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Bronx Principal Ellen Flanagan Conducts Research and Cracks Jokes

By Patrick Wall | October 21, 2013 7:32am
 Now the principal of a 6-12 school, Flanagan began her career as a middle school teacher and researcher.
Principal Ellen Flanagan
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MOTT HAVEN — Ellen Flanagan doesn't just educate students, she also studies them.

Now the principal of Mott Haven’s South Bronx Preparatory, Flanagan previously spent a dozen years at P.S. 279 in Tremont, where she conducted her dissertation research on a group of middle-school students as she taught them from grades 5 to 8, then kept tracking them as they progressed through high school.

What she found was that students who had flourished in an intimate middle-school setting sometimes floundered in the crowded world of a large high school, where it was possible to pass an entire day without attracting a teacher’s notice.

While Flanagan was studying her students, she was also rising in her school’s ranks — she advanced from teacher to staff developer to literacy coach to assistant principal, deciding along the way that teachers’ continuing education was no less critical to a school’s success than student learning.

When she became principal of South Bronx Prep in 2007, Flanagan had a chance to put these theories into practice.

A small grade 6-12 school, she could ensure that no students got lost in the shuffle during or after their pivotal middle-school years. And she could also see to it that her team kept learning through collaboration, coaching and observation.

Meanwhile, Flanagan insists that students should love coming to school, so she cracks jokes with kids in the hallway, chats with them about family matters in her office and greets everyone in the morning.

“It’s fun — you get to know them, to see them, to see who has a good haircut,” she quipped. “It’s really hard not interacting with me.”

Q: Middle school often gets a bad rap. Why have you devoted much of your professional life to that age group?

A: Middle school is the second largest growth period of our entire life. After 0-3, 10-13 or 14 is when morally, sexually, ethically, emotionally, socially, the brain is still developing and we are finding out who we are as human beings.

And it is the most overlooked educational period. People go, “Ugh, middle school. I hated that time,” or, “Ugh, those kids.” It’s very looked down upon. Which is ironic, because it’s where you can actually have the largest impact.

Q: What did you find in your research on students’ transition from middle to high school?

A: What I found was, you spend all this work in a K-8 building and you watch them grow. But you have no control once they go to high school.

If our end goal is for them to be successful, I realized that chunk of time was the right amount of time — you needed a sustained time in one setting. But the configuration needed to be reversed: K-8 is good. But 6-12, I can actually have a lifelong impact.

Q: This year, the school system will adopt a teacher-evaluation system that puts a big emphasis on teacher observation. How do you use that to help teachers grow?

A: I think the most important thing that’s happening in this evaluation system is that you've got to make sure you’re having the conversations.

If I go in and simply say, “You’re developing,” or, “You’re effective,” once they get the grade, the conversation sort of stops.

I met with one of my new teachers this morning. I had gone in to do a 15-minute observation. And she wanted to go, “Do you think I was good? Do you think it was good?” And I went, “I’m not going to talk about good or bad.”

Again, that’s me quantifying it. Let’s talk about what you felt about that classroom. What did you see? How did it go for you?

Q: Discussion about teacher evaluation often focuses on bad teachers. Do you think the public has some misperceptions about teachers?

Everyone has an opinion about education — I guess, because we all went to school. I go to a doctor, it doesn’t mean I have an opinion about being a doctor. You can go to any party and you hear somebody go, “Oh, I hear the teachers are so bad in this city.” OK, how do you know that? What’s your basis?

We need a new agent, we do. We need new marketing tools. There’s some tremendous work and some tremendous teachers and some unbelievable things that are happening.

Q: What can your school teach other schools?

You'd better be able to laugh. You've got to have a sense of humor about this. … And if you’re not happy, then move on. This is too hard a job, and our role is too important, for us to not offer positive energy each day.