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Inwood Principal Uses Art and Music to Inspire Students

By Nigel Chiwaya | February 25, 2013 7:54am

INWOOD — When Maureen Guido was offered the chance to open a new elementary school in Inwood nine years ago, the Brooklyn native knew which principles would guide her. First, the mother of three wanted to make sure that she offered her students an education that was as good or better than what her own children received on Long Island. Second, Guido wanted to focus on the arts.

Those goals have remained with Guido through her nine years as principal at P.S. 278/Paula Hedbavny, which to this day uses the arts to supplement traditional education.

"I felt very strongly that we needed to create an atmosphere where children can feel successful in all walks of education," said Guido, who previously worked as a fourth-grade teacher, literacy staff developer and assistant principal at P.S. 192.

Students are exposed to the arts almost immediately at P.S. 278. Kindergartners are taught to play the keyboard as part of the school's "Music on the Brain" program, and they even have recitals.

"By the end of second grade, they're pretty good," Guido stated excitedly.

Younger students are also introduced to dance classes that are run in partnership with the 92nd Street Y, and all children in the 527-student K-8 school take weekly art and music classes.

Children in grades 1-8 take part in weekly "enrichment clusters" — 90-minute small-group activities, such as song practice, that Guido said are based on the students' and teachers' interests.

The arts focus does not come at the expense of academics. P.S. 278 is a consistently high-performing school, and the school has scored A grades on both of the city's most recent progress report cards. Guido credits the school's success to the well-rounded curriculum.

"I always look for programs that will make children happy and be successful and give them strategies for when things are a little more difficult," she said.

"A child may not be great in [science], but if they are taking a dance class, we tie that in with science. So maybe she'll remember something because we're dancing the water cycle."

Q: Why did you become a teacher?
MG: I love teaching; I love working with children. School didn't come that easy to me — I was a student who really had to work. Especially math. I just had a tremendous amount of patience with children and I knew that I could probably make a difference.

Q: You said that you wanted your school to be as good as your children's out on Long Island. What were other city schools lacking?
MG: I wasn't really worried about what other schools were not doing; I knew what I wanted my school to look like. I knew that I wanted to have an emphasis on the arts. I knew that I wanted to have in place support for children that were struggling, and I knew that I really wanted a place where parents could feel that they were an important partnership.

Q: A lot of what you hear in the news is that art programs and music programs are being slashed from schools. How are you able to make it work here?
MG: I sort of zero in on what's important. The arts are very important to me because as I said before, children have gifts in many areas, and it's the job of the school to highlight them.

I have now only the 92nd Street Y here as a residency. I would have to have the cluster teachers in something; I choose to have them in art and music, as well as in writing, but that's not a position I would cut. I fund those two teachers because I think it's very important for the students.

The 92nd Street Y is extra, it's an additional thing, but certainly it's a partnership worth working hard to get and maintain.

Q: You've mentioned that it's important to instill manners in students. Insideschools.org said that some constraints seems "overly formal." What's your response to that?
MG: I don't think they're overly formal. To be perfectly honest, I think it's very nice if I walk into a room and students say, "good morning."

To me, it's just training children to be thoughtful, to look behind you when you open a door. It's just about being cordial and respectful. But we have lots of fun and we laugh a lot. It's not really a stuffy place.

Q: What's your vision for the school going forward?
MG: My vision going forward is to have more advanced coursework, particularly in the middle school. Right now we have a regents track in math — which my math teachers have written the curriculum for. And we're looking in terms of doing some more advancement in terms of ELA (English Language Arts) and science.

But at the same time you have to balance that with the needs of the children that are in your school. You want to be able to push the mainstream children to higher levels and at the same time support your students who are having a little bit of a difficult time.