MIDTOWN EAST — Eric Strauss, 58, is in his third year as principal of the High School of Art and Design, located on Second Avenue between East 57th and East 56th streets. Strauss has a lengthy resume, including seven degrees, as well as stints as a third-grade teacher in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and a college professor. But art was his first love, and Strauss is now working to infuse the school with stronger academics, foundational art skills and mutual respect among students.
Q: Where do you live?
ES: I live in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. I live right across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Q: Where are you from originally?
ES: I am from New York. My parents are from Europe, from Germany. I'm first generation. I grew up here, but I didn't only live here. I lived in Canada for a while, and [then] mainly New England and upstate when I was pursuing my studies.
Q: Do you have children of your own?
ES: I have three children and three grandchildren. [My three sons are] 20, 22 and 23. They're working.
Q: Where did you go to school?
ES: I have seven degrees. My undergraduate was McGill and SUNY at Binghamton. I have an MFA from Brooklyn College. I'm a social worker, too, a licensed clinical social worker. That’s from Stonybrook. I have an MS in design, architectural interior design, from UMass at Amherst. And finally the other masters is in education administration from the College of Saint Rose.
I also have a certificate in psychotherapy. So besides being a principal and an artist, I’m also a therapist.
Q: For high school, did you attend private or public school?
ES: Public school. I graduated Jamaica High School in Queens.
Q: What were your best subjects?
ES: History and art.
Q: Do you have any memories that stand out from your time in high school?
ES: I don't know if it was a very interesting school environment. I wish I had been sent to an arts school, but I wasn’t. My parents were not clued into that kind of thing.
Q: When you came here, what was your vision for how you wanted to run this school?
ES: I wanted to see this as like an art academy. I wanted an intense experience for the kids, with a focus on drawing and basic art skills, and then branching from there. I see us as kind of a conservative institution. I believe strongly that these skills are critical as the students move on to develop themselves as artists.
Q: How do you think the school has changed since you’ve been here?
ES: First of all, I have to balance the academics and the art. They chose an artist as the principal here for a reason, you know? They wanted that to be kept strong.
It’s also very important for me to raise the academic rigor of the institution. I want our academics to be as strong as any selective high school in New York City. I want people to feel like they’re going to get a solid education on both ends. So I’m looking for quality and rigor on both sides, the art and the academics.
Q: What informs the way you run this school?
ES: What directs me in terms of running this school is the fact that I have an art background myself. So I know what it means, I think, to study art, and I think I have an idea of what students need to nurture them to be good artists.
I also, I think, have, due to my training as a therapist, perhaps a deeper understanding of some of the struggles that kids go through. We have a varied population here, and it’s very important for me that kids feel very comfortable in this school environment and are happy.
Q: If you could be the Schools Chancellor for a day, what would you do?
ES: I think that I would find as many resources outside through private donations to split among the schools to allow more opportunities for kids.
I would probably have longer school days. I would expect more.
Q: In your years teaching, is there a particular student that you were able to have a profound effect on?
ES: My own children were foster kids in New York City’s foster care system — my three boys — and I brought them up all by myself. So that was a tremendous challenge.
So I think that I have a special sensitivity for kids who have been through a lot. And that’s part of my background as a therapist, too.
I get to know my kids. I’m very involved with guidance and the dean’s office. No kid is made to feel uncomfortable in this building. We have a good deal of gay, transgender, bisexual kids, and they’re to be respected. And of course, kids of all races and religions are to be respected, too.