4,177 Students and One Principal: A Day in the Life at Francis Lewis High School

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 - 08:20 AM

Principals these days are expected to be a little bit of many different things: manager, educator, financial whiz, social worker, enforcer, data analyst, cheerleader and contortionist (figuratively, at least). They are the people with whom the buck stops. Fernanda Santos, who covers city schools for The Times, is tagging along with a city school principal all day. Follow along as she reports on her day with Musa Ali Shama, principal of the large and enduring Francis Lewis High School.

4:45 p.m. | Updated “Do you want to go for a walk?”

We were in Principal Musa Ali Shama’s office at Francis Lewis High School and he had 28 minutes until his next meeting, so I took him up on the offer. He offered to show me the trailers that, for 10 years, have held 12 classrooms and nearly 200 of the school’s 4,200 students.

As soon as we walked out, though, one of the students, a boy who has figured in a beef among students that Mr. Shama and his staff have had no luck resolving, shuffled past.

Mr. Shama stopped and asked him, “Is there anything we can do to stop this?”

“I can’t say you can, honestly,” the boy replied.

Trouble began a little over a year ago, at a neighborhood party that several of the school’s students attended, and it has come and gone since. The problem has stumped Mr. Shama, who fears he won’t be able to stop whatever it is that might happen and that one of his kids will be hurt.

Turns out the boy he had bumped into had already served time at a juvenile facility. “You don’t want him to go back,” Mr. Shama said.

The last bell rang at Francis Lewis High just after 4 p.m., ending a fun, instructive and exhausting day, my first full day inside a New York City school.

There are many stories I could tell, many more than the ones I’ve shared here and on Twitter, but none told me more about the type of principal Mr. Shama is than the story of the boy we met in the hallway. Here, in Mr. Shama’s words, is why.

“Look at the classrooms filled with kids learning. That’s what you want happening. I’ve worked hard with this kid, on him and other kids.

"Yes, they’re at-risk,” he said, using his index fingers to draw quotation marks in the air, “but they’re kids who are going to get a high school diploma, who are going to graduate. They’ve come so far, but for a lot of these kids, it’s so hard for them to let go.

"The idea is to make them successful, to get them out of trouble. That’s what I’m here for. And I won’t settle for less.”

On our way back to his office, Mr. Shama found a report card abandoned in a hallway.

“No wonder,” he said, scanning the student’s grades. “But no problem. I’ll make sure his parents get it.”

3:17 p.m. | Updated It’s time for the Principal Consultative Council’s monthly meeting.

Sitting at the head of the conference table in his office, Principal Musa Ali Shama heard from 15 students who had gathered to talk, among other things, about the blood drive (“As usual, it was a success,” one boy told him), the high school fair (“So many people were fascinated about the way our school was presented and everything,” said another; the borough high school fair was held there last weekend), the cheer market (as in a market run by the school’s cheerleading team; $400 in proceeds) and the breast cancer walk (the students’ first time participating in it).

Mr. Shama had questions (“Do you guys know how many lives you saved with 116 pints of blood?”), praise (“That’s really impressive!"), suggestions (“If you guys take that spot at the top of the strip, you can make more money.”) and encouragement (“In regards to budget, we’ll manage. Just keep doing what you’re doing because this is what school’s supposed to be about.”).

One of the council’s members talked about distributing a list of community service opportunities to juniors, telling them to engage because “colleges don’t look at people who are just book smart.”

It’s called “Your guide to surviving junior year!” and it also includes registration dates for the SAT’s and some advice:

  • Don’t slack off.
  • Turn off the television.
  • Tell your friends NO! Your future is more important than hanging out.

One point of (polite) contention came when the students asked him when they would be able to play music again during breaks between periods.

It used to happen under Mr. Shama’s predecessor, but it was a manual system that sparked “a mad scramble,” as someone had to go running to the stereo to press play.

Mr. Shama had vowed to bring it back, once he figured out a way to automate it.

Well, it’s about to happen. The equipment is ready -- a computer mounted on a small desk wedged between two file cabinets, in front of a microphone. Now someone has to put together the play list.

The only conditions: It has to appeal to all ages, “even older staff members,” Mr. Shama said, and it has to be clean.

“The music,” he said, “is back.”

12:51 p.m. | Updated Musa Ali Shama, the principal at Francis Lewis High School, spent 20 minutes on the phone trying to convince the mother of one of his former students to tell him which school her son has been attending.

It is a crucial piece of information because if Mr. Shama does not get the information, the boy, whom he listed as having been discharged from his school, will be considered a dropout.

Dropouts are bad news for principals: The more a school has, the more the school’s graduation rate is dragged down. And that can sink a school's progress report grade.

The mother had reason to be reluctant. Her son -- who Mr. Shama said is 6-foot-3 and weighs 300 pounds -- was in a fight at the school that ended only after he was restrained by the police officers who were summoned to help.

