UPPER WEST SIDE — P.S. 241 Principal Diana Diaz is known for being tough, but she's proud of her reputation and says it's one of the reasons she was asked to lead the school nine years ago.
In the fall of 2004, P.S. 241 was a K-8 program that was considered a "dumping ground," she said. Test scores and attendance were both low and discipline and behavioral issues were problems at the West 113th Street school. She was called in to turn the school around.
"The city allowed these kids to fail and then we’re supposed to be miracle workers," she said, recalling the scope of the challenge she faced.
Two years in, Diaz had to make room for Opportunity Charter School. Then in 2009, P.S. 241 was reduced to a K-5 school to accommodate Success Academy Harlem 4.
In 2011, the school was awarded a federal magnet grant and that's when the entire staff had to come together to rethink the school's mission, Diaz said. They decided its focus and funding would go toward creating a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum and rebranded the school as the STEM Institute.
Nurturing the STEM curriculum has been a natural fit for Diaz, who started her career working at a Wall Street firm before moving to teaching, working as assistant principal at P.S. 182 in the Bronx before P.S. 241.
In addition to leading the school, managing co-location issues and overseeing the magnet program, Diaz is also in the trenches, teaching fifth-grade math and third-grade reading, as well as cooperation skills to kindergartners.
DNAinfo caught up with the hardworking principal before she retired — a date that's coming soon but has not yet been set, she said.
To what do you attribute the move from an F grade on the school's DOE progress report in 2012 to a C in 2013?
When I heard about the score I was elated. I learned about the increase in scores in early October. The results were embargoed. It was like a big happy secret to me.
Last year, it was the first time we’d gotten an F. My head was hung.
[To improve the score] we included a guided-reading program. Every day we have three to four teachers in classrooms leading small groups. We have a top group, a middle and the struggling. We put our most experienced people with the struggling students. Everyone in the building is involved in this guided-reading program. It teaches kids [reading] strategies with teachers. We expect to see some changes in the reading levels.
We also have, in the afternoon, 150 minutes of small group instruction with our ELL and special ed students three days a week, with our most experienced teachers.
How has the co-location with two charter schools affected your school?
One of the things that has benefited us is we’ve learned to work together. We do have building council meetings, and meetings of the building response team. We all meet monthly with parents and people who live in this community.
The other thing that’s an advantage with the charter schools — whenever they do something for the infrastructure, we get those updates [from the DOE] as well. We have new tiles, floors, air conditioners, shades.
The PA system is antiquated. So [Success Academy] is providing for phones to be put into all the admin offices...for an emergency.
The biggest perk for me is the sharing of information and learning to work together.
Are there disadvantages to the co-location?
We are separated on three floors of this building. We’re on the sublevel, first and second floor. We’re a disjointed school and that’s one of the disadvantages.
Do you miss having a K-8 school?
I believe in continuity. I had my daughters in K-8 schools. [In a 6-12 school], you’re sending kids into this bigger arena where they’ve been in this nice comfortable school. A lot of them are not ready for that. Kids need to be in a K-8 school. They need stability. You have no idea how many parents I have asking, 'I want my child to stay here.'
It’s a space thing. I have Harlem Success and OSC fighting for space. I don’t get involved in those things. Go have your tantrums and figure it out and come back to me.
What have been the low and high points of your career?
The low point was when I first walked into this building and I’ve never been in a large school. I did some informal observations and I said, 'I don’t think we can handle the problems in the building.' Eleven kids in the eighth grade were 15 and 16 years old. I had to release nine teachers the first year — it was hard. They weren’t doing what they needed to. In the second year, I had to release four more teachers.
The high point is seeing former students from when I first arrived. They'll say 'You remember me. I'm in college now... I never forget how you forced me to get my homework done.'
Those are the high points. Kids just need someone who believes in them.
How did your background contribute to the way you teach and lead?
My parents were really tough — we all graduated from college. My mother was a dictator. She’s still very strong. Her No. 1 focus was: If you get a good education you’ll be successful. That’s where I get that work ethic. I never miss a day.
I strive for 94-95 percent attendance. I’m on it every day. I’ll call home — I’ll do what I have to do.
I have the mommy look. I have very strong body language. I have the strong presence. When I step in a room I don’t have to say anything to anyone. They’re feeling me out. I don’t wear heels. I have quiet shoes so they never know where I’m going to be so they have to be on guard.
It's important to develop strong relationships with kids — develop some social relationships, just find out what their favorite basketball team or record is.
Tell me about the STEM program.
Our school is a magnet school. The focus is on building three skills: communication, technology skills and working in groups.
The staff actually took on the task of writing a curriculum — there are still adjustments that have to be done. We built an engineering lab. We bought lab coats for the kids and for the teachers.
(Students use the Engineering is Elementary curriculum and visit the lab three times a week.)
Students also work with graduate students from the New York Institute of Technology. They work on projects that have to be presented at a monthly event.
We know the jobs of the future are going to be in tech and communications.