Each week, DNAinfo.com talks to a principal from one of Manhattan's schools. This week, it's Daryl Blank, 41, principal of the High School for Fashion Industries, which gives students a unique opportunity to master the art of design while getting a traditional academic education. In the interview below, Blank discusses his transition from professional basketball player to principal, and shares his vision for the school at 225 W. 24th Street, blocks away from the Garment District.
Q: Where are you from originally?
DB: "I grew up here in Manhattan on East 63rd Street and I’m a graduate of New York City public schools. I went to P.S. 183, I went to Wagner Junior High School, and then I went to the Bronx High School of Science."
Q: What were you like in high school?
DB: "I guess at Bronx science you sort of turn into that student athlete cliché. You do your academics and you have your sports and make sure you keep it in that student-athlete perspective, where student is first. So I was always very into school. And basketball was something that I always loved to do and I guess I had the skill at it."
Q: What was your favorite subject?
DB: “I was actually a history buff. And I guess my favorite class and probably the class that impacted me most was high school Advanced Placement history. I just sort of loved it. You know, I’m a big basketball person. I played basketball at Bronx Science, I played in college at Binghamton. And then I actually went overseas to Lithuania for a couple of years. I was playing and coaching professional basketball over there when my old coach from Bronx Science said, ‘Well, why don’t you come back and be a history teacher at Bronx Science and take over from me at basketball coaching?'"
Q: What makes the High School of Fashion Industries so unique?
DB: “The school differentiates itself in that students are especially interested in one of our four majors. In junior high school, they actually take an exam and they submit portfolios. We have four majors: we have fashion design, we have graphics and illustration, we have visual merchandising and fashion marketing. So students who have an interest in those majors apply to our school and take the test and submit a portfolio.
Then when they’re in our school, they really have two parts of their day. They have their classes that every other high school student would take with the core subjects: math, science, social studies, English. And then they have their portion of the day where they’re taking their major. Each of the majors has a 16-credit course sequence that they go to."
Q: So do you have any background in fashion?
DB: “Honestly, no."
Q: Is it hard to connect with students without that background?
DB: “I think that in any job like this, and especially for me, you really have to be a life-long learner. When you go into their fashion classes or their art classes or their marketing classes, you see their passion for what they’re doing and you want to learn.
So if you’re in a class and the students are draping a dress or working on a gored skirt, what’s great for me is that I’m amazed that they can do that. And I see the spark in their eyes and I’m interested to find out how they did it and why they’re excited about it. And, incredibly, I guess, coming from being a social studies teacher, I find it fascinating, the teachers who are teaching these classes and how they teach this expertise."
Q: It seems like you’ve learned a whole new vocabulary.
DB: “I certainly have. Vocabulary’s a big focus of this school. We have four school goals and vocabulary development’s one of them... So I’ve developed a whole new language within these four majors. And I think that’s a big part of the challenge, not only for students of fashion, but any class. You’re going from class to class and each class has it’s separate language. A social studies class you’re talking about imperialism and nationalism and the Congress of Vienna and then the next period they’re talking about gored skirts.
Q: Which teacher made biggest impact on you growing up?
DB: “I think my Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher at Bronx Science. Her name was Dr. Nash. And she just — she made history sort of challenging and made you think. And I guess for all of us, it’s just feeling good about oneself and self-confidence. And I think she made me really feel that academically I could sort of push the envelope."
Q: How did you move from being a teacher to a principal?
DB: “I actually got here by chance. After my second year out in Lithuania, I was deciding whether to go back or not and I decided to sub-teach at schools. And so I sent out some resumes and the first school that called me was Fashion. But the teacher who I subbed for never came back. And then, 16 years later, I became the principal of the school.
And I guess as a teacher you realize that ... you can go from a teacher who’s impacting, say, 150 students, to an assistant principal who is impacting all the students maybe just on a small level. I was the social studies assistant principal, so I was impacting the whole school with history and social studies. And then I realized I can take my stills and help everybody with everything. I guess as I went on, I felt more of a global perspective, that I can do more good for more.”
Q: How does being a principal compare with coaching?
DB: “I think the whole idea of coaching or being a principal, or any sort of leadership, is about putting people in a position to succeed; take their talents and figure out their strengths, figure out their weaknesses and then create an environment where all of these people with all of these varying skills and levels can succeed. So whether it’s a basketball team or students in a school, you’re trying to figure out everything and place them in strategic positions where they’re going to thrive."
Q: So how has it been, two years in?
DB: “I feel a lot of pride seeing the students succeed. We've had a 90 percent graduation rate and ‘A’ progress reports for the past four years. I think a huge experience for me was presiding over my first graduation last year and seeing them having this big turning point in their lives. And you feel like you sort of helped along the way."
Q: How do you think your leadership strategy has evolved in that time?
DB: “I think generally my philosophy is lead by example. So most morning’s I’m usually down in the lobby, greeting students and staff. And we have a vocabulary term of the day, so I’m saying ‘Good morning’ and screaming vocabulary words at them. So they understand where my focus is and the staff sees that, that I’m all about, not only on a personal level connecting with people, but I’m here to deal with vocabulary language.
I also implemented a new policy called "Fashion Dollars" where students' good behavior — not only good social behavior [like holding the door open], but academic behavior [like making reference to information from another class] — we give them actually a monetary currency called “Fashion Dollars,” and then they can redeem those dollars for prizes.
We have a very active advisory board, so we get donations from the fashion industry, or we buy pens or memory sticks for computers. And the kids can redeem their fashion dollars on Fridays. So there I am, in the lobby, saying, ‘Happy Fashion Dollar Friday!’ So I think I’m very hands-on and I think people see that I’m very dedicated. And that hopefully motivates them."
Q: Have there been any other major changes?
DB: "This was a very successful school for a very long time, so for a lot of things, it’s just more of a continuation. There’s a whole philosophy here where we sort of pass the baton. Teachers become assistant principals and assistant principals become principals and I think a lot of the staff, we have a very stable staff, so everybody feels a lot of ownership in it and a lot of pressure to keep the school as it is. I have the baton right now, so I’m making sure I don’t drop it."
Q: If you could be Schools Chancellor for a day, what would you do?
DB: “If I were Schools Chancellor I would raise teachers’ salaries and, in return for the larger salaries, I’d make a longer school day. I wouldn’t necessarily make the day have more classes for teachers, but give more times for teachers to meet and collaborate.
I think the biggest challenge in terms of of all these mandates, whether from the state or national level, is that teachers just don’t have enough time to collaborate and be professional. You’re teaching your five classes a day, you’re planning, you’re making copies, you’re doing all these things.... . And there’s just not enough time. And I think if you raised teacher salaries, which coincided with more time to be collegial, I think that would go a long way."
Q: How have the budget cuts impacted Fashion Industries?
DB: “Every year, they chop off another three to four percent and, you know, that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. And they want more from you. So you’ve just got to do more with less and you’ve got to be very creative. We have one less guidance counselor this year and we lost our parent coordinator this year. So, you know, we’ve tried to deal with the budget cuts. We’ve actually increased the number of teaching positions. But it just makes it harder.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve probably had over a million dollars cut. So that’s just bigger class size, less guidance counselors. So it starts to add up. And if they keep doing it, I don’t know how people are going to do their jobs."
Read more of DNAinfo.com's Principal Of The Week interviews here.