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.
Rose Kerr is the principal of the Staten Island School of Civic Leadership, Staten Island’s first K-8 school, which opened its doors in 2009. It is based on the philosophy of Stephen Covey, the author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
In an interview, Ms. Kerr, 57, who grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, and attended parochial school, talked about the challenge of creating a rich curriculum for students at the same time that they face pressure to do well on standardized tests. Ms. Kerr's salary was $140,000 in 2010. This interview was edited and condensed.
What was your mission for this school?
There were three pillars that we based the proposal on: Civic leadership, parent involvement and academics. At the time, the world was crying out for leaders. Where are we going to find the leaders? We’re going to find them among our young people. We appreciate that in high school students start to take leadership roles. They become service learners, they go to nursing homes, they get internships. But why only begin there? Why not begin in pre-K?
Our parents are also very important to us. I think parents feel good about their child going to this special school. Some children come here from single parent homes, some of immigrant parents. Some don’t speak English. We have over 20 percent special needs in this school. But the great exhilaration is that the children rise to the occasion with us.
And one of our biggest tenets is a strong academic foundation. We were given a gift — we were told we could hire the teachers we wanted. The first year it was whoever we wished, and then it was a 60-40 split. It turned out to be a great mix of new teachers, middle teachers and teachers with more experience. We were able to show that it isn’t only a private school or charter school that can achieve. It’s a public school — a regular public school — that can achieve.
You seem surprised there was so much support for a public school. Why?
Sometimes there’s a sense that the public school system isn’t working — let’s throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s get rid of this and let’s start again and let’s create a private system around it. I’ve been in this system for many, many years. I’ve worked in other industries. Teachers are the hardest working, dedicated people anywhere, and they work with very little. As good as private schools are, and as good as charter schools are, public schools are just as good.
How did you get involved in education?
I was manager of health of the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital. I had always wanted to be a teacher, but I was subject to the 1970s fiscal explosion and was asked to go. But I returned as a sub once my children hit kindergarten. By that point the D.O.E. didn’t recognize my credentials anymore, so I had to start again. That was in 1989.
At I.S. 2, I went from being a sub to a science teacher to an assistant principal. I then went to P.S. 22 as an assistant principal thinking it would be easier, that I could go into semiretirement. Instead, it was a real challenge, and I had to educate myself again.
In 2008, under Joel Klein, there was an opportunity to submit a proposal for a new school. I felt that I was ready for a K-8 because I had already faced all the big challenges.
How would you describe your management style?
It is never top down. It is always two heads, three heads are better than one. We are truly collaborative here. Now do I have a leadership role? Yes. Teachers recognize me not as their direct peer, but certainly as their colleague that will give them access to resources that will enable them to do their job better.
So they feel that you’re approachable?
Absolutely. I’m here all hours of the night to meet with my staff. I am not behind closed doors looking at e-mails. As a matter of fact, I don’t have a BlackBerry because what happens with that is you’re sitting with your teachers and all this buzzing starts and you can’t help it. You’re like, 'Oh yes, I’m listening,' but you’re not. Also, I’m with the kids a lot. The kids have to see you.
How do you keep your teachers from being discouraged from budget cuts or changes in policy?
They feel many times overwhelmed by mandates. However, that’s my job as a leader — to try to synthesize the mandates and bring it forward in a way that is empathetic, sympathetic and also synthesized to a doable form. It’s always about painting the big picture. It’s always re-establishing the bond that we have as a family and letting them know I’m there for them.
This was the first year you received a formal progress report, and you were rated the top school in the city. Where do you go from here?
We were thrilled with our results. We did a fantastic job with our kids who came in at sixth grade. You could see from fifth to sixth to seventh — usually their scores dip at that time, but here they went up. But we have to keep it going. We have to continue progress with children who are high risk — our E.L.L.s, our black males. Although we did well with our risk groups, we still feel we have a ways to go. Not to forget our former E.L.L.'s. They still need a scaffold.
What are some other challenges you’re faced with?
A challenge of ours is teaching leadership outside of the building, as well as in. But how do you take kids out of the classroom, out of the building for three hours, and sacrifice their all important E.L.A. preparation for the test?
How do you?
So you work with the social studies teacher, who works hand in hand with the E.L.A. teacher and promises their first born that they will do the non-fiction writing in social studies class to have an interdisciplinary approach. It’s a push and pull.
It isn’t a great solution. The language arts teachers and the math teachers and the science teachers, who are under the microscope for their scores, are jealous of every second. They don’t even want you to take a child out so you can practice chorus.
And that’s the other push and pull. How do you remember a child is not just a test taker? A child is a whole human being. A child is a person who is thrilled that they made a sound out of this big trombone that’s bigger than they are — a sound that no one’s afraid of. How do you balance that with the bubbles on the test?
This is the challenge. It’s not my challenge only. This is every principal and every teacher’s challenge.