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P.S. 256 Principal Helped Turn Around Failing Bed-Stuy School

 Sharyn Hemphill helped P.S. 256 thrive again just a year after there were fears it might close.
DNAinfo Principal of the Week Sharyn Hemphill
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BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — It was just one year ago that families, teachers and administrators at P.S. 256 were left wondering whether or not they'd even have a school to return to when school started again in September.

After receiving an F on a 2011 Department of Education progress report, the school, at 114 Kosciuszko St., was put on a list of schools slated to close, dropping from a C the year before.

"We all couldn't understand, because all the years prior to that our scores were fine," said Principal Sharyn Hemphill, 61. "Why all of a sudden now?"

Hemphill, who has been principal since 2006 and was math staff developer and assistant principal before that, immediately started forming a plan to help decrease absences and pick up test grades.

The plan worked: last year, P.S. 256's grade jumped from an F to a B. They even received a brand new $400,000 science lab last week.

It's the first of what Hemphill said were many big steps to come.

Q: Can you describe the situation the school was in when you first took over in 2006?

A: The school was pretty much like it is now. We were struggling, we were moving, making some strides. We had a little bump in the road, but we've always been a tight-knit community school. We're like a family here in the building. When you come in you sense the family atmosphere. The kids are in their rooms, ready to learn and do their work. We were like any other school, I guess you can say. Doing whatever we could do to make our kids successful.

Q: So how did the "bump in the road" occur, and how did you react to the news that the school could close?

A: They looked at our scores in 2010-2011. We had dropped our scores of our special needs children, and our English Language Learners. So that impacts the whole school. Since the scores dropped that year, we were identified as a school that was going to be on that list for closure.

One year you stumble and they talk about closing the school. What else did we do wrong? Or what happened that would make you want to put us on that list?

Parents, teachers, we all were very, very much taken aback by this announcement. So we looked at everything. We looked at our attendance: how could we make it even better? We told the parents it was very important. We showed them how throughout the year if a child's out 18 days, that's like a month of school missed. Then we looked at all of the children — not just the ELL and the special needs — but all of the students scores. Where they made gains, where they dropped. We always looked at it, but we looked at it really carefully.

And so what we did was we made sure we gave them extra help before school, after school, and we did a Saturday academy. And so I think with that extra help, and zeroing in on what it was they really, really needed the extra help in, I think it was very beneficial.  And we haven't stopped since.

One of our mottos is by Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." That's what we live by.

Q: How closely do you actually work with parents?

A: We work tightly together. They know pretty much all the aspects of what goes on in the school, and how it works. All the things that go on in the area, they know, I know. I was born and raised in this area, so I know what's going on. I know a lot about the kids, and what goes on in the community. And what I don't know, the parents will let me know.

They're in the building. They're here. We have lots of parent volunteers that help in the building. They participate. Anything for the kids, to help the kids. A lot of them work, but they tend to find that time. That hour, that two hours.

Q: How did the students react when they finally saw the new lab?

A: Their eyes popped. They just couldn't believe it. "Wow, this is for us?" One boy said, "I went with my sister when she was visiting colleges, mommy and daddy and my sister and I," and he said, "I saw stuff like this in the college." It was good to see them realize that this is not something you always see in an elementary school. This is for them, and it's special, and they're special.

Q: What are the school's strongest attributes, and where do you see room for improvement?

A: Our strength is definitely that we're a family school. We're family oriented. A lot of people, when they come in the building, they feel it. They feel the warmth, and they feel the connectedness.

We partner with Columbia University Teachers College, and we have two staff developers come in during the school year to work with my teachers, so that has been a big help academically. We also partner with NYU. They send tutors to work with the teachers in the classroom, so they've been very instrumental too in helping with the students. The relationships we have with some of our local universities are phenomenal. That has been a big help. Hopefully the kids will begin from this time on to move in larger steps, and larger strides, and we can get where we need to be.

And that's where we're moving forward, with the rigor, and the work that the children are doing. That's coming rapidly. We see it in the students. There are kids that are sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting for the teachers to take them to the next step. And that's the piece that we're working on now. That rigor, in order for the kids to be able to make it to college and join the work force. We have some really bright students, and articulate students, and we don't want to deny them or any of the other students the challenge of being pushed forward.

It's not rocket science, but it's definitely taking a close look at where your students are, and trying to improve where they are. Once you fix something they're struggling with, then you work on the next thing. That's what we've been successful with. It's not like we haven't done it before, but you know what? We're doing it better, and smarter, by capturing kids' needs.