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Susan Barnes: 'Believe You're Worthy'

Monday, April 23, 2012 - 10:51 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.

After earning an A on three progress reports, Public School 112 Bronxwood in the northern-most section of the Bronx fell to a D last year, setting off fears among students and parents that the school would be closed. Along with many other schools, the elementary school suffered after the state toughened its English and math exams.

The school has 496 students in pre-K through fifth grade, almost evenly divided between black and Hispanic, with 91 percent qualifying for free lunch. According to Inside Schools, the school has one of the lowest attendance rates -- 90 percent -- in the area.

Susan Barnes, P.S. 112's principal since 2003, noted in an interview that success can be fragile in certain schools and certain neighborhoods. Ms. Barnes, 52, who worked her way up the ladder from teacher, said her students were keenly aware of the stakes involved last week as they faced two weeks of standardized tests. This interview was edited and condensed.

Q.

What did it mean to have your school get a D on its last report card after getting such high marks in previous years?

A.

I know I’m a good principal, but you’re only as good as your last report card grade. For me that says that we’re not doing what we should be doing as a school and that as the building principal I’m not on task.

Q.

How hard was this for you personally and professionally?

A.

I started out the year really depressed and really trying to figure out where do I go from here. How do I now get my community and my parents to believe that I’m a good principal, because you’re only as good as your grade.

Q.

Is that fair?

A.

Of course it’s not fair. But that’s the reality of it. We go to restaurants and now you have a restaurant grade and it doesn’t mean you don’t cook good food, it just means you didn’t meet whatever the criteria was at that time.

We often talk about accountability. I have no problem with accountability. I am accountable for my actions, but sometimes the consequences are unfair when it comes to the Department of Education. It takes time to get anything accomplished in real life and school and business. You can’t accomplish anything in one year, or two. Sometimes it takes three to five years to accomplish great things.

Q.

Tell me what this school was like when you first came here.

A.

I’ve been in this building 17 years. I moved up the ranks. I started as a teacher and I decided I wasn’t leaving, because I saw children who looked like me, who I felt needed me. I felt I had something to offer in every sense.

Q.

How have things changed in this school since you’ve been here?

A.

I became principal in 2003 and there have been some drastic changes.

First I had a parent population that needed to be educated on the importance of education and the fact that the children needed to be at school every day. The children fought all day, so I couldn’t even think about curriculum. Forget about what was going on in the classroom and instructional practices.

It was all about self-esteem and character building for the children and giving them a reason to want to get up and come to school. There were times when I wanted to run out of here, but now you walk in and the halls are quiet. We have beautiful walls.

We started with just painting the building and making it a presentable and welcoming environment. Then we started with getting positive people on our parent teams and promoting the school as a positive place to be. The children for the most part want to be here.

Q.

This week was test week for some of your children. Do you think they felt a lot of pressure to do better?

A.

Oh, my goodness. First of all let’s just talk about the timing of the test. This is April, the week after vacation. I have children still in the Dominican Republic; I have children who didn’t return, for all kinds of trauma. And this is allergy season.

On Day 1 of the test I sent six kids home with swollen eyes. They couldn’t breathe; their asthma was messing up. Kids are sick. And then next week the tests are on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Who gives a test on Friday? I don’t know who makes the rules.

Q.

How did you prepare them?

A.

To get them motivated, we had a big rally on Monday in the auditorium. We got them together and we did our little rah-rah and gave them snacks and played something like a Jeopardy game with them. We told them to do their best.

We handed out what we call the magic pencils. We tell them, "If you don’t know an answer, just think about it and the magic pencil will help you out." But some of the kids are sick. They come throwing up. They’re so nervous. They’re crying.

I had this one parent who was supposed to go to a breakfast, but she said she had to stay at the school for her daughter. "If she freezes up and gets nervous, I need to be around so she can feel me in the building," she told us. "She didn’t sleep at all last night."

It’s sad. There's so much pressure on the kids, even more this year with my kids because the parents have told them that the D means we’re closing. I tell them: "No, you don’t have to worry. Just do your work. You’re a child; I’ll take care of it."

Q.

Is this the worst time you've been through as a principal?

A.

For me, yes. This school had always been at the bottom in District 11, and the excitement of not being at the bottom, of being an A school, that has happened during my term. We showed movement.

We got a computer lab, a media lab; I got us money from politicians to put air conditioning in every classroom. The school had never gotten anything, and then we were accomplishing so many things. I keep telling them, you’re worthy. You’ve got to believe it.

Q.

What are some of the programs you’ve started at this school to get parents more involved in their children's education?

A.

We started a book of the month, where the whole school reads a book. This month it's "Seven Little Bunnies." The whole school reads it. The teachers read it and share it with the children. I read it and share it with the parents. We do it in English and Spanish.

We do have a large Spanish-speaking population. We have an interpreter; my parent coordinator is bilingual. The parents and children talk about the book at home, hopefully. It’s a way of having some cohesiveness and making the parents feel like a part of their child’s school day.

Q.

Why do you want to keep doing this? It seems as if it's getting harder and harder to stay positive.

A.

It is harder. The system is messed up, but the children are the same children that needed help 10 years ago. If your heart is in it for the children, you just stay in it. You fight the battle.

I still come because my job here is not done. I still feel that the children and this school could benefit from so much more. And they’re so worthy of so much more. I’m just determined that I’m going to be the one who makes sure they get what they need.

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