective schools creates tremendous obstacles to success. So one of the challenges facing the larger system is to create a set of schools that are non-selective and open to those students, but able to attract an academically diverse student body and perform at high levels. And that’s easier said than done.
That’s what you’re trying to do?
I believe that’s what we are doing. We have a school which is open to all students and with very few exceptions, we’ve been successful. We anticipate that the graduation rate for our first cohort will be 93 percent. We’re very excited about this and we would like to see a lot more schools that are non-selective achieving high levels of academic success.
Why aren’t there more such schools?
That’s a big question. There are a lot of factors that go into making a school successful, and if there were easy answers, we’d be a lot more successful than we have been with school reform efforts.
Schools are sandwiched between numerous collective bargaining agreements and a dense web of policies and laws at the local, state and federal levels. You’re dealing with diverse constituencies, increasingly ambitious goals and above all the aspirations of children and their families. It’s an incredibly complex and unforgiving environment.
I think that to address the types of challenges schools face, particularly if you’re non-selective, you first need to have a set of organizational structures that allow you to be extremely responsive and efficient. This is an area that’s received insufficient attention. At an organizational level, schools have historically not worked very well.
In what way?
I’m speaking now not even of instructional programs or the quality of the teaching. I’m talking about limitations in basic systems for managing resources, communication, records and analyzing information. No amount of high expectations or hard work can compensate for the absence of good systems in these areas and yet they are typically an after thought.
You've told me that your school and others have had to build "parallel" systems of record keeping. Tell me about that.
Many forward-thinking schools have developed parallel systems for managing all sorts of things, from student data to operations, and I imagine there will always be a need for that no matter how well central office does its job since the school system is massive.
But many citywide systems continue to be highly inefficient and it’s only school-level administrators who truly appreciate how disruptive it can be to navigate these. I’m not talking about tough policy issues like teacher evaluation or ‘last in, first out.’ I’m talking about questions like how many phone calls, e-mails, offices, paper and electronic forms are involved in getting a person who’s been offered a job onto payroll.
When I first started working as a teacher, I didn’t get paid for three months. When I inquired, I was told this was normal and I should relax. While things are better now, we still have some real challenges around basic operations and in making the offices and systems that handle them sufficiently responsive to schools. Where these offices and systems fall short, the ability of schools to positively impact children is diminished.
Some things must have changed for the better.
Absolutely. It would have been inconceivable for us to accomplish what we have without changes in hiring policies and the increased autonomy principals have been granted in making budgetary decisions.
Let’s talk about your background. Your parents were both teachers?
My parents both taught in the city, but not for their full careers. My mother for seven years and my father for three or four.
Did that influence you?
I had an awareness of it as a potential career path, and what’s interesting is that when I began teaching, I found the system they had described had changed very little over the years.
I entered a masters program at N.Y.U. to become trained to teach English to speakers of other languages, and my original plan was to work with adults. At N.Y.U., I received a graduate assistantship which paid my tuition in return for three days a week providing academic support to students at Bushwick High School.
That made you want to teach?
I think I was really impressed in working with adolescents at how much was really fluid. The life of a 13- or 14-year-old entering high school can go in just about any direction. And the direction you’re headed when you exit those four years often determines a lot about what the rest of your life looks like.
I came to believe that we could be doing a much better job at taking advantage of the enormous potential in those years. So at the end of my first year in the program, I made a decision to become a high school teacher.
How did you become a principal?
I left high school teaching after my first year in a doctoral program in educational policy. While completing my studies, I taught at the college level, did program evaluation and worked for New Visions in a school leadership training program. After four years of working outside of schools, I got really hungry to be back in a school full time.
(Academy for Careers in Television and Film is a New Visions school, a nonprofit group that has long been at the center of New York's effort to create small schools. The school also has partnerships with Silvercup Studios and the New York Production Alliance.)
I had had the opportunity to see many different schools, and many different school leaders in action and had developed a set of ideas about the things needed for a school to be really successful. I made a decision that it was time to put those ideas into practice.
What are you proudest of here?
I’m proudest of the relationships we’ve built with students and their families.
Opening a new school involves taking on an awesome responsibility. In the first year, you find yourself recruiting students to an organization that doesn’t yet exist. You make promises to families about what the school is going to be like before it even opens its doors.
That was something that made me incredibly anxious in the beginning. I knew how much we had promised and I knew how much was riding on this for the students who enrolled. And so to look at that group of students now, as they move into their senior year and get ready to move on to college, and to be able to look them in the eye and see the level of appreciation they have for what we’ve collectively built, and to know that we’ve kept the promises we made — this is one of the most incredible feelings I will ever have.