UPPER WEST SIDE — Principal Brett Gallini, 35, took the helm of P.S./M.S. 165 in 2010. He says his goal is to make the school, on West 109th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, the focal point of the neighborhood.
He told DNAinfo he’s proud to work at a diverse school that opens its arms to all types of learners.
Gallini grew up in New Jersey, started his teaching career in California and currently lives in Chelsea.
Q: What was your best subject in school?
A: Definitely reading — English language arts. Probably from second grade on, because in kindergarten and first grade I really struggled with it. Then I had a teacher that really excited me about it. Even now, it’s still one of my favorite subjects.
Q: What’s a school project you are most proud of?
A: One year when I was teaching fourth grade in California, we did an entire unit on survival. We studied “The Diary of Anne Frank.” My students got so into it that we created a model of the secret annex. To this day when I speak to some of my former students, they still remember it.
Q: Did you ever get in trouble?
A: Absolutely. I was a good kid in that I always did my homework and my class work. But I was a talker. To this day I tend to be a very social person, and I was constantly being reprimanded for talking. I think every child makes errors from time to time. It’s part of growing up.
Q: Did you ever fail a test?
A: Absolutely. Many. And I think it’s important that our students know that — that we’re not automatically wonderful at anything. I have very open conversations with my students about how I struggled with reading when I was in first grade. I struggled with math well into college.
I think that students need to know that we’re not perfect and we all have our struggles, and we learn ways to learn the material and to progress.
Q: Is there a teacher or principal that you had that stands out, and why?
A: Absolutely. One of them is my first-grade teacher, Alice Maluso. She was incredible. I was not a strong reader in first grade. I struggled, and I pretended to read when I really wasn’t. She picked up on it. She used to keep me in at recess and she would talk to me and find out things that I liked and joke around with me. As she bonded with me, she used that as a springboard to get me excited about reading. I still remember her lessons. If it weren’t for her, I probably would not be a strong reader.
Then I had another teacher in high school that I remember. Her name was Christine Siegel. She was a high school ELA teacher. I remember eating lunch with her almost every day and talking about current issues and things going on in the world, and her encouraging me to go to college and do good things with my life. I remember something she told me. She said that the most important thing in the world is that you feel comfortable in your own skin. And I remember that whenever I deal with children who are going through tough times.
Q. When did you decide to become a teacher and then a principal?
A: I think I always wanted to become a teacher. I remember as a child playing school with my cousin Beth, who’s now a first grade teacher in New Jersey. When I was in college, I just knew from the get-go. I wasn’t a career changer — I just always knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Q: How has the school changed since you became principal?
A: I’ve tried to provide the framework and the structure and the professional development and the materials for great work to happen. But it’s very much a collaborative effort. This building would not be making the huge advances it’s making without the wonderful teachers that we have here.
I have never seen teachers work as hard as they do in this building. I get here at 6:30, 6:40 in the morning, and there are teachers already here. I leave sometimes at 6, 7, 8 at night, and sometimes there are teachers still here. In all my years in education, I’ve never seen a staff work these kind of hours.
Q: What is the most important thing you want students graduating the school to have learned?
A: First and foremost, they need the skills to be successful learners. We need to make sure they’re well versed in the curriculum, well versed in the state standards, and prepared and set up for success.
The second piece is social and emotional. An elementary school has a very important job. It’s not just to teach reading, writing and mathematics, but to also educate the whole child in socialization, social development, being a good citizen and having a sense of purpose.
We have children who are born and raised on the block, we have new arrivals from all over the world, we have children from Central America, New Jersey. We have a family coming in from England. No matter where they come from, they’re here for a reason on this earth. Our children need to understand that they’re incredible human beings that enter this building from all different walks of life, and that is the beauty of P.S. 165.
Q: What makes this school different from other schools?
A: We educate every child that walks into our doors. We offer all different types of programs at the school. We have gifted and talented, we have typically developing classes, we have integrated and co-teaching classes, we have special education self-contained classes, we have a dual language program in English and Spanish where children are learning both languages. We offer the whole spectrum here at our school. We with open arms accept any child that walks through our doors, whether they’re five years ahead of grade level or five years below grade level. We’re very much committed to educating all children. I’m very very proud of that. I don’t believe all schools can say that.
Q: What do you want the school to look like in five years? What are the obstacles to achieving your vision and how will you deal with them?
A: Within five years I want to continue the good work that we’ve started here raising student achievement levels and continuing to guide students toward positive outcomes. I want to expand our parent piece so that we’re even more welcoming to our parents.
We’re on a very clear mission at this school to make P.S./M.S. 165 the focal point of the community — an environment where parents and children are walking in and out and feel safe to be here. We want to be in five years the absolute hub of the community.
Q: If you could be schools chancellor for a day, what would you change?
A: If I were chancellor for a day I would relocate all people who work for the Department of Education, whether they are clerical staff, whether they’re schools chancellor, whether they’re department heads or curriculum directors. Everyone needs to be working in a school.
I think the entire central office should be located in schools and should be working closely with children. Because all people that make decisions for kids needs to be working with kids. If I were chancellor for the day, I would say, ‘Everybody is going to spend the day in schools and being close to kids.’ That’s where you really see all the hard work that we’re doing and what it’s for. Sometimes we get so caught up in all of the work we don’t step back and say, these are our clients, our students.