Each week, DNAinfo.com talks to a principal from one of Manhattan's public schools. This week, it's Medea McEvoy of East Side Elementary School, P.S. 267, at 1458 York Avenue, between East 77th and East 78th streets, which opened last year. In the interview below, McEvoy details how the school got started and the challenges it has faced.
Q: When did you decide to become an educator?
MM: I finally listened to my mother. I didn’t have plans to be a teacher. I was an art history major. I worked in an art gallery. I worked in real estate, public relations, special events. I was a caterer. My mother said to me one day, “Medea, you should be a teacher. You would be wonderful and you would love it.” So I went back to graduate school and got my masters. I was a teacher for about 11 years [at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side]. I taught sixth grade, fifth grade, third grade.
My mother was many things: an interior decorator, a writer, a jewelry designer, a painter. I was an art history major and probably take after her. She was also a teacher. She and my aunt taught at P.S. 1 in Chinatown. They had 50 kindergarteners in the morning and 50 in the afternoon. Back then, one of the things you had to do to be a kindergarten teacher was play the piano. When I was a third grade teacher I always had a piano in my room. I took 12 years of piano lessons. I would play and my children would play.
Q: How did you decide to become a principal?
MM: I never wanted to become a principal. I was director of literacy for New York City. I did that for several years. I was also a network leader [for the Department of Education], and while being a network leader I wrote a proposal for a new school, and it was accepted and East Side Elementary School was born. It opened in September .
Even though in my other jobs I traveled all over the city to elementary and high schools in every borough and I did spend time in classrooms, I missed the relationships with students and with parents so becoming a principal allowed me to build that community.
Q: What was your vision for the school?
MM: For East Side Elementary School, it would be academically rigorous. To have a firm foundation in math and literacy and a focus on certain sciences, social studies, technology and the arts. Especially in kindergarten it would be a real balance of play. That is how children learn when children are ages 4 and 5.
Q: It’s only been a year since the school opened, but have you had to tweak your vision?
MM: No, I think you have your vision and work to make it happen. They can cut the budget, but I’m not going to cut out what I believe in. I think that’s the whole reason, at least for me, to start a new school, because you have a vision of a school you want to create and believe in.
Q: What are some challenges with opening a new school?
MM: Starting a new school, even with the teachers you hire, you’re not looking for somebody to punch in at 8:05 a.m. and leave at 2:35 p.m. You’re looking for somebody who wants to help build a professional learning community, who really wants to collaborate. It attracts a different staff, a different parent body. Some parents are excited by the opportunity of, “What do we want to do this year? What do we need to meet that?”, instead of saying, “last year we did this, let’s just do it again.” They have more voice. There are pluses and minuses to every situation. … We did fight in the fall for a new [school] zone and we won [because when the school opened it had no defined zone and families were placed there from other overcrowded schools]. We will be in this space [for the 2011 school year] and we’ll move when P.S. 59 moves. It’s at 63rd Street between Second and Third avenues. It was hard without a zone to form a school community.
Q: Has the school changed since it opened?
MM: It was an amazing first year to have just one grade level — K — and to really focus on them. It hasn’t changed in the ways I planned what they were going to have and who the teachers were and the curriculum. But there have been changes, like adding sleep time. We have a lot more English language learners than I had anticipated. That’s different than originally, which I’m really happy about. They’re bi-, tri-lingual and reading and writing in English. They came in speaking not a word. It’s really amazing to see.
Q: What do you hope the school will look like five years from now?
MM: It’s going to be pretty full. We’ll be in our new space. There will be a lot of siblings in the school. Right now, pretty much all my children are the oldest or the only because if they had a sibling, they’d be in another school. We’ll have a lot of teachers. We’ll probably have three classes per grade, K through 5 when we’re filled.
Q: What have been the most difficult decisions and challenges you've faced as a principal?
MM: I think as a principal you make difficult decisions every day. That’s part of your job. I think your job becomes hard when you don’t make decisions.
Sharing space is challenging. I think it’s working out really well, but it’s an extra thought process. … I can’t change the time we start or end. We start 15 minutes earlier and get out 15 minutes earlier so we don’t overlap with the other school. I have to make sure if I want the auditorium, I have to make sure they’re not using it that day. There are a lot of extra steps in communication and talking.
Q: Did you ever fail a test when you were a student?
MM: I don’t know if I ever failed, but I didn’t do well in algebra. Then it turned around because basically because I kind of hoped all summer I would not get Mr. Ward for math. He was the head of the upper school, and he terrified me, and I did get him. Basically, I spent the whole time hoping not to get called on. So, I wasn’t paying attention. And then in January, by some miracle we had a quiz and it was handed back and I remember it, on the top it said 10 out of 10, and he wrote, “Wow.” And that was it. From then on I got As. He ended up writing all my college applications. I have a picture of him hanging in my office. Unfortunately he died before I became principal, but he literally watches over me every day. He was one of those when you think back, 'did you ever have a teacher who changed your life?' He did.
The power of words and children understanding you believe in them allows them to listen in a different way. I know that first hand. I experienced that myself and as a teacher, being able to reach every child in the class. I was every child in the class. I sat that there and really hoped no one would call on me because I didn’t understand what was going on. I was also the child at different points where I knew the answer and wanted to shout it out and didn’t understand why everybody else didn’t know.
Q: If you could be Schools Chancellor for a day, what would you do/change?
MM: Honestly, you can’t make any change in a day. I think that’s part of the problem. It’s not an easy job at all to run the largest school system in the country.