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Principal Focuses on College Prep for Students With Emotional Challenges

By Nicholas Rizzi | June 17, 2013 8:11am
 The Staten Island charter school focuses on college preparation for students with mental illnesses.
John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School
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BLOOMFIELD — When Evelyn Finn signed on to be principal of the John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School in 2005, she and the board had one goal in mind.

Finn, who worked for the Department of Education as a principal and special education teacher, joined the school because of its focus on children with emotional challenges.

She said the school wanted to flip the notion that those students had low test scores.

“The old false impression that ... [these] kids do not achieve high scores we find is not necessarily true,” Finn said. “And that was our premise to start with.”

Finn was not always on board to lead the school, having just retired from being a principal with the DOE for 15 years and wanting a break from being the head of a school.

However, the charter’s founder, Dr. Ken Byalin, kept getting Finn to attend events for the school, and eventually she decided to accept the position.

“He asked me if I would be the principal and I said ‘absolutely not, I’ve done that’” she said. “Then he said, ‘can you just go to a few meetings,” and I said ‘that I can do.’ Then I was hooked.”

After a four year charter process, the school finally opened its doors to their first sixth-grade class in 2009 and became the borough’s first charter school.

Since then, Finn and the school has added one more grade to the school, at the Teleport Communications Park in Bloomfield, and plans to have students stay all the way until high school, and ultimately see them attend college.

Finn sat down with DNAinfo New York to talk about her school's unique approach and how students can become a principal for a day themselves.

Q. What are some things that sets this school apart from other in Staten Island?

A. We are a college prep primarily that does not discriminate against students with mental illness. Many students in middle school have issues in the regular public schools, and we never want to compete with the wonderful programs that are going on in the regular public schools, but as a former principal of a public school on Staten Island, we found that there were kids who were very bright and could have been college material but needed smaller classes, a special education presence even though the kids might not have been special education, and the assistance of an additional paraprofessional teacher assistant in the classroom.

Many of our kids are coming from schools where they were two, three and even four years behind grade level, so we spend a lot of time with our small classes trying to move them up.

Q. How large are the class sizes?

A. No more than 18, generally 15 in a class. All of our classes are blended special education and general education. We do not have any self-contained classes of special education kids. We feel that the special education kids, if they're going to go to college, must have the accessibility to the same curriculum across the board as the general education kids do.

Q. Why is there such a strong focus on reading and math in the school?

A. Our kids are coming in three and four years behind grade level in some cases. Many of our kids really need that extra support. If you don't get that reading and math down pat, and you don't make your inferences, you don't do that higher order of learning. Could it be that it was poor instruction, or something happened in their life? Whatever it is, we're trying to improve their reading and math scores.

Everything is about English Language Arts and math. History is about reading the history in the content area in American history or the global history. Science is all about reading the science, reading the science experiments to do the science experiments. Even our visual arts teacher is exploring shapes and drawing shapes, that’s geometry.

Q. How does the point system work in the school?

A. Everybody is on a point system. They get points for being on time, getting their work completed. They review the points at the end of the period, so be it special education or general education, you can accumulate up to five points a period. Then we have a point store where you can opt to have lunch with the teacher or little token gifts to buy with your points. We run that as a club, sort of a math club, called the Young Entrepreneurs. You can have a dress down day, you can use the elevator, you can be principal for the day. Usually I have one a year that does that.

Q. What's it like getting to start a school from scratch?

A. Not many people get to do this, it's very exciting. I have nearly 34 years in the DOE, in every principalship, all of those experiences, I walked into programs that were already there. Even though you try to be innovative and you bring new programs, it's impossible to bring the whole thing to light because it's been there.