UPPER WEST SIDE — More than three decades after he was educated at Catholic schools in the Bronx, P.S. 75 principal Bob O'Brien is still strongly influenced by his experiences there.
As head of the 650 student, K-5 P.S. 75 on West End Avenue and West 96th Street, O'Brien strives to make his school a richly diverse environment, the way his Catholic high school was. But he also wants school to be a welcoming, stimulating place — essentially the opposite of his Catholic elementary school, where classes of up to 60 chidren mostly sat at their desks and learned out of workbooks.
"For me it's important that kids have a humane and happy experience at school," O'Brien said. "That doesn’t mean without challenges, that doesn’t mean without having to work hard, but it does mean that school should be a fun, enjoyable, stimulating place to go."
After 15 years, O'Brien still calls being principal of P.S. 75 his "dream job."
Q: Where did you grow up?
In the Bronx. I went to St. Helena elementary and Cardinal Hayes High School in the South Bronx.
At St. Helena's, I had 60 kids in a class if you can believe that. I'm probably in that last generation of typical Catholic school kids. It was very unlike the way schools are now. It was a lot of kids in the same room and you might have an 18-year-old nun, or a 90-year-old nun. Largely it was seat work. You'd do a lot of workbooks. Rote memorization was prized. Handwriting was prized. So it was a very different experience. It was rote learning and large groups where you can't really be known by the teacher, no matter how well-meaning.
Q: Has that experience influenced how you approach your job now?
Yes of course. It wasn't a great experience. For me it's important that kids have a humane and happy experience at school. That doesn't mean without challenges, that doesn't mean without having to work hard, but it does mean that school should be a fun, enjoyable, stimulating place to go. It shouldn't be a place that you don't want to go to because either it's a lot of work, or because it seems to be not too meaningful, or because your little wool suit itches.
Q: Did you have a favorite teacher?
My third grade teacher was amazing. She was the first teacher that ever did reading groups, and she was the first teacher I remember actually teaching math. We loved her. She made school make sense. My recollection as an 8-year-old is that we felt she liked us. We felt she cared about us and we felt we were learning. That was a wonderful experience.
Fast forward 15 years. I'm walking out of the District 11 office and in comes this other person and it's her. She was a special education supervisor in the public school system. She was still a sister, but she had pursued an education degree. She ultimately became a principal. It was wonderful because I knew her as an 8-year-old and then I knew her as an adult. Her name was Sister Carol Valentino.
Q: What was your best subject in school?
Writing. I really liked writing. It was an opportunity to have a more creative bent.
Q: Do you still write?
Actually, I just wrote a short story last year. We’ll see if it goes anywhere. But I didn’t do it to go anywhere. I had an idea and I just was compelled to write it.
Q: You've said being principal is your dream job. Why is it such a good fit for you?
What makes it a good match for me is, this job allows me to have a match between my belief system and what I want to do professionally.
I really believe in diversity. I really believe in the mission of the school to create a diverse environment — economically, academically, ethnically. In every way you can think of, this school is a diverse school.
I feel strongly about making a special education program that serves students and doesn’t segregate them and label them and treat them as lesser. I think we've done that. Having [worked previously as] a special education supervisor, it was very important to me to create a model that didn't unnecessarily stigmatize children and yet still gave them the service they needed.
I also really believe the arts are a cornerstone of what a good schooling is. I'm particularly proud of what we've been able to do, essentially on a shoestring, in terms of creating a coherent K-5 art program that's systemic, that builds on itself, and is entirely supported by the entire community. It's not a cluster program. The art teachers teach the art with the teachers in the room. The teachers contribute to making the art and extending the art.
These are things that I feel very strongly about and I feel very fortunate to have a job where things I believe in, I’m able to make happen.
Q: How has P.S. 75 changed since you became principal?
It got bigger. [We added] arts and a dual language program. We created an inclusive program for special needs students. Students with disabilities are not singled out, they're not made to appear different or in any way stigmatized, but they get their needs served within the context of Gen. Ed. classes.
[We've] strengthened the curriculum. I very much believe in the Common Core. Teachers have embraced the Common Core. The teachers are writing the units of study, they're invested in making them make sense. The kids are just eating it up. I think that's been a very smart part of the new standards. It's really all about helping kids think on a deeper level and the teachers have really embraced that.
If there's one reason I've been there 15 years, it's because [P.S. 75 has] an amazing parent population. Obviously 15 years later it's a different group of parents, but the parent population here has been consistently supportive of serving all of the students. It's not a P.A. that has ever, ever, ever asked me to do something special for that kid or those kids. It was always about what [all] the children need.
[They're] incredibly generous. They shared the vision of what the school could be. I feel incredibly fortunate to have landed here. It's my dream school and part of the reason it's my dream school is you would dream of having a customer base that really gets what we're doing and really wants to co-create it with us. It's really been one of the things that I've treasured in the time I've been here.
I also have an amazing group of teachers who do amazing work.
Q: You've talked a lot about your commitment to diversity. Is there something in your background that made that an important value for you?
I went to high school at Cardinal Hayes in the South Bronx. Even though it was a Catholic school, it was a really diverse environment. There were representatives of all of New York in this one school. As a 14-year-old I took the subway every day from Parkchester down to 125th Street, then changed for the 4 or the 5 up to 149th Street/Grand Concourse. There were kids there that were very poor, there were kids that were non-native speakers [of English], there were kids there that came from the whole range of experiences. That had a tremendous effect on me. It was just a really good experience.
Q: What makes P.S. 75 different from other schools?
A: When you come in our building, you feel welcome. You feel like this is a place that's good for children. You feel that we want you to be here, even as a visitor, or customer, or student, or as a teacher, we want you to be there.
That openness to the larger community is something I think you feel. What I tell parents when they go on the tours is, you know within 30 seconds whether it's a place that you want your kid. Your gut tells you when you walk in a building whether it's the right place or not.
I have a very vivid memory of my first year as a staff developer, when we had to go out to schools in the Bronx. I walked into this school in the Bronx — not in a terrible area — and immediately it felt oppressive. I walked into the office and the secretary said: "You can go to the teacher's lounge, but don't drink any coffee, because that’s for us." It went downhill from there.
My point being, I felt it the second I walked in the door, but I didn’t know what I was feeling. It was confirmed for me thereafter that the ethos is in the atmosphere. You either get the feeling that 'this is the place that I can see my kid going or I could see myself working in', or you don't.