PS 187 Principal Cynthia Chory Believes in the Positive Power of Community

By Carla Zanoni on February 6, 2012 7:18am 

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — When PS 187 Hudson Cliff Principal Cynthia Chory is asked how many children she has had, her answer is surprising. 

"I have three I go home to at night and 800 in the building during the day," she said. 

Chory prides herself on a personal connection with the children who attend her school and makes a concerted effort to foster that connection each day. 

"It means not sitting in my office all day," she said.

"It’s being in the classrooms. It’s being in the lunchroom. It’s talking to them, being outside in the morning…and asking them about their weekend," she said.

"All of a sudden they come alive, it’s not just about reading and writing, the kids are thinking, ‘Oh, she wants to talk about my weekend.’" 

Chory grew up in Washington Heights and attended PS 187 as a child. She started out teaching at neighboring school PS 218 before becoming an assistant principal and later coming to lead PS 187. 

“That’s the kind of community we have at this school," she said. "We have them from kindergarden to 8th grade. We know them and they know us."

What are the children like at your school? 

When you look at children they are amazing. We have different backgrounds, we have different values, but every child is an individual. Reaching into that is what it’s all about. 

How is your school different from school when you were growing up? 

When I was going to school I think the teachers were good, but I don’t remember the passion that I see in the teachers we have here. We have 30-year veterans and first year teachers and there is a passion in all of them. 

Was there any teacher that stood out to you as a child? 

My second grade teacher Ms. Lipsky. She was the magician to me, she made learning come alive. I don’t know what she did exactly, because I was in second grade then, but it resonates in me and has for a lifetime. 

My mother was a teacher. She taught in the South Bronx for 30-something years in a challenging neighborhood in a challenging area, and there was a passion. 

Some people would say teaching in any New York City school or Washington Heights itself could be a challenge.

I think it is challenging teaching and being a principal. I think we’re making more and more demands on teachers every year without the compensation that another career would have. Teaching is not an 8:20 a.m. to 3 p.m. job. I have teachers here who don’t leave the school until 7 p.m. Their classrooms are amazing, but it’s why they’re here. They’re here because they love the children. Because they want to see their children grow. Because they are concerned about their kids. 

As far as inspiration, I remember my mother as a teacher in the South Bronx taking out the fine china and having 13 of her students over to the house, and she made a difference. ...She had told them that were having a fine dinner at our house and they came dressed to the Ts. I remember her taking them to Broadway plays, when we were able to get free tickets to plays. And that is an inspiration to me, how to make children feel that important and that valued. 

Did you always want to become a principal? 

Absolutely not. For one thing, I said I would never become a teacher because I didn’t want to impose rules on the kids. My mother kept saying I would make a fabulous teacher and I would tell her that I would never become a teacher. 

How did you become a principal then?

I started out being a good teacher and somewhere along the line the principal at the time said to me, "You’re a master of what you do." And I thought, "No I’m not, but OK." I started mentoring and grade advising, taking on more responsibilities. Somewhere in that time frame I decided I wanted to do more. When I was mentoring, I realized by reaching the teachers I could reach more children and then I realized I could do more. 

You’ve always taught and led in the neighborhood where you grew up. Why is that? 

You give back to your community. I live an hour north of here and I have numerous opportunities to go, but this is still home. And there is still more that needs to be done in this community and I am going to take us to the next level. 

What is the next level?

Tapping the community the way we have in a positive way is one of the next levels, working together for a common good. The parents this year paid for a part time art teacher, a part time science teacher, a part time Spanish teacher through their fundraising, meeting some true needs. The PTA paid for some professional development for the teachers. This is bringing the community together.

When you were in school what was your favorite subject? 

I loved reading. I wasn’t necessarily the best in the beginning, but I loved reading because it allowed you to go anywhere. And I think maybe that is why I go back to my second grade teacher. She hooked me on books and showed me books are an alternative way of life. 

Did you ever get in trouble or bend the rules when you were a kid? 

Nothing that stood out in my head. I know I got in trouble, but never to an extreme that it is in my head. Did I not do homework sometimes? Yeah, I didn’t do homework sometimes. Was I not always where I needed to be? Yeah, but I got a consequence and you know what? I didn’t do it again. 

I had two older brothers and a younger sister in the building, so I was Jim’s sister, Bob’s sister or Julie’s sister. And if all else fails, I was June Chory’s daughter. I had to walk a little narrower of a line, because people definitely noticed me. 

What’s the most important thing you want children graduating from your school to have learned?

I want them to learn to be nice human beings with reading, writing, math, science skills, but also how to apply those skills. I want them to be well-rounded human beings. I want them to be good people and know the difference between right and wrong, know how to apologize and take responsibility for a mistake. It is not just about wanting them to read and write and excel in that, it’s about the whole child

What is your vision for the school in the long term? 

The vision is to remain a community school and become more open to alternative activities in the building. But to have every child reading and writing on grade level. Having every child socially accepted for what they bring to the table. How do you make it happen? Talk to the [Department of Education] about budget cuts. So, how am I going to make it happen? I’m going to work with the parents and the community and tap the resources around us. 

Who is the student you believe you’ve had the most impact on?

I’ve had a couple here and one at PS 218 where I was an assistant principal before coming to PS 187. After I moved here I got a call from the assistant principal there that said a boy was looking for me. His father had passed away and he wanted to talk. He needed the anchor. 

You just kind of have to stop and look at that. I know in some schools you hear the words “those children.” There is no “those children,” they are all my children. The surprising impact there is that the more you expect from them, the more they deliver. So why lower the bar? 

If you could be Schools Chancellor for a day, what would you do/change?

You can’t make a difference in one day. You need a lifetime to make a difference. You can’t be the flavor of every two years. 

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