Mr. Shama said he knows the boy isn’t dangerous, but acknowledged that his size, coupled with his out-of-control behavior that day, made him intimidating.

The mother wasn’t happy with the way the school had reacted to the incident and decided Francis Lewis was not the right place for her son. Maybe she would not tell Mr. Shama where he was as a way to get back at him? Mr. Shama didn’t think so.

“She’s worried for the kid,” he said.

The woman relented. They hung up, wishing God’s blessings and good days.

He considered a trip to the cafeteria for lunch, but before he could leave, one of his teachers popped in to talk about problems she was having with a colleague.

Then came a student, asking for a copy of his report card. (He had missed second period, when the reports cards were distributed, and had to come to the principals’ office to get his.)

Lunch would have to wait.

11:47 a.m. | Updated At Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, Queens, students arrive in shifts: seniors and juniors at 7:45 a.m., freshmen at 8:35 a.m. and sophomores at 9:28 a.m. There are too many of them — 4,177 in Wednesday’s register — to enter the building all at once.

When the fourth period ended at 11:03 a.m., students poured into the hallways; from a distance, it was like an ant farm: busy, crowded, but organized somehow.

The principal, Musa Ali Shama, had begun his day by the front door at 7:30 a.m., watching and greeting students as they walked but also serving as a silent reminders of the rules they must follow: no cellphones (the school has no metal detectors, so there is no way of catching the phones unless you are the girl who strolled in mid-texting) and no hats. (They were all removed as soon as the students spotted him.)

“Good morning,” Mr. Shama said to a girl.

“Happy birthday,” he told a boy who strolled past holding happy-birthday balloons.

“Go talk to Mr. C after class. He can help you with that business we discussed yesterday,” he instructed another, who nodded in return.

He climbed the stairs to the second floor, picking up a couple of candy wrappers he found along the way. Black splotches of old chewing gum scattered across the hallway upstairs paralyzed him. An hour later, he would be touring the building with the school’s custodian engineer, Gary Chiappetta, who shared with him another problem: vandalism in the bathrooms.

“In the girls’ room, too?” Mr. Shama asked, surprised.

Yes. And Mr. Chiappetta had pictures to prove it.

A lot about Mr. Shama’s days consists of hearing pleas and problems from the people who work at the school and the students there. The librarian asked him for more chairs. A special education teacher pushed him to put some materials in Google Documents.

One of the deans came by to tell him that a student who was being harassed by a group of boys outside the school had problems again Wednesday morning.

“We’re just worried about his safety to and from school,” Mr. Shama said.

By 9 a.m., he had drunk his second cup of coffee of the day. By 11 a.m., he had drunk his third. It is almost noon and Mr. Shama’s schedule is full. There seems to be no time for lunch.

The fridge in his office has a two-liter bottle of Pepsi Zero, eight cans of Diet Coke, Tropicana orange juice, an assortment of cheeses (cubed, sliced and creamed), a half-eaten bag of potato chips, crackers and various types of spreads.

Running a New York City school requires patience, persistence and skill. Most of all, it requires versatility.

More than just managers, principals these days are expected to be a little bit of many different things: educator, financial whiz, social worker, enforcer, data analyst, cheerleader and contortionist (figuratively, at least). They are the people with whom the buck stops.

If a school has no library, the principal must answer for it.

If it does not follow the state’s physical education mandates, the principal will hear about that, too.

If it enrolls children who are not proficient in English, the principal must make sure the services are there to bring the students up to speed.

In this age of e-mail and smartphones, principals' days begin long before the first bell rings and they do not end until they close their eyes and fall asleep. It is common to hear from them at midnight; messages often have some version of, “Sorry it took me so long to get back to you; I had a busy day.”

Principals have varying backgrounds and experiences. Some, like Kenneth Baum at the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science in the South Bronx, used to work on Wall Street.

Others, like Philip Weinberg at the High School of Telecommunications, Arts and Technology in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, rose through the ranks, taking the helm at the school 15 years after starting there as an English teacher.

Then there is Musa Ali Shama, who was once a graffiti writer. He still finds time to paint, hip-hop Cubist style, while running one of the city’s largest high schools, Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, Queens.

It has 4,211 students, an anomaly these days in a system where most large high schools have been broken up into smaller schools, one independent from the other, even if they all occupy the same building.

Francis Lewis High is a survivor. Even as the city introduced layer after layer of accountability systems tied to results on tests, responses to surveys and all sorts of other metrics — including, now, how successful a school is in getting its students ready for college — it has endured.

Francis Lewis was given an A on its most recent progress report, which also showed that 68 percent of the class of 2007 enrolled in college and that nearly 52 percent of them met all the criteria needed to get into college without remediation.

I am going to follow Mr. Shama for the day Wednesday, from the first to the last bell, to get a glimpse at what it takes to run a school of its size and stature.

You can follow all day on SchoolBook and on Twitter, as I file regular dispatches from a day in the life of Musa Ali Shama at Francis Lewis High.


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