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.
P.S. 161 Arthur Ashe School opened in 2001 and has since become known for its emphasis on professional development, its collaborative team teaching, special education, and its commitment to the arts. The school has 756 students, in kindergarten through grade 6, and has a diverse student body that includes many recent Indian and Guyanese immigrants.
P.S. 161, which received an A on its last progress report, was one of two New York City schools to win a $100,000 grant from Target this year as part of the company’s national initiative to help schools improve their learning environments.
Jill Hoder has been the principal of P.S. 161 for eight years and her tenure has been marked by a push for feedback based on metrics, personalized learning and professional development. Ms. Hoder, who was interviewed in January, has an annual salary of $128,207. This interview was edited and condensed.
Your school faces some unique challenges in terms of demographics. Tell us how they play into your strategies for enhancing the student experience.
We have 756 children. About 96 of these children are designated English language learners and receive special support. But out of a total recent immigrant population of 131 students, 38 percent come from English-speaking countries and hence are not entitled to E.L.L. services.
I think that all students comes to the table with their own set of challenges. But a child who has had an interrupted schooling and is coming from another country is at a real disadvantage. It takes them a while to acclimate, to feel comfortable and know what’s happening.
I always think of it as if I were dropped in a completely different country and asked to function at the level I’m functioning, I don’t know if I could, and I would search out to find a kind face that would make that transition kind for me. And that’s what we strive to do.
And what steps have you taken to smooth this transition?
We’re making every effort to offer them academic intervention services and strong support by one-to-one adoption programs, where many of the cluster teachers adopt a child and spend time with them every week. We also have small group instruction that the teachers offer through the day and after school. The kids are on our radar, all the time. We’re looking out for them; we’re always looking to make sure that they receive that extra attention they need to do well.
Your school is unusual in that it offers inclusive special education classes (a trend that will be enforced by citywide policy next school year). Tell me about them.
We have 100 students, that’s about 13 percent, with special needs. We do not have self-contained classes. We have seven integrated, collaborative team-teaching classes. Which means that there is a 60-40 split of those children — 15 general ed students and 10 special needs children — in those classes. We have two teachers, one general ed and one special ed. It really gives the special ed children an opportunity to come forward and be in a structured school setting.
Sometimes there’s a paraprofessional in the room as well, because we’re a barrier-free school. So sometimes in addition to their academic needs, the students also have physical needs; some of them are in Rifton chairs, or wheelchairs, or have crutches, so there’s a myriad of things.
So there’s the neighborhood school, the general ed students need to live in the neighborhood. We’re a very desirable school, so I have 756 children — 708 live in the white house across the street if you ask them. . . . It’s my standard joke. But we also have between 18 and 22 District 75 (Special Education) students, and any eligible child in the neighborhood can be recommended.
It’s an awesome program. It really is.
Tell me about your background. Are you an education lifer?
I actually graduated with a B.S. in psychology, because it was right after the 70s when they did major layoffs. I went to school in Oswego, where they were flat out against any student declaring education as a major. It’s a big education school, but they were in panic mode because they were so many layoffs in the thriving metropolis of New York, which was hiring three-fourths of what they were producing.
But education was in my heart. I wanted to work with children, I’ve always wanted to work with children. So I started working in an adolescent girls’ group home, and I continued to go to school at night to earn my master’s in education.
Then I got a job being a substitute. I then became the buddy teacher, then the mentor teacher, then the person who ran the new teachers support group, the teacher who did all the model lessons and then went in and coached. So ultimately, I became noticed by the superintendent and the district office.
I joined P.D.L., professional development labs, and became a staff developer in the district office. Then I went into struggling schools and worked on their literacy programs, modeling lessons, coaching in, working with teachers.
What gives you that ability to have that bird’s-eye view, to say something can be fixed here, something is different here, this can be tweaked here?
Oh, I’m a data girl. I’m a data data data girl. I say that the numbers don’t always tell you the whole picture, but they clearly tell you a significant picture; you just have to pay attention. You can look at how a class is performing and tell what’s being stressed, what’s not. It gave me the opportunity to know what I needed to model.
At P.S. 161, we are extremely data driven. There’s a lot of work around summative assessment, and reflecting on how students have done. I really think that’s important, but I also think that gathering formative data throughout the school year is hugely significant, because it gives the opportunity to focus on the need right away, to differentiate.
As an example, if I’m teaching a performance task around a math word problem and I discover that you’re having difficulty with long division, but the other children in your group are not — to stand in front of the class and teach that ad nauseam, you’re killing the spirit of the other five children who have mastered that skill.
The mission and the motto in this building is that we take public education personally. What you do or what you need to learn is gravely different from what the person next to you needs to learn.
Any thoughts on the city administration’s emphasis on measurement and progress reports?
Well, I embrace the prospect of performance standards being given four times a year and knowing where your children are and what they need to learn along the way and how you can secure success for them. It’s not “teach to the test, we’re all going to slam it on home on one day in May and, oh, I hope all the stars are aligned that day.” The Common Core is talking about continually seeing, and we do that, we do that already. We do running records, we do assessments. Why wouldn’t you want to see where they are and see how they’re moving?
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