UPPER WEST SIDE — Principal Ivelisse Alvarez's education career began in a one-room school house in Puerto Rico.
A few decades later, she presides over the Magnet School for Technology and Communication (formerly P.S. 145), which couldn't be more different than her humble beginnings. Stocked with laptops and digital cameras, the school trains students in 21st century digital literacy skills with the help of a federally-funded magnet curriculum.
Alvarez, 53, was born in the South Bronx, and grew up in Brooklyn and Puerto Rico. She attended college in Puerto Rico and started her teaching career in a small foothill town that was a two-hour commute on foot from her home.
She sat down with DNAinfo to talk about her background and her goals for P.S. 145 as it transitions into its new role as one of eight magnet schools in District 3.
Q: Did you ever get in trouble when you were in school, and why?
A: Yes I did. It was in seventh grade. I decided to skip school with my friends. My adventure took me on a long subway ride through New York City. When I got home my mother was standing at the door and she had her hands on her hips, tapping her toe. She made me feel so guilty. She told me about the evils of the world. I got this long sermon. I never forgot that, and I never skipped school again.
Q: Is there a teacher or principal you had growing up who stands out?
A: To be honest, all my teachers. I really have great respect and admiration for all my teachers. I was fortunate to have very good teachers who really cared for me and encouraged me.
I would say my greatest teacher was my mom, who taught me work ethics, responsibility, and fighting for what you believe in. My mother [had] few means, but she worked hard. She was our role model. She encouraged me to pursue the things I wanted to do and made me who I am.
Q: P.S. 145 recently received a federal grant to become a magnet school. What does that mean?
A: P.S. 145 is now the Magnet School of Technology and Communication. It means we offer a unique curriculum designed by the teachers, who work in collaboration with different partners. The school supports the students in the development of new literacy skills for the 21st century, which means that they engage in communication, multimedia, presentation skills, problem solving, creative expression, appreciation for different art forms, critical thinking, global awareness and team work.
Q: What do students experience at P.S. 145 that they don’t experience elsewhere?
A: At our school, the students experience lots of tender care from a caring community of educators. Students have fun, and so do the teachers.
We tap into the unique talents of every child, regardless of their academic standing. We offer diverse opportunities for self-expression through different media and art partnerships. For example a student can write a story in different ways. Other than writing it on the paper, they can select to write a report or a story through the eyes of a historian. The partnership that helps us with that is with the New-York Historical Society.
With one of our other partners, Magic Box [an organization that brings digital photography into schools], that same student can tell a story using stop motion photography. We also partner with [the art organization] Studio in a School, so that same child can create a sculpture to tell his story. Then there’s another partner, LAMP [Learning About Multimedia Project], which is dedicated to media literacy. We also have partnerships with Music and the Brain and Columbia University mentors — students play different instruments and get one-on-one tutoring.
We use the different partnerships to tap into the students’ talents. We believe that everyone has a gift and a talent and we need to tap into that. Not all children will show their learning on paper or on a test.
Q: What impact has the magnet grant had so far?
A: The teachers are having fun, they’re smiling, they’re enjoying the projects, they’re learning alongside the students to engage in these different tools. Our students created a magazine. That’s outstanding. The second-graders created stop motion video. That’s amazing. Our children are using cameras to photograph architecture in the community. That’s amazing.
It’s too early for test scores (to have gone up) but I can tell you, when you look at students’ work, and their notebooks, and you talk to them, you will see an improvement. I see more engagement. It might not necessarily translate into a school’s score, but I’ll tell you something, when they leave this school, they will have developed a talent. They will have become better at writing and the arts.
Q: What’s the most important thing you want students graduating from P.S. 145 to have learned?
A: I always tell students, upon graduating P.S. 145 they will have learned to be courteous, play fair, have fun learning, have confidence in their abilities and try their very best at every challenge. I want them to know it’s OK to be yourself and to express yourself in a different way. To believe that if they have a dream, to stick with it, to visualize it, and keep trying, and your dreams will be achieved with hard work and study.
Q: What do you want P.S. 145 to look like in five years?
A: In five years, P.S. 145 will have developed its [magnet] curriculum fully. I want our school to be known as a media literacy studio that prepares the students early on with 21st century literacy and career-ready skills.
Families, students and educators will be ready for the media-driven and digital world. We have to prepare our students, and the way schools were designed, that’s not happening. Now, with programs such as this magnet grant, we can do that.
Q: If you could be schools chancellor for a day what would you do or change?
A: If I were chancellor I would invest in ways to ensure that every classroom is capped at 15 students, with three adults. That’s it. If we stick to that formula, you will see results. Who would those three adults be? The classroom teacher, an educational assistant or paraprofessional, and a support service provider, who’s a specialist in reading or some other subject.
I would have a formula to ensure that the classrooms were truly mixed ability levels. Every child should have an individualized education plan, an IEP. Currently, only students with disabilities have it. Every child should have one. I would require parents to have a mandated contract where they have to be involved and engaged and they’re held accountable to that.
The school year should be extended where we have cycles of school days with breaks in between so that the parent,s the teachers and the leaders can come together on a monthly basis and actually sit down and talk about their individual children and their IEP. We don’t have time to communicate, we don’t have time to think, we don’t have time to reflect.