They are two of the Island’s most important people, and they’ve had a very busy year. PS/IS 217 (217) Principal Mandana Beckman and Assistant Principal Jennifer Allen sat in Beckman’s large, bright, first-floor office after school one day last week to discuss the school’s challenges, recent successes, and the guiding principle of inclusiveness driving it all.
The School Year
“We had a good year,” said Beckman, “We saw a lot of growth in terms of the partnership with Cornell. The Common Core is another one, it’s really hard when you have to take on new curriculum and understand it but we have finished writing our new curriculum according to the Common Core.”
Allen added, “We’ve been writing the new curriculum and now it just needs to be refined. We’re always reflecting and revising and setting new goals.”
Both principals were teachers in the school. Beckman started her career at 217, in 2000, as a second grade teacher. She then taught third grade, and from there became a math coach. Beckman became principal, in 2006, after being assistant principal for a year.
Allen recalls, “We were on the same grade team. It was Ursula [Fokine], Mandana and I. We had a lot of fun as teachers,” adds Beckman “We went on trips every month and weren’t afraid to take the subway. We encourage our teachers to take the children on trips. Trips are so valuable. Not every kid has the same opportunities at home. We want classes to take school trips and then come back and reflect on them together; It’s a shared experience.”
“Our teachers are on the front line, they have the first impact on kids, so hiring good teachers is really important,” Beckman says.“we are always looking for the right mesh of staff. It’s New York City, so teachers come and go. It’s really hard to say goodbye to amazing teachers, and then try to find someone to fill that void, and then work to create a new culture and a new community. We have to make sure everyone melds well together, including grade teams and teacher teams. It’s about healthy relationships. Communication is key for us and them to be successful.”
“We kept many of the inequities from when we were teachers in mind when we became administrators and we were like, ‘No, you have to do things based on supports we know; teachers need to be successful,’ ” Principal Beckman said.
One is professional development. Beckman says, “We make sure we give teachers time to meet with consultants, and we make sure we have the right consultants to meet the different needs of the school. We’re pre-K to eighth grade. One person’s not going to meet pre-K to 8 needs.”
“Our teachers need to have that foundation,” says Beckman “That’s why we believe in giving teachers professional development.”
“My background is special education and I have always been about the individual learner,” says Allen, who taught special education for a year in a New Jersey school before coming to 217 in 2002.
“Regardless of whether the student has a diagnosed disability, they still all have different levels of abilities,” says Allen. “There are kids in G&T [the Gifted & Talented program] who are struggling academically and Gen Ed [General Education] kids who perform at very high levels. So I am very much about the individual learner and I believe that kids do well when you set them up to do well. We give them the skills they need; but it is the collaboration between school and home that’s important – it’s more than just the academic skills. That partnership is a big part of our school. I also just like being around children.”
Beckman says she learns from the children as well. “I think they are refreshing. They start over every day. When you make a mistake, you get to start over. And even I make mistakes. Everyday is a new day for them; they have fresh eyes, and they don’t have judgments. They’re interested and they’re willing; It’s an exciting environment. That’s the part that keeps me going every single day – it’s the kids.”
When asked about a typical day, Beckman says, “You should talk to my ‘principal of the day.’ His mom wrote me an email. She said, ‘I didn’t realize how tough a day you had. You’re dealing with all of this budget stuff.’ We’re dealing with everything. We might be starting with a parent concern or issue, then there might be some student concerns or issues to work on.” Allen is at school by 6:45 a.m. and Beckman arrives by 7:30 every morning, but also works Saturdays.
Allen says that lately their days have consisted of interviews, transition meetings, promotion meetings, looking over student work, creating next year’s staff handbook and student handbooks.
It’s a combination of forward planning and reflection that is built into the school schedule. Beckman said, “I have to start thinking about next year’s budget and how many kids are enrolled compared to how much money is coming in. There is administrative stuff, stuff between teachers, kids, graduation recitals, and meetings with consultants who are winding down their programs for the year.”
