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Muscota New School Principal Camille Wallin Builds Community in Inwood

By Carla Zanoni | December 19, 2011 7:32am

INWOOD — When Principal Camille Wallin thinks of what makes Muscota New School PS 314 a progressive teaching environment, she focuses on its holistic approach to learning and the sense of community it provides for the students and their families.

"I think of Muscota as being a little beacon of hope in a stormy sea," she said of the school, whose name is a Lenape Native American word that means "place in the reeds."

"We’re very mindful and respectful of community, everyone here has a voice."

Wallin likes to say that the curriculum is one based on molding the physical, social, creative and academic components of students through classroom learning and yearly traditions, such as the school’s Mad Hatter Parade and Ball for Halloween, which builds learning experiences for the whole family.

"There is not one family that doesn’t have hopes and dreams," she said. “We all get on the same page of what we want for our children, and get to work."

Wallin, 44, grew up in Chicago where she attended Catholic schools as a child and St Mary’s College in Winona, Minn., for college. She now lives in Tenafly, New Jersey, with her husband and children, Amber and Dylan, who attend public school.

What was your best subject?

Language Arts.

What's the school project you are most proud of?

In my grade school, each grade always performed a short play for a Christmas show. We also had a drama club where we performed a Shakespeare play, and part of the 8th grade curriculum was a final musical. I didn’t always have the lead or the most important role in the plays, but I loved performing and I liked helping everyone work together to make the show great. Drama and performances were always a time when I was motivated to do my best. I worked very hard.

Did you ever get in trouble?

Not really, the rules and expectations for behavior were very clear throughout my schooling. Talking or wiggling on the line could have severe consequences in my grade school so I learned early how to stay clear of trouble in school.

Did you ever fail a test?

Yes, in fourth grade I failed a multiplication test because it was timed and I wasn’t prepared. I got to take it over the following week.  I also remember getting Ds or maybe even an F on a few algebra tests freshman year of high school.  My sister was forced to tutor me, and I had to study more.

Were you good at sport?

No not really, I was a dancer and a pretty good gymnast as a kid.

Is there a teacher or principal you had that stands out?

I was fortunate to have had many great teachers. My fourth grade teacher was so kind and creative. I remember how much interest she took in your art work, and how she was always nurturing creativity. She never spoke harshly to anyone ever. I remember my 7th grade teacher, she was very strict, and a stickler for organization, neat hand writing and using the right color pen. We read “To Kill A Mockingbird” in her class. It’s still one of my favorite books.

Sister Mary Wasznicki was my grade school principal. I remember her and think about her a lot now that I’m a principal. She had a great sense of humor, boundless energy and was always cheerful.

When did you decide to become a teacher and then a principal?

I became a principal after joining the Leadership Academy in 2004. I was a literacy coach, and it was the first year of the Leadership Academy. The chancellor believed that we could improve education if we focused on the principal and developing great leaders.  After a summer intensive and year long residency, I became a principal in 2005.

How did you decide that you wanted to lead the school?

I was very fortunate to be offered the job of principal at Muscota. I had already been a principal for six years and I was thrilled to be offered a job with a philosophy and values that are so close to my own.  Muscota has unique history with a very special mission. It was an honor to be asked to lead it.

How has the school changed since you've become principal?

I think about what has remained the same — our commitment to progressive values and practices, our desire to have meaningful relationships and partnerships with our families, our willingness to keep learning and growing.

There have been changes in our curriculum. We are constantly revising and modifying our curriculum to ensure that it is engaging, rigorous and meaningful to kids. We are building up the arts program and we are integrating more technology.

What is the most important thing that you want students graduating the school to have learned?

I want them to have learned that they are unique and special and that their voice should be heard. I want them to learn to care for themselves, others and their community. Our school motto is "Turn the World Around." I want them to learn that they can do that and that we believe in them.

What makes this school different from other schools?

Muscota is a very special school. It was founded by parents and teachers who wanted to give children an opportunity to learn through play. The school was built on the premise that our job was to nurture kids' natural desire to learn and sense of wonder. We have maintained those practices so children are free to explore, direct their own learning and play. We also value the social, emotional, physical and creative development of each child as much as we value the academic development. We think about our curriculum and instructional activities from a whole child perspective. This makes us different because recess is just as important as test prep. 

What do you want the school to look like in five years? 

In five years, I would like to see Muscota become a K-8 school. I don’t think there are many progressive middle schools. It is not easy to promote and maintain certain progressive teaching practices in a culture of high stakes testing  Muscota is uniquely situated to create a progressive middle school.

Muscota is skilled at developing opportunities for students to deepen their thinking and understanding of specific content without compromising peer to peer collaboration, student initiative or the playful nature of learning.  

If you could be Schools Chancellor for a day, what would you do or change?

I think being School Chancellor is probably a very difficult job.  I don’t think I would want to do that job.  I guess I would try to help principals get away from operational and budgetary responsibilities and spend more time talking to teachers about their hopes and dreams for their students. 

Who's the student that you believe you've had the most impact on?

I think about one boy in particular I knew well. He was in first grade when I first became principal in the Bronx. He was aggressive, angry and defiant. He was in a special education class when I arrived.

Throughout my years as principal in the Bronx, the teachers and I changed how special education services were delivered to students. We also looked closely at which children were being referred to special education and what the expectations were for their academic achievement.

When this little boy was in third grade we began to mainstream him into the regular classroom. It was a tremendous amount of work, and not everyone believed it was the right decision to move him out of the special education classrooms.

I remember how many conversations I had with him, how many teachers worked with him to change his attitude and his expectations of himself as a student.  He ended up getting level 4’s on both the ELA and Math state assessments by fifth grade and he was declassified as a special education student before leaving for middle school.  He was able to apply to middle school as a high achieving student. I know that made an impact on his future path.