EAST VILLAGE — Like many first-generation Americans, the opportunity that came from education was everything for Darlene Despeignes.
"My mother and father immigrated from Haiti based on the idea they really wanted their kids to have the advantage of education in America and the freedom and success that comes with that," said Despeignes, 39, the principal of the S.T.A.R. Academy, an elementary school on East Third Street.
The experience turned Despeignes into a focused student who realized having a goal was essential to getting into college and achieving an ambition.
As a reflection of that, the walls of P.S. 63, which recently changed its name from the William McKinley School to S.T.A.R. (Students Taking Active Roles), are lined with the dreams of her current second-graders.
"These students will be graduating college in 2023," said Despeignes, of the statements that were also accompanied by a single and practical step a child can take now to send them in the right direction.
In the wall art, students proclaimed their perfect occupation, such as hairstylist, along with an action plan such as, "read a book of hair styles."
Another second-grader wrote "Dog Walker." The student's first step toward that goal? "Ask my mom for a dog."
"They [students] need to have an idea of what they want to do, what they want to study in college, even in elementary school," said Despeignes, who has about 180 students in the S.T.A.R. Academy.
How did your own education in both private and public schools shape your perception of leading a school?
I spent my whole school education in New York City. I went to Catholic school from first to eighth-grade in Queens Village at St. Joachim & Anne School. I then went to public high school at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens.
It really helped me to see the variety of schools and the different sides of education we have in New York City — the diversity in teachers, in students and in the types of curriculum that is taught. I really feel like I am the product of a great education in New York City.
Now, I think that something as a city we are really focusing on is looking at students in a more holistic way and really teaching kids about the bigger picture. For example in math, you are really problem solving and thinking of it in a real-life situation to solve a problem.
How did a favorite teacher or principal you had stand out?
I am thinking about my high school principal Burt Zuckerman. He also decided to teach a chemistry course in school and I happened to be in that class. I think he really wanted to make sure he had kept his skills as a teacher sharp.
He noticed me in the class and insisted I join the National Honors Society in the school. I told him 'no' and he ended up calling my house and calling my parents. They basically said, 'You are going to do this program. It is not an option.'
Because of that, I ended up being in the society that led to being in a gifted-and-talented program in the school. It paved the way to applying to schools I never thought I could get into. It led to a different pathway for my life that I didn't’ know was open to me.
He [Zuckerman] is just a symbol to me of how a principal can really impact one individual student. I think sometimes we feel like we impact students in the dozens, in the hundreds, in the thousands, but you can make an impact on just one.
What is one of the ways the S.T.A.R. Academy is different from other schools?
We have a lot of professional development for teachers, so teachers are constantly learning about what is going on in the profession — workshops, summer classes, development inside the school.
I think teachers are comparable to doctors and lawyers — we have a process where we are constantly asked to study outside our workspace. Even something as simple as technology, knowing how to use an iPad, knowing what a blog is, the idea of social media, twitter and emailing, teachers need to keep abreast on that sort of thing.
In September, the name of P.S. 63 changed from the William McKinley School to the S.T.A.R. Academy – Students Taking Active Roles. Why the name change?
I think we have changed in many ways by really creating an identity in the community, knowing that we are a school that really wants to be part of the neighborhood.
I think the name change helps people in the neighborhood know what our school is about and know what we believe in. P.S. 63 doesn't really identify who we are as a school. It [the name change] is something that the teachers, parents and students helped to develop over time.
Other than the name change, how has the S.T.A.R Academy changed since you became principal?
The last five years I was thinking about how we didn't have music and we didn't have dance. We want the kids to have an idea of what they want to be when they grow up and without the opportunity to dance or play music or try different sports in gym — we didn't have gym before, either — you don't know what you want to be when you grow up and you can't plan for it.
Our job as teachers is to figure out what those talents are in our students and to use that as motivation to say 'OK, if that is what you want to be when you grow up, that is who you want to be in 2023, you are 7 years old, what is the plan? What are you doing to get there? What do we need to do to make that happen?' and that is our job as teachers.