Principal Invents UWS Elementary School One Year at a Time
UPPER WEST SIDE — Principal David Scott Parker remembers his first meeting with parents as extremely tense. Parents had just learned that their children would not be attending the coveted P.S. 199 and P.S. 87 and instead would be members of the first class at the newly created elementary school P.S. 452.
Their kindergartners would also have to share a floor with two middle schools in the William O'Shea Complex on West 77th Street.
"[The meeting] was very confrontational," Parker recalled of the May 2010 meeting, held on the same day parents had learned their children wouldn't be attending the other local schools because of overcrowding.
As the school enters its fourth year, which will include its first third-grade class, Parker says he is striving to create a place for 230 students that is "dynamic and engaging and rigorous," and that "isn’t just a place that meets the academic needs but the social and emotional needs."
The Cincinnati native, now in his 40s, has had some interesting twists in his life — from studying art history to working as a director to becoming a teaching fellow and then a school leader.
"I’ll only get out of here kicking and screaming," he joked of his love for the school.
DNAinfo New York caught up with Parker just before the students were set to return to school after summer break.
Q: What's your approach to curriculum?
A: It's very hands-on. The math curriculum relies on an extensive tool kit that kids use. When they’re learning measurement, they go around and use non-traditional tools to measure things — like measuring the couch with their hands. It’s not just concepts on pencil to paper. In second grade, there’s a rock, sand and silt unit. They have all the rocks, the sand, the silt. We let it sit overnight. The next day they’re feeling it, to discover what happened overnight.
Q: And you generally don’t use state-provided curriculum. Tell me about that.
A: Kids don’t have to do that rote learning, or one of the curriculum’s recommended units on the War of 1812 for second grade, or on kings and queens for kindergarten — I would get it if it this was Great Britain — but seriously. [With that curriculum] they might be great at Jeopardy.
In kindergarten, our students study parks [from social studies and life science’s perspectives.] We put the park in context. We visit the park. We’re tapping into that national curiosity and we’re helping them see something like a park in a different way.
It’s this progression — we’re telling them why — there’s a reason why we read and write. We learn to read and write to satisfy our curiosity and exchange ideas, not just for a test or to be good at school.
Q: How do you approach leadership?
A: Leadership doesn’t have to be that 'tough way.' Now we’re seeing that leadership can actually rely on emotional intelligence and it’s more about communication and relationship building. You can’t just tell the kids 'sit down and do your work,' they’re not going to be engaged if you can’t help them figure out why they're doing what they're doing.
Q: You were first a fourth-grade teacher and then an assistant principal at P.S. 199. How does that influence your work here?
A: P.S. 199 is a very inclusive and accepting environment and that was something that appealed to me and  will always kind of be my hometown and where I’m from. [P.S. 452] is now my educational home.
I brought with me that the idea that schools really can become places that feel safe and comfortable, but you know you have to come to the table and come to work. We have to work at this to make it what it is and that’s an idea that has evolved over the time.
I wanted to make it clear to the community that this isn’t 199 junior, or 87 part two. It is the place where I figured things out as an educator.
One of the most important things, to me, is I wanted to create a place where people want to go everyday. It was important to me that the staff feels that and that the students feel that. But with that we have to take that active role. We all have to come to the table with a plan.
I don’t always want to give an answer. It can’t just be Mr. Parker makes all the decisions.
Q: What are the pros and cons of getting to start from scratch with a new school?
A: It’s a gift and a challenge. You don’t have to consider the history when trying to change something, however you do have to consider that you’re making history and setting a precedent with every decision we make. Schools do kind of create these rituals and histories, which are important — but that track can get deeper and deeper and it can be hard to get out of it.
The gift of expanding each year is that it keeps this freshness to it. No year has been the same yet just from the influx of new staff and new families. This year a quarter of our population are new students.
Q: So parents were skeptical about a new school, but three years later how are you doing?
A: The majority of our students are meeting or exceeding the [city] standards.
We just got our [DOE] learning environment survey [completed by parents and teachers.] [We scored] above average in every single category. In three of the four categories we went up.
We just had our quality review that the superintendent did, and for a school that’s developing, we got proficient or well-developed in every category.
[Parents] want guarantees and a warranty. It doesn’t come with that. They took a gamble. The first group really did.
Now we get people calling us from all over the district and even out of the district.