CORNONA — When Joseph J. Lisa walked up to I.S. 61 to begin his very first day as principal in 2007, he was confronted by a group of reporters who were all asking some variation of the same question: "how does it feel to be a failing school?"
The Corona school had just been named as one of 51 high-needs schools to take part in a $5 million support project created by the city.
"I was getting emails from my friends who were principals who were saying, 'great first day, huh?'" Lisa said.
Parents started applying elsewhere, turned off by the perception of the school.
Changing that image was Lisa's first real challenge as principal. With a new philosophy, I.S. 61 has become a more popular option for Corona families, with more parents deciding not to apply elsewhere. In fact, it may have become too popular — I.S. 61 is currently the most overcrowded middle school in the most overcrowded district in Queens, and will likely lose its Gifted and Talented program next year.
But even with those overwhelming problems, Lisa is working to come up with solutions.
Q: How did you decide to get involved in education?
A: Well it was interesting, I was working in retail management for a while. And I had a degree and wanted to try one of those changes in life, as many people who come into this career do. I liked kids, so I tried it out. I took over in the middle of the year for a teacher, and you just saw and felt that the children, they wanted someone to be in their corner. They wanted somebody to teach them.
It was such a rewarding experience. You get immediate responses for what you do. Retail management is a month to month type of thing. This was immediate. You had to be an entertainer, a counselor, a thinker, a planner. You had to really bring in as many skills as you could possibly do. It was a draining experience, but it was so rewarding that it was just something I wanted to do.
Q: What are some issues unique to I.S. 61?
A: When I first got here, the place was organized by department. When students went to math, they would have to go to the third floor. Then maybe social studies is on the first floor. So you would have at the time 1800 students moving at the same time, going across levels. Now, we have to be very structured — and the teachers had to buy into this as well, and the parents, everybody had to buy into it — where they're just moving next door. So the teachers more "team" around the students than they do "team" around departments. Now they stay in this little area of the building for a period of time and it doesn't seem like there's 2,400 students, from their perspective. We really have to hone into, more than any other school, the "school-within-a-school" model.
Q: What do you think it takes to be an effective principal in a crowded school such as I.S. 61?
A: The teachers have to be on board, the parents have to be on board, [the] administrators. Everybody has to be on board with the same message. No one person can solve a problem, but if there's more people at the table we can come to a solution. Because really, there's a lot going on, and if you have a policy that's in effect, you have to trust that the message that's getting out there to everybody is being implemented. Each school is unique to its community, to its legacy, to what they want to present. The teamwork makes it a little bit more successful. For us, anyway, I think it's important. I'm only successful because of them.
Q: You've been a vocal advocate for keeping your school's Gifted and Talented program, which is slated to move because of overcrowding. What do you think are your program's strengths?
A: We have a different program than other sites, and people select it because they like it. Where do you have a program where students have a choice of what they want to learn more of, scheduled in the day? In high school it's study hall, and sometimes study hall isn't a choice of what you want to learn, it's just a place to put you. This actually puts students with the teachers available to get that extra assistance.
They proved through the test that they should be in there, and our job is in a certain amount of time to immerse them in as many activities as we can, because in eighth grade our expectation is that they're going to have four classes in high school that they don't have to take, and hopefully the high schools will pick up the torch, and there will be four less college courses they have to take. So we're looking way beyond them in sixth grade. We're looking so that, at the time they graduate high school, did we do our job to accommodate them with college credit?
Q: With Gifted and Talented leaving the school, do you expect any sort of drop in performance?
A: No. In actuality, we're going to be able to replicate the same experience for our high-performing zoned students. If you're in a K-5 school you can take the test for gifted and talented. In middle school, there is no test. So say I have an excellent 6th grader who comes into my school that's brilliant, there's no test to put him in that program. So the only thing that program has, is that the student has to go through a test. Other than that, it's what we create in the system, so nothing stops us from doing the same thing.
But it's just the message it sends to our parents, to the people in the building. "It's nothing you did, but you have to lose this." It doesn't make sense to me. No matter how you skate around it, it's wrong. And if I'm an advocate for the parents, as I'm supposed to be, and they have an issue with something, then I have to be on the team with them if I want them to team with me in the future. If I thought they were wrong, then I would tell them. But that's not the case.
For our parents, if there's a need, and they want it, we can do anything.