HARLEM — Charles DeBerry is a principal who is self-deprecating enough to don a Clifford the Big Red Dog costume to promote reading, and enough of a visionary to create a new middle school program.
In 2003, DeBerry joined the elementary school P.S. 76 on West 121st Street. Four years ago, he decided to turn the dropping enrollment rates into an opportunity to expand into a K-8 school.
"We thought that keeping children here would help improve their academics... so they would be better suited [for high school]," said DeBerry.
"We now have students getting in to some of the best high schools in the city."
But DeBerry, 57, has had his work cut out for him. Just under 11 percent of students scored a passing grade on the state tests and 90 percent receive free lunch, according to DOE data.
Some teachers point to his military background in the Air Force in explaining his effectiveness. Others focus on his commitment to data, evidenced by the graphs of student achievement plastered across his office.
DNAinfo New York sat down with the North Carolina native to talk about his success.
Q: In the 2011-2012 school year, P.S. 76 received a "C" on its DOE progress report, but that was bumped up to a "B" the next year. It was labeled "developing" in the 2011-2012 quality review, but this year called “proficient.” What’s behind the progress?
A: One of the things we do well in our community is take feedback and develop action plans and then benchmark it.
Some of the areas we needed improvement in had to do with the use of rubrics as a teaching tool. We partnered teachers who were not using the rubrics very well with teachers who were.
We set up more frequent assessment and benchmark periods. We had a school inquiry team and we had a grade level inquiry team [to] look at the student data and determine what teaching and support needed to be put in place. I think we have made a lot of progress.
Q: Why do you like the Common Core curriculum?
A: Going into the classrooms, the conversations are much deeper. The questions promote thinking. The teachers are not accepting answers without factual evidence. Now when a child responds, you find them [looking] in the text trying to find the evidence. We want children to be able to cross reference more than one text.
Q: What is standing in the way of making even greater progress?
A: One of the things we continue to fight for is more parental involvement... When it comes to the first parent teacher conference, we usually get 70 percent, but with anything else the numbers are much lower. But we’re still looking for ways to increase our parent involvement... There were 15 to 18 parents at the last [PTA] meeting, but we have 500 students.
Q: If money were no object what would you change or implement at the school?
A: We actually have some things in place that are based on that philosophy...collaborations with the Harlem Children’s Zone [HCZ].
Many times when students are struggling, they’re in a classroom of 25 students and many times in a good situation it may be 12 weeks until they get extra help. [HCZ] put [an extra teacher] in each of the three kindergarten classes [and first and second grade classes.] They also provide an Americorps volunteer in every classroom from K–5.
They also provided a reading specialist, who can move in quickly and keep those [struggling] children closer to their peers. And you’re able to accelerate learning... We have seen tremendous results.
We feel really good about the possibilities for this year. We hope to move at least half of the level 1s up to level 2 ...[and] at least 25 to 30 percent of the level 2s up to level 3 [on the state tests.]
Q: What’s your leadership philosophy?
A: You cannot monitor and improve things if you don’t know that they’re happening. Part of [our] new teacher evaluation is that the principal has a one-on-one evaluation [three times a year]...so they can share with me where children are and [answer] ‘what are you going to do for those students to help them improve?’
We [also] talk about the goals teachers have set for themselves. One of the things that’s most important is that teacher’s belief that they can help that child get better.
As a teacher, my goal was to create 24 children that thought they were invincible. I spent a lot of time telling my children how smart they were. By the time they took their ELA test, I had a better percentage of kids meeting level 3...because they believed that they could.
Q: Tell me about your favorite part of the school day.
A: I don’t see anything I do as work. You cannot imagine the joy that I get by doing this. I don’t know of anything else that I’d rather be doing.
I’m in every classroom almost every day... it’s not necessarily to see the teaching. A lot of times I go to see the children — to touch them on the shoulder and to tell them that they’re doing a good job. I’m there to support them. It builds a kind of school community where children feel very respected and valued. It’s a fantastic and phenomenal place to be.