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.
Joseph Lisa has been the principal I.S. 61 Leonardo da Vinci in Corona, Queens for six years. The middle school has about 2,400 students. It's slated to expand to an additional building in 2014 to alleviate overcrowding. Lisa, 45, talked to SchoolBook about who makes up the community at I.S. 61 -– parents, educators, and outside groups -- and what roles they play.
Lisa's roots run deep in Corona. He attended P.S. 14 Fairview where he later returned as a teacher. He said friends first talked him into teaching; on his first day in the classroom “it just clicked.” He was an assistant principal at I.S. 61 for 10 years before taking over the helm. This interview was edited and condensed.
What distinguishes I.S. 61 from other schools in District 24?
We’re a true believer in the small school philosophy that is really championed by the city. They closed big schools down to make small schools. We’ve done that already here by making our academies. We have full belief into that system. When people come here, although we are one of the largest schools running on a single session, the feel isn’t that big. You always have people in the hallway. It’s clogged but it’s reduced into sections through the building. With that, you see relationships developing because they see their teachers through the three years. They see the dean, assistant principal through the years. All this continuity over the course of time, it assists the student.
Your PTA meetings have an average attendance of 80 parents. Other schools might think that’s a good turnout but you don’t agree?
If you have minimal or average expectations, you can say, yes we have 80. But we’re big. So percentage-wise, it may be the same as some schools.
We have a great PTA group now that is really branching out to make connections throughout the community, which we’re about. We want to make sure we have a turnout that’s really great and representation at all our meetings; parents in the building. Their support is really critical to our success.
What are some strategies you have to attract parents?
Recently, the new school that they want to build, that’s bringing up people to come out because it’s going to affect and change what they normally see, that automatically wakes people up and say, “Well, let me go to that meeting and get information.” At that time, we have to cease the moment and remind them that this is just not one meeting, this is a continuous dialogue.
How do you accommodate the large immigrant population in the school community?
When I started, I didn’t feel we were doing enough to help parents help their child. So we contacted Adult Ed and we have adult ESL classes going on, teaching English at night to parents and the community. And we also have a GED program. So we extend learning outside the classroom because it’s not just for the student, it can also be for the parent.
What qualities do you look for in teachers you hire?
When you interview, you have to focus exactly on the school philosophy and what you’re trying to implement in your building instructionally. If they don’t have that quality in their soul, if they don’t believe in it, than you’re going to get somebody that will do nice things, but won’t produce what you’re looking to produce. We ask their knowledge based on differentiation and how they would go about different entry points for students to get the students to the same goal, but using different tact. That’s critical to a classroom success. Because again, you have 30 different students, maybe a little less, they all learn different ways. They’re all good at different things. So you have to organize your groups and target the question so that everybody meets the challenges, to get them all to meet those goals. And if they do not believe that in their soul, than obviously you’re not going to have an outcome to support those students. The next thing is being compassionate to the students. Obviously, the best question is if a student is trying to distract attention. Young children, when they’re uncomfortable, what’s the first thing they do is act out, joke a little bit. Being able to be savvy enough to manage that is critical to a teacher’s success.
What is the school philosophy?
Every child can learn given the correct opportunity and resources. That’s key.
What is I.S. 61’s biggest need?
There are two things that this school and this neighborhood needs. It needs more schools because you have a child who is five years old, first time in school, having to get on a bus and get trekked 3 or 4 neighborhoods away. It’s not something I want my daughter to do, so it shouldn’t be something we accept as a system. The second thing that’s needed is after-school programs. Some neighborhoods have an abundance of Boys and Girls clubs, YMCA’s. Around here, there are limited resources. But for the number of students, it’s basically not enough resources. And that really transfers back to the schools. I’ve always had a dream to make our school, and we’ve never had the finance to make our school opened up, that a child who has to go pick-up their brother or sister in the elementary school could come back here, or both could be part of after-school programs. So it would be a true community school.