West Prep Academy Principal Wants Students to Build 'True Confidence'

By Leslie Albrecht on January 30, 2012 8:01am 

Principal Roberto Padilla of West Prep Academy, a magnet school on West 105th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues.
Principal Roberto Padilla of West Prep Academy, a magnet school on West 105th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — At West Prep Academy, a middle school at 150 W. 105th Street, students wear uniforms and are referred to as "scholars." A federally-funded magnet school, West Prep has a themed curriculum, "youth voice through youth media." And the school has its own Latin motto, "Opere omnium," which means "with the work of all."

Principal Roberto Padilla, however, says West Prep's vision goes deeper than fancy words.

"We refer to [students] as scholars because we believe that they are scholars," Padilla, a 34-year-old father of three who lives in the Bronx, said. "But we follow that up through our behavior and how we push them academically. Students know they have to give us their best effort."

Q: Did you ever get in trouble in school? And if so, why?

A: I certainly got [into] my fair share of trouble. In middle school I had to talk to the principal a couple of times about remaining on task and completing all my work. I was your typical teenage boy. I liked to socialize and get off task from time to time. I really went to school at that point in my life to be with friends.

I didn't take school seriously until high school. It wasn't until high school that I experienced what it felt like to be on high honor roll. It was just contagious at that point. Every quarter I wanted to get on high honor roll.

Q: Did you ever fail a test?

A: Yes. A genetics test in my freshman [year] of college at Brockport State University of New York. It was really tough. It was at a point where I really didn't know how to study.

I hated the feeling that I had that I had failed at something. So it was one of those times when failure actually inspires you to give more effort and better represent yourself. I haven't forgotten that feeling. I didn't fail after that.

Q: Is there a teacher that you had growing up that stands out? Why?

A: I had a teacher my junior year, Mrs. Henson, for an English class, who made us write autobiographies. I remember writing this thing and her pulling me into the hallway and just hugging me. She was teary eyed. She thanked me for sharing so much of my upbringing in writing. She expressed how it had touched her.

That was probably the first time I saw how writing could really impact people. I didn't write it with the intention of someone getting emotional about it. I was just talking about my life and how I was in foster care and my experience as a child. Since then, when it comes to writing, I certainly spend the time really thinking about my words, because I realize the impact it can have.

The second person was a guidance counselor, Mrs. Jones. She wasn't even my assigned guidance counselor, but she just really took a liking to me and always inspired me, just always told me that I was going to be great and always motivated me. She was very sincere and made me believe that I could achieve if I put the work in.

Q: When did you decide to become a teacher?

A: I was 15 years old. I had an opportunity to work as a drug and alcohol counselor at summer camps. It was my first opportunity to interact with groups of students, and that was all it took. After that, everything I did, from summer jobs to evening jobs, dealt with kids.

Q: West Prep is now a magnet school. What does that mean?

A: Every magnet school has a specific theme. Our theme is "youth voice through youth media." We're very interested in honoring our students' ideas, helping them to use their voices in constructive ways. Essentially we're building their skills to be change agents and the people who lead change in this country. Our curriculum is tied to that.

We're very much a technology school. We engage students in opportunities where they explore facets of the media to deliver strong messages. What's interesting about that is, it's not always their own ideas. Often it's about taking other people's ideas and evaluating them and understanding them. It's not about agreeing with them, but it's important to understand. That's a unique quality in learning: how do you understand other people's perspectives.

Q: What are some example of projects students have worked on that are part of the "youth voice through youth media curriculum"?

A: We launched the school year with a schoolwide integrated unit. [Students] were interested in exploring what healthy options exist in the neighborhood as a way to encourage students in the school to really examine their eating habits.

They created a "healthy harvest" presentation that included PowerPoint presentations and public service announcements. They created graphic images of the neighborhood, showing where various locations offered healthy options. They presented this information to family members and community members. It was really at a small level, an introductory level, saying: 'We have some important ideas. We think this is important for sustaining healthy choices and here are our thoughts on it.'

They're engaging in documentary filmmaking; they're engaging in digital music and digital photography. They're taking pictures around the neighborhood and then making their own beats, their own music, to accompany the pictures to really tell their story.

Q: What do students experience at West Prep that they don't experience elsewhere?

A: Our students really appreciate the fact that people come to them for their ideas and appreciate their ideas. That's very purposeful. I think adolescents are constantly trying to battle for more independence and to feel more valued. They tell us, 'We feel like adults shut us down because we're younger. We just want people to hear us.' It doen't mean we'll agree with them, but there has to be a platform where they can be heard. There has to be a platform where they feel like their opinions matter. That's one unique difference, is that we stress different areas in our school where students have a voice.

Another area is that students can articulate the school's vision in their own words. [The school's motto is] "Opere omnium," a Latin phrase for 'with the work of all.' Our students are referred to as scholars. They'll tell you they feel like professionals. They do wear uniforms, and they like them. We're incorporating jackets and ties because this is about preparation for life and high school and college and entering the professional world.

We have extremely high expectations. We expect scholarly behavior at all times. That's both conduct and academics. It goes further than referring to them as scholars. We refer to them as scholars because we believe that they are scholars. But we follow that up through our behavior and how we push them academically. Students know they have to give us their best effort.

Q: What's the most important thing that you want students graduating West Prep to have learned?

A: There are so many things that we want, but to single it down to one, it's leaving here with the true confidence and empowerment that they're going to be successful in life, they're going to be contributing members to society.

We have students talking about pursuing Ph.D.s to find cures for cancer.

Q: What do you want West Prep to look like in five years?

A: A first option for District 3 families; a school that truly meets the needs of all its students. A very diverse school. An innovative school; a school that uses technology in different ways. A school that has an innovative curriculum that's preparing students to be competitive.

Q: If you could be schools chancellor for a day what would you do or change?

A: I would travel with a class for a day and see what their real experience is, from the minute they walk in the school to the minute they leave. I think the chancellor visits a lot of schools but if I were chancellor I would travel with one class for the entire day inside the school from class to class and really see what their experience is like.

That's extremely valuable data.

Being a principal for a day would be good. [He would learn] how we prioritize instruction, how we get into classrooms, how we interact with so many families and students in one day, supervise various programs and evaluate so many constituents in one day, then still stand strong at 6 p.m. at night, ready for more.

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