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. Last month, Mark Dunetz, principal of the Academy for Careers in Television and Film, a high school in Queens, talked about inefficiencies that took time away from teaching and learning.
Maria Velez-Clarke is principal at the Children’s Workshop School in the East Village, one of several so-called progressive schools that were started in the 1990s by people who had worked for Deborah Meier, an education innovator and small school proponent who founded Central Park East School.
In an interview last month, Ms. Velez-Clarke reflected on how her school, which has 225 students, was founded on the principle of collaborative learning with less hierarchy in management — and how that has fared in the age of more standardized testing and teacher accountability.
Ms. Velez-Clarke, 65, whose salary was $134,000 in 2010, says she thinks the small school is still serving its mission to provide a private school environment for public school children. This interview was edited and condensed.
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What was your idea behind creating this school?
I wanted it to be a progressive school for children on the Lower East Side, for families who could not afford this kind of setting which you pretty much see in private schools like the Manhattan Country School. A co-worker and I at Central Park East II designed this school. Her name is Jean Finnerty.
What was Central Park East II like?
It was a great, great experience which is somehow getting lost, the small school and progressive models, but I think the concept and idea of small schools has caught on. That has impacted what is in place now to some degree. But the more standardized testing we have to do now and the more data collecting we’re asked for, it’s really taking away from the richness of a progressive school. It’s a struggle. The teachers here work so hard, they work so hard to make sure the kids get what they need as far as the testing goes, and to make sure that we keep the arts and those rich pieces during the school day and in the curriculum.
It seems that your staff meeting today was dominated by talk of standardized testing.
Those are mandates and we have to meet those. We have to pay very, very close attention to what we’re putting out there because we have a responsibility to these children and their families and to make sure that they’re going to succeed, and how they’re going to be measured is through those tests.
You just learned the results of the latest progress report, and your school was given a B. That’s better than what you received last year, isn’t it?
We had always maintained a B, but last year we got a C. That was disturbing. When I first got the report, I shared it with absolutely no one because it was so devastating to me. I took it home. I sat with my husband and I said, "My god, do you know what this is going to do to morale?" And he looked at me and he said, "O.K., you have the weekend, have a pity party and then move on." So I had a pity party and then I started really looking at it. And I thought, O.K., how am I going to tell everyone this is what we got?
What did you do?
I went to the Transit Museum, and you know the C train? I got everybody a little C button there. And then I bought myself a big C button which I posted right here as you walk in. And I told my staff the results and everyone was so upset. I said I would let them have their pity party, and then I said, O.K., now what do we have to do here in order to get off the C train and get on the B train?
We went on a weekend retreat, and we took the progress report. We looked at every child’s scores, where the kids did well and where they didn’t. These teachers did an amazing job of analyzing this. We said, we want to improve this so where do we get started?
And what did you change?
In the analysis of all of the kids we did find that there was a correlation between attendance and a child’s score. So we worked on attendance. I didn’t always send a note home before, but now sometimes if a child is absent too much, I have to send a letter home saying "this could lead to A.C.S. coming to visit your house" or "your child is at risk of being held over because of attendance."
What else did data show you had to work on?
As far as math goes, we really had to concentrate on that.
And we learned that we weren’t catching children early enough when it comes to reading. This is why we have two reading recovery specialists. They do a lot of intense work with the younger grades. We have to catch them in the first grade.
How are you different?
One of the things I feel is really unique about our schools and something we struggle to maintain all the time because it gets harder to do this every year, is that we believe strongly that the arts have to be integrated into the school day. But when you are responsible for children taking a test and passing that standardized test, you have to ask yourself, how do you integrate the arts into the school day and still teach what those children need to know.
For example, we have Ballet Hispanico. That takes time. The kids are off dancing and learning about dance movements and the culture. We have a yoga program. These are all things that have really been great for our school. We have a music and band program as well. These are things that teachers really have to juggle when it comes to the school day and their teaching and their responsibilities. They have to find places where this is going to fit.
How do you manage to cram all that in?
If we’re doing our job and we’re really paying attention to the curriculum, you work all these things in. So, in a dance class, the Ballet Hispanico, there’s learning about a different culture. The teachers are able to transfer this into writing assignments. Or you work it into a social studies piece or a science piece.
Dance and yoga in science, what is that, it’s nutrition, it’s about how your body works, how your nervous system works. These teachers are smart enough and believe strongly enough in what they’re doing and really make it happen.
What does the future look like for public schools and particularly for small progressive schools like yours?
Last week I had conversation with a few of the people from some other schools — we were all members of the Coalition of Essential Schools that started at Brown University. We were just talking about democracy and education and we were saying how for some reason that seems to be in danger right now. I say that because of the whole political atmosphere right now, and how the control and takeover of our whole educational system is affecting our democratic system as well.
Do you get the feeling there’s an anti-public school sentiment in some circles?
I think it’s anti a lot of things. You feel like you’re doing a terrible job. But we’re not. There are so many amazing public schools out there, and I’m a product of the public school system and I believe strongly in the public school system. I think we can do so much more for so many more people. It’s not an exclusive place. It’s very inclusive. I think private schools and charter schools are given that opportunity to be exclusive. That trust and support of public school education is really diminishing.