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Rego Park Principal Aims to Prepare Students for Job Market

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | October 7, 2013 7:41am
 Vincent Suraci, principal of J.H.S. 157
Vincent Suraci, principal of J.H.S. 157
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DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

QUEENS — When Vincent Suraci took over J.H.S. 157 Stephen A. Halsey in Rego Park eight years ago, he changed the entire curriculum and the focus of the school.

Suraci, 44, believes that preparing students for the current job market and developing their individual talents should be the school’s main goal.

After his reorganization of the curriculum, each student is required to choose a talent area — drama, band, chorus, fine art and technology — which they develop during their time at the school. Students from District 28 who are not zoned for the school may also audition for the school's performing arts programs.

This year, J.H.S. 157 was also chosen as one of 20 schools in the city to participate in a new software engineering pilot program, part of a citywide initiative to boost technology education in schools.

The grant that the school received from the Department of Education will allow the course to be taught in one class for the next three years.

But Suraci said he wants the school, which has scored an “A” grade on the Department of Education’s progress report overview three times in the past four years, to expand the program to all technology classes at some point.

Suraci, born and raised in Queens in an Italian family, said his goal is also to cultivate the diversity of the school where children speak more than 60 languages.

He graduated from Queens College with degrees in English and secondary education.

Q. The school did not have the best reputation in the past. It has changed since you became principal. What have you done to improve the school's performance?

A. When the school was built in the 1940s, preparing students for the workforce meant metal shops and wood shops, and the trades, which were part of the teaching at school. Now we are looking at what do the kids need in preparation for today’s job market: they need science, mathematics and technology.

But when I got here, there was no real plan to incorporate an arts or technology program. So we designed the curriculum where — when students are coming in the sixth grade — they audition for or select, based on an interest survey, what "talent'" they would like to participate in. And that talent becomes their three-year course work.

The kids can excel in their talent and that may lead them to a career in that area or a specialized program in a specialized high school. It took some time to put that together but at the end of our three-year cycle, we have students that get into schools like LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts or Frank Sinatra School of the Arts because of their art portfolio or their singing audition.

Q. The school has also scored an “A” grade on the Department of Education’s progress report overview three times in the past four years.

 Student return to J.H.S. 157 Stephen A. Halsey in Rego Park.
Student return to J.H.S. 157 Stephen A. Halsey in Rego Park.
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DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

A. We are definitely proud of that. But as far as the tests themselves, I tell my teachers and our students that we are here not to teach to the tests. We are here to teach the critical thinking, the reading and writing — the skills that will enable you to do well on that exam. So we don’t do much test prep until a couple of weeks before the exam. I believe that tests serve a certain purpose but it’s not the only measure of the child’s learning.

Q. The school’s curriculum places a great importance on arts.

A. Music was very important in my home, when I was growing up. I started playing guitar when I was 6 or 7 and I played trumpet in the middle school. I still play it to this day, not as my career but as a pastime that I really enjoy. And I want the kids to at least get an understanding for the world of art and music, how it ties into history and why it’s important for us to be aware of that culturally.

And if they want to continue it and turn it into a lifelong interest, that’s great.

Q. This year J.H.S. 157 was also chosen as one of 20 schools in the city to participate in a new software engineering pilot program. How were you selected?

A. We applied for the grant online, through the Department of Education. We’ve already had a technology program for our students. Kids in that program, that we began to built about six to seven years ago, learn programming and how to design their own video games, how to design their own programs. We always felt that there was a need for it and it was part of our philosophy to prepare them for today’s workforce.

As part of the new program, the kids will be working with programs such as Scratch, Lego Robotics, Arduino Kids, Paper Circuits and Mobile apps. It will also enable us to introduce coding, programming and other areas of technology. The grant allows the school to teach the program in one class for the next three years, but I hope to expand the program to at least five classes.

Q. What brought you into the field of education?

A. I grew up in Whitestone, Queens. My parent came from Calabria in Italy and didn’t speak English. My father worked in construction and my mother worked in the dry cleaner as a presser. They worked 16 hours a day. They may not have been able to help us with our homework but what they wanted for us was the opportunity for a better life and the only way was through education. If we asked them for a pair of sneakers, they would said ‘no,’ need a textbook? — ‘absolutely, no problem.’

I was the oldest of four children and was given most responsibility. So I cared for my younger brothers and sisters in that regard. I always felt that connection to teaching. I really enjoyed coaching kids' soccer, baseball and basketball and was volunteering to do it in my old schools and my local community.

I started as an English teacher at I.S. 73 in Maspeth, then I became an assistant principal in Corona in District 24. From there I became a principal here about eight year ago. So all my career was in Queens, within 3 miles (laughing).