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Principal Jean McTavish Prepares 'Hard to Reach' Kids for College

Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School marks its 40th birthday on May 1, 2012 with a community celebration.
Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School marks its 40th birthday on May 1, 2012 with a community celebration.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — Principal Jean McTavish sometimes describes the students at Edward A. Reynolds West High School as "hard to reach and hard to teach."

The 550-student school on West 102nd Street between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues, is an alternative transfer high school that serves students aged 17 to 21-years-old who've had trouble finishing high school for various reasons.

Some have been in jail, some have been pregnant, some are HIV positive, some have lost parents to crime or violence.

"We have every kind of possible issue that you can imagine here," McTavish said. "Just about any problem that you can think of that's associated with poverty."

McTavish's goal is to instill students with self confidence and the belief that they can do anything they set their minds to. Teachers prepare kids for college by focusing on traditional academics while also helping students build positive, trusting relationships with adults.

Students frequently return to the school to tell teachers and administrators what a difference West Side High made in their lives, McTavish said.

On May 1, the public is invited to mark the school's 40th birthday with a community celebration featuring performances by current and former students, food, awards, and shared stories of the school's past. "What we want to do is have a kind of convocation where we really, as a community past and present, renew our commitment to the mission of the school," McTavish said.

McTavish, 50, has been principal at West Side for 11 years. She grew up in Ridgewood, N.J. where she attended public schools. She received a bachelor's degree in cultural anthropology, and master's degrees in education and special education. She was once an aerobics instructor and teaches spin — an exercise cycling class — three times a week at 7 a.m. for which students can receive gym credit. She's the mother of two boys, 9 and 13.

Q: What was your best subject in school, when you were growing up?

Probably English. I've always been fascinated with people, so I enjoyed reading fiction. I enjoy poetry and people's artistic expression about how they see the world.

Q: When you were in school was there a project that you were particularly proud of?

As an undergraduate, I wrote a 130-page thesis about African-American fiction and the American dream that I defended in front of three professors. It took me a year to do. I would say I’m pretty proud of the fact I was able to do that.

Q: Did you ever get in trouble when you were in school and why?

I was a model student in terms of my grades. My teachers loved me. I smiled and nodded my head all the time in class. I did my homework, I studied for tests. But I did manage to rebel in other ways.

One time I got in trouble in homeroom because a group of friends and I refused to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Our homeroom teacher was a World War II veteran with some very strong convictions about the United States and politics. We had a different interpretation, so decided we would prove a point one day. He just about blew a gasket. He went around to each of us, yelling, “Why won’t you stand up?"

When he got to me, I said, "Because there's not liberty and justice for all."

After that we had to go to the assistant vice principal’s office for four or five days until they could figure out what they were going to do, either with us or with him. Sure enough, we got a new homeroom teacher who managed us better.

Q: When did you decide to become a teacher?

I had gone to Jamaica and was doing field research in anthropology in graduate school. I married a guy I met in Jamaica. I needed a job to be able to support us. There was the ad in the New York Times for a summer program to become a teacher. I had done some substitute teaching as graduate student and I was also an aerobics instructor and my mom said, "Hey look they have this [summer training program for teachers] and it's a guaranteed $20,000 starting in September." So I said, "OK, I could try that." And 26 years later, here I am.

My first year of teaching I was assigned to a school out in East New York that was at a District 75 junior high school for emotionally handicapped students. I had a crash course at Bank Street College, I did my student teaching, and then, totally unprepared, I went to East New York, to these kids. All I knew was how to make a family, and how to develop relationships, the way I learned from my mom.
The school had a behavior modification system where the students had to earn points. I added on to the points system by telling my students that if they all earned all their points every day all week, that every Friday I would take them out for lunch. So I had the best-behaved class in the whole school.

Principal Jean McTavish of Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School says her goal is to prepare "hard to reach, hard to teach" students for college.
Principal Jean McTavish of Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School says her goal is to prepare "hard to reach, hard to teach" students for college.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

But my teaching skills were horrendous. Those poor kids. They learned that year that they could conduct themselves appropriately in a classroom and that there wasn’t anything wrong with them. But I'm not sure they learned too much reading and math, which is criminal, on a level.

I learned there that my students misbehaved because of the circumstances in their lives. I had one young man whose mom was a crack addict. She sometimes disappeared and didn’t come home for days at a time and there wouldn’t be food in the refrigerator. He was angry. Occasionally we would get a hold of the mom and she would come in and she really loved him desperately. You could tell she wanted to be a better mom but she was just so strung out on crack. Each student had a story that made what the DSM-IV would call "insane" behavior, but it really was just a response to some insane circumstances in their lives.

Q: Who does Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School serve?

I sometimes refer to our students as "hard to reach, hard to teach kids".  We serve students who are predominantly 17 to 21, African-American, Latino. We have one or two Asian kids, one or two white kids. Many have a history of school problems.

We have every kind of possible issue that you can imagine here. We have kids that have been incarcerated and are coming back [to school], kids who have been in rehab and are coming back, kids who have had babies coming back, kids who’ve been pushed out of their schools because their principals are afraid that they’re not going to make [state and federal accountability standards], kids who became truant because they were afraid at school because they were bullied, kids whose parents have passed away, kids who themselves are HIV positive, whose parents and family died of AIDS, kids whose parents are mentally ill, kids who are raising themselves, kids whose parents have left them here and returned to the Dominican Republic. Just about any problem that you can think of associated with poverty.

Q: What’s the most important thing you want students graduating the school to have learned?

That they’re capable of doing anything that they set their minds to.

Q: How do you send them that message?

By designing educational experiences in which they can experience success. We have to re-train a lot of kids. A lot of kids have been beaten down over the course of their lives in schools and they’re so mistrustful of adults and of learning.

I had a boy yesterday, he’s 18 or 19-years-old, and he didn’t know how to use a yard stick to measure. He didn’t believe he could do it because he thought it was too hard.

Some of our kids have just missed a lot of instruction. And then we have other kids who are brilliant, and how they fell through the cracks of the public school system, I will never know. Their self-esteem has been a little defeated. They all need to leave with a self-confidence.

We do that through academics and we also do that through a class called family group. It's a group guidance class where kids develop a strong trusting relationship with an adult in the building and from that students began to expand those positive relationships with their peers and other teachers. It’s a retraining of your interaction to school.

Kids call me Jean. We’re all on first name basis. We want students, as soon as they walk in the door, to get the idea that this school experience is going to be different than what they’ve had before.

On May 1, the public is invited to mark the school's 40th birthday with a community celebration.