Stories of uncommon principals who labor for decades to create structures, cultures, and political success are popular in national media. The story-line is that a principal arrives at a low-performing, minority and poor school and through much work turns it around into a successful school, as measured by test scores, low teacher turnover, and parental support. No, I am not referring to charter schools or magnets. I am referring to neighborhood schools. When such schools emerge policymakers and champions of school success call it a model and urge replication of the school. Make more of them, they cry. Scaling up such successes is rare as any observer (or participant) can tell you. It is devilishly hard to reproduce such victories over mediocrity in another neighborhood much less across a district, state, and nation. Think of KIPP for a moment. In 21 years, KIPP has created 183 schools enrolling 70,000 and done so by preparing principals and teachers, monitoring closely the quality of each school–its five pillars and school culture–and raising large sums of money.
Why is it so hard? In most cases, success comes from complex, interacting factors: the principal who has been there a long time; he or she plays three competing roles well (instructional, managerial, and political); the principal has selected a staff that works closely together learning from its mistakes; the principal has built structures that engage in constant improvement; the community supports the school and acts to keep it flourishing. This mix of ingredients is hard to replicate–no algorithm, no online tutorials, no university program–can do it. The fit between principal, staff, children, parents and community is tight. Yet it is fragile and can easily unravel. Were the principal, a few of the key teachers, and parent advocates to leave within a short time such a school can easily slide back into the mediocrity existing before that principal and teachers appeared on the scene.
Consider Jack Spatola and P.S. 172 in Brooklyn as described in a recent New York Times article. Appointed principal in 1984, Spatola who came to the U.S. from Sicily in 1970, took over a school that was predominately Puerto Rican. Thirty-one years later, Spatola leads a school that has mostly Mexican and Latin American students with more than 85 percent eligible for free lunch. One in four students are designated Special Education. The reporter described the school’s academic success:
Demographic realities have not hindered achievement. Last year, 98 percent of third, fourth and fifth graders, those required to take state exams toward the end of the year, passed the math test. Seventy-six percent passed the language test. Those figures far exceed citywide averages, which sit in the 30s for both disciplines, and they match or surpass scores at many affluent schools. On the tests administered this past spring, students at P.S. 172 did better than students at P.S. 234, a celebrated school in TriBeCa, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
Steady increases in city test scores has brought crowds of out-of-state educators and business gurus like Jim Collins–of Good to Great fame–to the school. Spatola labored long and hard to build a strong, stable staff inhabiting a culture that prizes both student and adult learning.
Teachers, students and administrators are engaged in a constant process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t; why, for example, one student might be quickly gaining an understanding of symbolism in reading while another isn’t. Professional development is an experience that is not relegated to occasional seminars but is lived daily. Strikingly, members of the school’s senior staff have an extended shared history of knowing what is effective and what isn’t — Mr. Spatola’s assistant principal, Erika Gundersen, has been with him for more than 20 years; the math and literacy coaches on hand to work with teachers to enhance practices have been with him on average more than 12 years.
And he is an ace at finding money in and out of his school budget for all of the professional and academic activities that have become routine at the school.
Mr. Spatola doesn’t use textbooks, which are notoriously expensive…. In the past fiscal year, the city and state spent $100 million on textbooks in New York City schools. At P.S. 172, the allocated money is used to buy primary texts, works of fiction and nonfiction selected by teachers and administrators. Students will, for instance, use the Internet to research how the branches of government work. The many dollars left over are spent on other services…
Spatola believes that textbooks “cheapen the experience of learning.” Instead, the school creates its own lessons and units for each grade and maintains notebooks on each child’s performance. Nearly $50,000 of budgeted funds are supposed to go to buy expensive curriculum packages recommended by the district to meet Common Core standards.
“It is absolutely crazy to me that a company out west would really have any idea what my children need,” Mr. Spatola said. “If you are a professional, you take ownership of the curriculum.”
Spatola uses the money for materials teachers choose and develop.
Are the structures and culture that Spatola and teachers have created at P.S. 172 scalable? Not impossible but hard to do given a principal who manages well, guides instruction, and provides political leadership to a staff and community. He and his staff have built by hand a successful school over many years that fits its students and community in Brooklyn.