Each week, DNAinfo.com talks to a principal from one of Manhattan's schools. This week, it's Brendan Lyons, 37, of the High School of Graphic Communication Arts. Budding photographers and artists from all five boroughs come to HSGCA, at 439 W. 49th St., to learn practical, career-focused skills while getting their high school diploma, though the school has had some academic challenges, and was put on a list of "struggling" schools by the Department of Education in November.
Lyons came to the school in September from a job coordinating web-based education programs at the Department of Education's central office, and since then has helped implement several high-tech initiatives at the school, which he's hoping will pull up the school's ranking.
Q: Where are you from, originally?
I was born in New York City, and my parents moved to New Jersey. I went to school out there. Then after that I went to Rutgers, I graduated from Rutgers, moved to NYC, went to NYU — The Institute for Fine Arts — and then became a teacher. During that time I went back and got my administrative degree to be an [assistant principal].
Q: How did you decide you wanted to be a principal at HSGCA?
I was an [assistant principal] for four years in the South Bronx, and it was a very challenging job in a small school. I basically learned a little bit of all of the things you need to do to lead a school, because that's what happens in a small school. At that point, I then took a job at the DOE central office, running online learning for a pilot program. I really like the program, but did not like being away from the students — it was more of an office job. Also, interacting with 125 smart, impressive principals, I realized that I was ready to do the same thing that they were doing. Plus I liked it a lot better than working in an office.
Q: Did you have a favorite subject in school?
I really liked history; social studies, mostly, was my favorite. I was not a very strong math person. I'm re-learning math now along with my 7-year-old son, so it's really interesting to start fresh and this time I'm really going to get through it with him.
Q: Did you have a nickname in school?
I didn't growing up, but since I graduated from high school up until now, I've been very involved in studying an Afro-Brazilian martial art called capoeira. You get a nickname in that, and so my nickname is Grilo.
Q: Is there any teacher or administrator from your childhood that you remember having an influence on you?
My third-grade teacher, Ms. Neenis, who halfway through the year changed her name to Ms. Cassidy because she got married and that threw us all for a loop. She was one of those teachers that got things done by being nice and encouraging you in a way that I always felt like I could go to her. I went to a Catholic school and we had a lot of nuns — they weren't the warmest people in the world, so to go from a nun to this lay teacher was really a good thing for me at that point.
Q: How has this school changed since you started as principal?
In terms of staff, we've really moved forward with helping our teachers and coaching them to get better in the moment rather than saying 'Hey, your kids took the Regent's exam in January, it's now June, and you get tips five months later.' We'd rather give feedback 5 minutes later. So we've done over 300 cycles of observations in the classroom where coaches and coordinators and the APs visit teachers, observe their classroom, and give them targeted feedback based upon what the teacher themselves says they need help with.
We're also accelerating students into online AP courses that we'd never be able to offer here, such as macroeconomics. We're remediating some students and fast-tracking others. There's a need for kids to do credit recovery, but on the other hand, we're preparing our kids for college, and the more access they have to rigorous academic courses, the better.
Q: What's the one thing you want students who have graduated to have learned after four years at this school?
The ideal student would be someone who graduates not only with a Regent's diploma, where they have the same standards that are applicable to all other high school students in New York State, and they have a good knowledge of that, but also we're a Career and Technical Education school, and so the students come here for a specific reason — usually photography or visual arts.
My hope is that they will be able to also graduate with a CTE-endorsed diploma, which means they've done 12 to 16 additional credits in either photography or visual arts, and they graduate as expert-certified in a program like Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, or Illustrator, which are industry standards. That way they can go out into the working world and work with media, advertising, website design. That way, they can make a little money on the side while they're going to college in pursuit of their career. That's my goal, to really create the premier commercial photography and commercial visual arts school in New York City, and we're well on our way towards that, despite having a few years of setbacks.
Q: What sort of goals do you have for the school over the next five years?
I definitely want to expand by 10 to 15 percent our work-based learning program, and so increasing the number of our students who are going out and getting credit for doing work-based learning, working for different graphic design companies.
I also want to develop a subset of our commercial photography and commercial art programs into focusing really on social media and website design, which is an area that we're just beginning to focus resources into. Right now, we just hired a web design teacher who's going to be developing a four-year curriculum so that kids can take pictures, develop pictures and put them on a website for a client.
Q: If you could be Schools Chancellor for a day, what would you do?
That would be cool — I would only want it for a day, but I would then make it a unified day in which all members of the DOE who do not work in a school are assigned to work in a classroom, or work with an assistant principal, or work with a principal, or someone in the school for the entire day. That way the bigger support structure of the DOE has a real understanding of what goes on with a teacher, AP, school psychologist, principal, day-to-day, so that when they make decisions, they have a better understanding of what exactly the impact of that decision will be at the teacher-level.
Read more of DNAinfo.com's Principal Of The Week interviews here.