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Successful P.S. 40 Is a 'Work in Progress,' Principal Says

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — P.S. 40 is one of Bedford-Stuyvesant's most successful schools, rising to within the 93rd percentile of city elementary schools, according to its latest progress report from the Department of Education.

Despite that success, principal Leonie Hibbert isn't in the business of bragging.

"I like to keep a low profile," said Hibbert, who has been principal of the school at 265 Ralph Ave. for 12 years. "I feel as though we need to be in a better place. So even though we're being dubbed a wonderful school because we're compared to schools in our peer horizon, my expectations are really that we should be at another performance level."

That's part of Hibbert and P.S. 40's overarching philosophy: there is no one set goal, just ever-changing expectations on the part of the principal, teaching staff and administration.

To the George Washington Carver school, every success brings new challenges.

"It's part of the reason I don't always welcome that kind of publicity and exposure," Hibbert said. "Because when we're really compared to schools on the state level, and on the national level, where we really, really ought to be, there's much room for improvement."

Q: As the principal of a fairly successful school how do you go about trying to make those improvements?

A: Many, many ways. Through weekly professional development, allowing teachers time to plan together and to look at children's work. Providing an environment that is caring, having a school that's clean and orderly and having good relationships with the parents and community at large. So we really try to address it through a number of different angles, but it's really a work in progress, trying to get children to work at a level to be able to go out and compete.

Q: Can you talk about how you've seen the neighborhood and school environment change in your 12 years, and some of the issues you've had to face in that time?

A: The environment has clearly changed for the better. We don't have incidents. My kids are rambunctious, of course, at times, but our incidents are low. 

We share the building with a high school, so parents are always concerned about 4-year-olds being in the building with 22-year-olds, so that's another piece of the challenge. [But] the principal upstairs and I, we really have a good relationship. Their behaviors are distinct to who they are and where they are, and I try to have a different grip on how my children present themselves. We wear uniforms, we don't wear shorts during the warmer months. We look at how the children carry themselves. So right away there's a dichotomy.

But I must say that, compared to my first year in the school, as a school in need of improvement, we've been in good standing since. So clearly we've moved to a level where we are proud to come to P.S. 40 but in the real scheme of things I'd clearly like to see us outperform ourselves.

Q: How do you keep parents involved?

A: We have monthly school leadership team meetings, and parents are always invited. We have learning activities, like math night, or a workshop night to help parents understand the nuances of the test or the new common core standards so they're better able to help children navigate the system.

We also have a wonderful after-school program. The children are always involved in activities around art and music and dance and theater, so parents are always coming out to support these events with their participation or just their presence. It makes for a really nice community, because even though we look at academic issues, we also look at social issues, we look at events where family members can just come out and be part of the community.

Q: What would you say are the school's strongest attributes?

A: The collaboration amongst staff. The urgency and the seriousness about moving every child, helping every child progress. I think we take it very seriously. [We're] using all of the resources that are out there to plan lessons that are not always satisfying the common core curriculum, and getting children to meet those standards.

Q: What kind of resources are you using?

A: We work through a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which is teaching children appropriate behavior on Monday morning, and as they demonstrate those skills in behavior throughout the week, they're rewarded with what we call a Carver dollar, named for George Washington Carver. The children cash their money in on Friday for school supplies. So we address behavioral issues on one level. Just have everyone in the building having a good relationship with children, so that they're comfortable coming to school.

We pull resources from everywhere. When we plan a lesson we may find that one resource satisfies the need, but we have to add another piece or another idea or strategy. We take all of the rubric and all the criteria from exemplars, things that work, and just put it in one place so we're meeting the needs of kids. It's different, and every day we realize how much we really don't know, but that's a good thing. Because if we acknowledge what we don't know we're able to dig a little deeper.

I believe it's a partnership with the teachers. The teachers have to buy in, in order to make it work. The teachers must want to do it for the children. They must see the value of helping children succeed, and really want to help children, so it's not just a paycheck. I think that's where we are. Their heart is in it.

Q: You talked about school improvement as an ongoing process. Going forward, how do you hope to see the school grow?

A: I'd like to see more of my children performing at grade level. And of course technology is a big piece of our program, and we want our children to be able to become more competent at using technology in their lives. Having them use it to improve themselves, personally, based on what they know through the various software programs that we use. I'd certainly like to have our school attendance improve. Those are some of the things we're looking [at].

One of the things we really had to work on was infusing the arts into our program, and that's been challenging because our budget doesn't always allow for that. The arts after-school program is a component that has worked for us, and we've developed our own enrichment program. Teachers are engaged in teaching the arts just to make sure everyone is receiving the standards around arts they should be getting.

But the more we improve the more I would like to see us improve. It's always a work in progress.