To illustrate the push-pull that characterizes the end of the school year, Beckman said, “In fact Emily Pinkowitz from Four Freedoms [Park] was just here. We are building a relationship with her for next year,” and “The fifth grade parents were just at the school to see the ballroom fifth grade open class.”
Allen reported that the school has met all of its CEP goals for the school year. The Comprehensive Educational Plan serves as a school’s blueprint for implementing instructional strategies, professional development opportunities, and parent involvement activities that promote continuous school improvement.
Part of this was forming five schoolwide improvement teams. Every teacher serves on one in an effort to merge supportive environment and strong family-community ties in order to further impact student achievement. This work began in the spring of 2015. It includes teams focused on developing a philosophy and policy on family engagement, homework, sustainability and community service, as well as revising the school’s mission statement and vision.
In the upcoming school year, they plan to get more parents and students involved and build out subcommittees. For example, the Sustainability team will have a green committee and the Homework Philosophy team is launching a website as a support for families. Allen says the website information is going home with report cards this summer.
“There has been a lot of great work that I don’t think everybody knows about,” says Allen “We are excited. We started these things last year. Teachers came through this year. Our teachers own these teams and they’ve really developed them with our support. We can’t be experts on everything and they are encouraged to lead as well. We call them vertical teams and mix up teachers on different grade levels, because everyone’s got a different perspective and expertise that they can add. We’re always one step ahead of the chancellor and what she’s asking for.”
Beckman added, “If you really think about it, our primary goal is to develop the parent-teacher-school relationship. There is that trust and the understanding that we all have to be partners to succeed. It’s a challenging goal because it’s not really defined.
“That’s the hard thing. It’s really abstract. What does it look like for us? That’s our challenge. How do we make it live? These are the steps we’re taking to make it come alive. Where to go next year with this is something to think about.”
Compared to other schools in District 2, Allen says 217 is “far superior.”
“We are proud of the work we do here, and we know we are having an impact on kids, and we know we have committed and dedicated teachers here. Test scores aren’t the only measure of success; the arts are important too. We have been successful in providing those opportunities and our parents support those enrichment opportunities. Our teachers communicate much more with families than teachers at other schools do. Our newsletter goes out to them every week; most of theirs are provided once per month. Communication is a priority at 217.”
“We’re not surprised when she asks us to do stuff because we’ve thought of it too,” says Beckman. “We had been targeting second grade (before it was mandated by the Chancellor, deemed important because testing starts in third grade). Our challenge is not in getting our students to grade level in second grade, but sustaining it. We are not a school that has Title 1 funding. There are kids who need help but don’t have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or disability, but they need after-school tutoring or Saturday school to keep up. We don’t get funding for that so it’s a challenge to figure out how to make it work.” Title 1 funding is granted according to a school’s free/reduced lunch percentage. Beckman says, “We fall right under.”
Cornell and STEM Learning
Starting in September a Cornell Tech TIR (Teacher in Residence) will be at 217 once a week, and Cornell Tech’s other partner schools once a month. Beckman believes this “goes with our philosophy of developing coherence. We’re not looking for a class here, or coding there. We want to develop our program in a thoughtful way in terms of the experiences we’re giving kids from pre-K to eighth grade so they are leaving here with all of the pieces.”
Allen adds that the Cornell Tech consultant, Kelly Brandon, who did professional development with 217’s full staff, helped. Now the full faculty has the foundational understanding.”
The school won a spot in the DOE (Department of Education) Elementary School Pilot, Sep Jr., which is part of Mayor De Blasio’s initiative to provide computer science education to every public school student over the next ten years. The goals of the year-long pilot are to increase the number of elementary school students who learn computer science, and to develop students’ computational thinking and problem-solving skills in real-world contexts. There were over one hundred applicants. Allen said the the first shipment of computer carts has already been delivered and four teachers are being trained this summer; they’ll be the turnkey.
As for the application that Cornell Tech Director of K-12 Education, Diane Levitt, praised at the recent Town Hall meeting, Beckman said, “It came from our teachers. Our teachers have a lot of voice in what we do. We chose the teachers to be on our pilot committee. We gave them time to talk with one another, talk with us, write, share with us, and then we all worked in Google Docs, writing back and forth. The application process was an example of the collaborative environment we have, and that’s what we wrote about. If we are going to do something, we’ll do it well.”
