P.S. 87 Principal Monica Berry Creates Problem Solvers
UPPER WEST SIDE — Principal Monica Berry sat down with DNAinfo to talk about her goals for P.S. 87, and what she hopes her students will learn, other than math and reading, at the well-regarded school on West 78th Street and Columbus Avenue.
Berry, 38, grew up in Evanston, Ill. She earned her undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College and did her graduate studies at the University of Texas. She lives in Brooklyn. She became principal of P.S. 87 in 2009.
Q: What was your best subject in school?
A: Science was my strongest subject in school, specifically biology. I’ve always been interested in living things, plants and animals. When I was in seventh grade and we had the opportunity to dissect animals, it was a life-changing experience for me. It was amazing to me seeing how everything works inside. Then when I was in high school in my biology class we studied genetics, and I was really interested in that. I also liked math. Not nearly as much as science, but I still liked math.
I actually wanted to be a pediatrician. When I went to undergrad I was pre-med. I was a Spanish major. I wanted to be a pediatrician and open a clinic in inner-city Chicago. Then I took an education course and found out about bilingual education. I was like, "I want to do that!” That’s when I became interested in education.
Q: Did you ever get in trouble in school and why?
A: I got in trouble all the time in school because I talked a lot. I was the typical child who, if I was done with my work before other kids, I would chat. I was often done before other people.
Q: Did you ever fail a test?
A: Yes. When I was in seventh grade we had to remember the capitals of all the countries in Africa. I failed that test. I’m not good with just memorizing facts and I just couldn’t do it, so I failed that test. I’ll never forget that.
Q: Were you good at a sport?
A: Growing up I played softball, and in high school I was on the track team and I threw shot and discus.
Q: Is there a teacher you had that stands out?
A: My high school algebra teacher Mr. Gattone. That’s when I actually started liking math, when I had his class. We didn’t have a textbook and everything revolved around problem solving. We would get problems that we would work on throughout the week. That helped me a lot in mathematics.
As a teacher a lot of the ways I teach math to children came from the ways he taught math to us. And he was just a cool guy. He would talk about college with us. [He told us] to go there with an open mind. It’s such a huge world out there and don’t be afraid to change your mind. Which is something that stuck with me because I did change my mind. My junior year in college I took an education class and loved it.
Q: How has P.S. 87 changed since you’ve become principal?
A: It’s less diverse. We used to be able to pull from all over, because we had space. Now that we’re overcrowded, we just pull from our zone. It’s not quite as diverse as it used to be. Even looking at the classrooms, when people walk through the school, the kindergarten and first grade classes look very different from our fifth grade class last year. You can actually visibly see the change occurring.
[Another] change is, we’re getting smaller. We had fewer kindergarten classes this year. We had fewer first grade classes. We’re getting some of our space back, which is a good thing, because we lost a lot of space my first year because we had nine kindergarten classes. Almost every room was being used a classroom. That was a big strain on our community, because it was a community that had a lot of arts and programs that would come in and there was space for that, and then we lost it and that was very difficult for us that first year I was here. Now we’re starting to get it back, which is good.
Also, we received a magnet grant. So we have more technology here in the school. [This year], you’ll see more arts in the school. We’re trying to get a partnership with the Guggenheim. The National Dance Institute is going to be working with us. Studio in a School is going to be coming in to work with some of our classes. We’re trying to bring more arts into the building.
Q: What’s the most important thing that you want students graduating P.S. 87 to have learned?
A: Just really to be thoughtful, caring citizens. Yes, it’s important that they can read and do math, but I just really want them to be problem solvers, people who analyze the world, people who look at the world and say, how can I help to make the world better?
I know it sounds kind of hokey, but having worked in different schools, one of the benefits of being at P.S. 87 and being in this neighborhood is that kids are in a position where they have opportunities. They know people. They can make a bigger change. To use that to your advantage is a great thing. That’s really what I would hope for them, is to go out and look at the world around them and know that they can learn from the world and give back. It’s a really important thing to me.
Q: What do you want the school to look like in five years? What are the obstacles to achieving your vision and how will you deal with them?
A: I’d like to see our diversity go back up. I’d also like to see us doing more global type things. I would like to see us, through the use of technology, have partnerships with other places in the world where we could have some type of exchange, where their kids could come here, our kids could go there.
I’d also really like to see us develop our arts even more. In the city, there are very few schools that can say they have two drama teachers, two music teachers. We have a lot of specialists here in the school, so I’d like to see us develop our arts even further.
Being a former math coach, I’d like to see us become a math powerhouse in the city.
Q: What are the obstacles to those goals?
A: Wanting to have more of an arts focus, and do all of these things which kind of seem extra outside of testing. I believe that if we expose children to things other than just, ‘We’re going to teach you how to crack a test,’ then they actually will become better test takers and they’ll be able to problem solve.
I’d rather have them know how to problem solve than learn how to crack a test. But it’s a risk that you take. You have to get everyone to buy into the risk, and say, ‘OK, we’re going to do a little less test prep so we’ll have time to do these other things.’
That’s going to be an obstacle because there’s going to be a lot of pressure coming from the state, coming from the city, coming from the national level. That’s going to be the biggest obstacle.
Q: What’s been the most difficult decision you’ve had to make as principal?
A: The most difficult decision I had to make was about ‘excessing’ [laying off] people. With our budget this year, there were cuts we had to make with staff. That was difficult to do.
Q: If you were schools chancellor for the day, what would you do?
A: I don’t even know where to begin. That’s a tough one. There are so many things I would change. When I first started teaching, we would have professional development once a month. I would re-institute that once a month for schools, to be able to do all of the work that they’re asking us to do, to have the time for the training and planning of it.
Q. Who is the student you believe you had the most impact on?
A: Her name is Tina. She was one of my fifth graders who was very shy, and very talented. At the time, she was an average student. She felt like she wasn’t very bright. She had very low self-esteem. I was her teacher for two years in a row.
I found out that she had these remarkable skills. She’s a beautiful singer and excellent dancer, and she does Chinese paper cutting. I called her the class ‘triple threat’ one day. I said, ‘She’s a singer, she’s a dancer, she’s a paper cutter.’ Talking about what she was good at, it turned around her whole image of herself. She just started skyrocketing. She now goes to LaGuardia [the high school for the performing arts]. She volunteers at the museum, she does a paper cutting class there. She’s just doing remarkably well.
That one thing, just saying, ‘You’re really great at this,’ that one small thing completely transformed her.
Q: What’s the most surprising impact you’ve had? Have you ever had anyone come back and tell you what an important role you played, but you didn’t know it at the time?
A: A former student of mine, who’s now graduated from college, who was in my first sixth grade class [at P.S. 7 in East Harlem] found me on Facebook and was telling me how much I helped her with her English, and how she went to college.
It’s really interesting, because I had 36 kids in the class, so to be honest, when you have 36 kids, there are some you really know because they’re fabulous, there are some you know because they’re not so fabulous. Then there are the ones in the middle who kind of get lost in your memory. I didn’t realize I’d made that much of an impact on her.
She said, ‘I appreciated the talks we had and the advice that you gave, that it really helped me to move forward and study hard.’ That was one that was definitely a surprise.