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.
Deirdre DeAngelis-D’Alessio is principal of Staten Island’s New Dorp High School, which underwent a major restructuring in 2006 to create Smaller Learning Communities with 350 students in each. There are seven — fine and dramatic arts, forensics, teaching, health, business and technology, communication and media, and math and science — each with its own guidance counselor, school aide and assistant principal.
Ms. DeAngelis, 50, grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Brooklyn College, where she also earned a masters in special education and an advanced certificate. Before becoming the principal at New Dorp, she taught at John Dewey High School, her alma mater, for eight years, then worked at the High School of Telecommunications Arts and Technology as an assistant principal for more than nine years.
Ms. DeAngelis said that she liked to make sure her staff is always motivated, and that she encouraged them to learn as much as possible and share ideas. This interview was edited and condensed.
When did you first arrive at New Dorp?
I came here on March 1, 1999. I didn’t want to be a principal, but I got a call from the superintendent asking me.
Why were you reluctant to leave Telecommunications?
I had built a strong department. It was the model special ed program in New York City. My graduation rate was off the wall and the instruction was incredible. I had won the Pete Rozelle and Beacon awards for special ed. It was this time in my career when everything was coming together. It was so much fun.
But in a way, the timing was right. I came to New Dorp and, instead of turning around a department, I turned around an entire school. I’m at the same place now that I was then.
What was New Dorp like when you first arrived?
I think the students weren’t as motivated. You can’t really point fingers at anyone. But 82 percent of my students coming in were either a 1 or a 2 on their math and English language arts exams. We really had to go back to the basics.
How did you go about it?
We experimented with Smaller Learning Communities for a few years. In 2005, we applied for a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped us design our structure and the instructional components. That’s when we really shook things up.
We had two years of intense, what we call ‘blackout’ time. We did so much work, maybe 15 or 16 hours a day. We just killed ourselves. We really studied our students, their transcripts, their attendance patterns and their feeder school patterns. For a long time, we were giving Regents exams, packing them up nicely and storing them in the closet. But now we started looking for the areas where the students struggled.
Eventually the Gates grant ended and we became part of the federal grant. We’re on their Web site now as a model S.L.C. school.
What were some of the changes you made to the curriculum?
We realized that in the past we gave students information and we asked them to spit it back to us. We said: ‘This is the Pythagorean theorem. O.K., who can tell me what the Pythagorean theorem is?’ It was like regurgitation. There was no application or synthesizing.
Now, for example, in forensics, there’s a murder mystery. At this masquerade ball, somebody dies, like a staff member or a kid. We have E.M.S. friends who come in and remove the body and there’s yellow tape around. The next day we’re solving a full-swing murder mystery. You have clues everywhere and the kids are in suits because they’re detectives. We have photographers on the floor taking pictures of blood splatter. The students take evidence, then go on trial in our courtroom. We try to make the programs hands-on and practical so that they can make connections.
One teacher came up to me recently with a proposal to build an energy-efficient house. We’ll teach the students in stagecraft how to build it, and we’ll use the solar panel company we have now in our Virtual Enterprise business program. We also want to put a fence around our roof so we can grow vegetables and herbs for the culinary program and so we can mount a telescope for our astronomy program.
What progress have you seen through all of these adjustments?
We were at a 54.9 percent graduation rate in 2005. We opened the doors in 2006 to the new S.L.C.’s. We steadily went up every single year. This year, we’re expecting a 75.8 percent graduation rate. Next year we’re going to break 80.
Our attendance rate is also over 90 percent. That’s awesome. Our numbers are also through the roof in terms of college-level classes. This year we got an A on the report card, we got well-developed on our quality review and we made adequate yearly progress for the first time.
What were some of the challenges you dealt with when trying to get your staff on board with the restructuring?
We wanted to move each S.L.C. into its own wing in the building, but we almost had fist fights because people had to change offices. It’s just an office — give it up! That’s when I had to step in.
We also rated 19 teachers as unsatisfactory in a four-year period. They’re no longer here. That way, we built up credibility with the rest of the staff that we weren’t going to let people not work hard.
What makes you a good leader?
I’m real, I’m honest and I lead by example. I share with my staff all of their achievements. I also never say no to professional development. You want to go out and learn something? Go ahead, and bring it back and share.
I consider myself to be a facilitator. This isn’t an ‘I’ business. It’s an ‘us’ business. We do everything together. Everything. Without a strong team, you can’t have these accolades. We take each other’s ideas and run, and we push each other constantly. Our saying, which we would love to paint on the wall, is ‘Status quo is not part of our vocabulary.’ There’s always something to attack.
How large is your student body?
We have 2,800 students, plus we house a number of District 75 programs.
It seems the Education Department has been honing in on larger high schools and breaking them down into smaller schools. What’s your take on that?
I’m trying to convince them otherwise. I think what we’re doing here can be duplicated at just about any large high school in the city. There are advantages to small schools for a certain kind of kid, but there’s something about the community of a large school that you can’t replace.
What was it like trying to lead your school while undergoing treatments for breast cancer?
I was diagnosed in 2009, and I was out of school from April 15 to the first week in June. I don’t know what it would have been like going through it without the parents, the students and the staff. They were extremely supportive. That graduation was hard. I had chemotherapy the day before. I wore a wig but I promised the kids I’d be there. And they gave me a three- or four-minute standing ovation.
Why did it mean so much to you to go?
I was their principal. I think it was a little bit for me, too. I had to do it. It was our third year of S.L.C.’s. I had cabinet meetings at my house during my recovery because things had to get done, although the staff really picked up and ran everything well.
Even when I returned, everyone knew my office was quarantined — my secretary was like a guard dog. But what was I going to do at home? I would be off my rocker.
What has surprised you the most about being a principal?
How the job has gotten harder and harder. I don’t know why, I cant figure it out. It’s not just me. We all walk around saying we’re exhausted. A happy exhausted, but we’re exhausted.