In the past 16 years, Beckman said, the collaborative environment has only grown. Additionally, the school is now able to offer something meaningful for every grade level; there is now enrichment and arts for everyone, but that wasn’t always the case. Beckman explained, “The PTA really understands the needs of the school as a whole, with the arts and enrichment, for supplies and materials. We have a healthy balance right now. That’s what’s grown, too. We had a PTA of six when we were first starting. So to have a PTA the size that it is now, you feel that. The parents on the PTA want the best for their kids and the school at large and that is great.”
The G&T program is a biggie. The principals agree that the program has encouraged families to stay at the school. The proof is in the numbers. Beckman said they went from 380 kids in the school before they had the program to a current 585 kids. Beckman said, “We can breathe again because we’ve gotten over that hurdle. But there are flip-side challenges.”
“We understand [the G&T] program was a need for this community. We were resistant until we were told, ‘No, you gotta jump in there,’ and to our credit we took it on. The challenge the administration is facing now is to close the gap between the G&T and GenEd programs. There is a concern that kids self-divide among the two groups. Beckman said, “It’s the social side that we want to figure out. Sportsmanship. As they get older, we know it as a society.” That concern drives the principals.
Beckman said, “There are certain things, if we are going to do it, it has to be equitable. That’s work we need to figure out. For us to sleep better at night, for us to feel that each child is getting what they need.”
The Middle School
Another of Beckman’s concerns is, “How can we have the impact in the middle school that we have had in the elementary school. When I started as principal, we had two classes per grade level and eighteen kids in each class; that’s forty kids per grade. You need thirty-five kids to pay one teacher’s salary. This is a school that was overfunded. We got a whole lot. When [former Mayor] Bloomberg decided, ‘let’s equalize,’ we lost over half a million dollars. It was a difficult three years budget-wise.”
“We were very poor. We’re not poor right now. [That experience] taught us to manage our moneys and not be excessive. We learned to start with the question, ‘Where are we going to have the greatest impact’ when making funding decisions. Some families may not realize the greatest impact may not be on their child or their child’s grade level. We always look at the big picture, that’s always a challenge. It’s hard for families to understand that.
In the past ten years, the DOE created more middle schools because there weren’t enough in this district and they added choice. According to Beckman, the new middle schools all have some kind of attraction, “so you’ve got East Side Middle (a STEM school), Salk School of Science, Clinton School for Readers and Writers, all of these schools with these niches.”
She says, “It’s great to give families choice, but when we are a zoned school, there is only so much choice you can give. We can’t afford to have a sports team, but we also don’t have enough kids for a sports team.”
Yet, “The families that do believe in our middle school and stay here, those families have a great experience. The kids are happy. They get into the high school within the top four of their choices.”
Beckman said, “Come and see our middle school. The whole academic piece we know we’re successful at. It’s a great school.”
“It’s been a good year. Everyone’s worked really hard. We’ve seen progress in our kids beyond the test scores. We’ve had individual meetings with teachers and they’ve been able to show us the data behind the scenes:, this is where the child was in September, this is where they are in the middle of the year, here’s where they are now. Seeing that progress feels good. We were successful in meeting the needs of many students,” said Ms. Beckman.
Allen said, “It makes me proud to see smiling kids, and I feel like we’ve seen a lot of smiling kids in the last two weeks between all of our special events and all of our celebrations.”
Beckman said, “Our success is watching kids grow and become successful. That’s what makes us proud. We have former graduates come back to address the eighth- grade graduates. We realized kids really connect with people who graduated from here. That’s a proud moment. They really do appreciate it after they leave. And the families do, too. The speaker this year was a second-grader I taught.”
“Jenn and I were both in sororities,” said Beckman, “But we are not running a sorority here. We need to work together and collaborate. We don’t have to be best friends but we do have to be thinking partners with each other. We try to create a thinking environment where we’re all learners. We are proud of the growth and success of the school. It’s been a great journey. We have no complaints, we can only keep going.”