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Saul Gootnick: 'You Have to Do Baby Steps'

Monday, April 09, 2012 - 08:36 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.

Saul Gootnick runs Forest Hills High School, one of New York City’s largest and most successful high schools. At a time when small schools are in vogue and big schools are a dying breed, Forest Hills has more than 3,800 students learning on shifts, yet has earned an A on its progress report three years in a row and has an 87 percent graduation rate.

As he leads the sprawling school with its 12 assistant principals and 195 teachers, Mr. Gootnick said he tries to follow the motto, “It all begins and ends in the classroom.’’ This interview was edited and condensed.

Q.

Large high schools have gotten a bum rap in New York City under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Do you feel like big schools are under attack?

A.

We’re a large neighborhood high school that’s really succeeding. When I first took over, most people in the community didn’t want to send their children here. Now everybody in the borough wants to send their children here. We’re the only large high school in Queens that’s gotten an A three years in a row.

Q.

What changed?

A.

I think they realize that at our school, the focus is on education. But it’s not what I did, it’s what we did. It wasn’t me. It’s what everybody in this building did -- it’s my cabinet, it’s my teachers, it’s secretaries, it’s my paras, it’s my aides. Ultimately, though, everyone has to be on the same page, because if you're not on the same page, there’s going to be some problems.

Q.

What are some of the initiatives you launched after you became principal?

A.

Compared to schools in our neighborhood, our attendance wasn’t as good as it should have been. Also, not enough of our students were taking the Regents exams. They were taking the classes, but not the exams.

Q.

What did you do about attendance?

A.

We made it a priority. We created an attendance coordinator position. We used to take attendance during periods 2 and 10 -- we have 12 periods -- but we realized that lot of students were not showing up for first period. So now, beginning in December, we take attendance in Period One class and if a kid isn't here, we make a phone call home. The result has been, Period One attendance has increased by 30 percent.

Attendance is fundamental to everything. If a child is not in school, he can’t pass his classes.

Q.

What changes did you make with the Regents exams?

A.

Every kid has to take the Regents now if they take advanced placement classes. And we said, if you don’t take the Regents, you can’t be on a team or go to the prom.

Q.

What are some of the advantages for students to attend a school this size?

A.

We don't just have art classes, we have cartooning classes and other art classes.

We run the gamut. We offer foreign language classes in French, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish and Chinese. We added Chinese this year. We're hoping to add Russian because we have a large Russian population, but we haven’t been able to find a Russian teacher. If you know anybody who can teach Russian ...

We're always challenging ourselves. We have small learning communities. We have the Academy of Public Service. We have an Economic Academy. We have a robotics team. We have a chorus academy.

As a large high school, if a kid has some conflict with a teacher, we have the ability to make a change. There’s not just one teacher teaching math, there's not just one teacher teaching English.

Q.

What percentage of your students are from the neighborhood?

A.

About 40 percent.

Q.

You have some programs that are a big draw for students outside of your neighborhood. What are some of those?

A.

We have the Law and Humanities Institute. It’s the seventh most popular program in New York City. We have really taken this program and created an environment that children want to come to. We also have the Carl Sagen Science and Math Honors Academy.

Q.

Your building is over capacity. How do you make that work for students and teachers?

A.

We have staggered entry times for most of the day up to 11:15. There are three major ones. Our seniors and juniors come in at 7:20 a.m. and go to 1:48 p.m. Students in specialized programs and other programs come in at 8:30 to about 3:27. The freshmen and sophomores come in at 10:35 and leave at 5:06.

I don’t want to give you the impression that we’re proud of the overcrowding. We’re not. No one wants students to be in school til 5 in the afternoon, but it’s our success. Students want to come here.

Q.

You started your career in education as a teacher, didn’t you?

A.

I was a social studies teacher at Francis Lewis High School for 13 years. Then in 1997 I came to this school as the social studies assistant principal. I truly am the old fashioned model of what a principal was. I worked my way through the ranks.

The one thing I miss most as a principal is that I’m not in the classroom. It would give me so much pride when I would go to a store, for example, and I’d run into someone and they’d say: 'Mr. Gootnick, you were my teacher. You were really good!' I understand what it’s like to be a teacher. I understand the pressure that teachers are under.

Q.

How do you change the culture and climate of a school this large?

A.

A big school is like a cruise ship. How do you get it to go in a different direction? Remember the movie “What About Bob?" with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus? They talked about baby steps.

You have to do baby steps. People don’t want to hear that something that they’ve been doing forever is wrong.

You have to have a plan and you have to make people believe in what you think. The one thing I’ve learned when I was as principal is that I never ask any teacher to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.

Q.

Schools and teachers are under a lot of pressure with all the test data and evaluations. Are these tools helping you as a principal?

A.

Everybody gets nervous about the data. When we get test data at midyear, we might have to make some adjustments. I’m a sports fan so I’ll give you a sports analogy. A good coach doesn’t yell and scream at his players at half time. The good coaches are the ones that make the right adjustments at half time. He says, this is what we’ve done up to this point. This is what we’re going to do after this point to win the game.

Before I started teaching I was a buyer in men’s outerwear for Macy’s. I had a boss who always said to me, 'Don’t look at the things we’re doing well, but at things we’re not doing well.' There’s no need to spend a lot of time thinking of all the things you’re doing right. He used to say, ‘If you pat yourself on the back enough, you’ll get a stiff neck.’

Q.

How has Mayor Bloomberg changed things?

A.

Bloomberg is asking us to change things. Bloomberg is asking us to look at things in different ways. And that’s a good thing. Questioning yourself is a positive thing.

Q.

Running a school of this size sounds really complicated. Why did you want to take on this challenge?

A.

My feeling is, whatever job you do, every 10 years you should do something different. You get stagnant. Every day here is a challenge. Some days it's good challenges, some days it's bad challenges. But ultimately why do we all go into education? Didn’t we go into education to help children? To help children, to solve problems. To look at ideas in different ways.

In a building this size, the key is to challenge yourself. See what you want to do and to always challenge yourself.

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