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Focus on Teachers Pays Off For Inwood Middle School Leadership

By Nigel Chiwaya | April 21, 2014 6:41am
 Inwood JHS 52 Principal Salvador Fernandez (center, right) and his "leadership team": Assistant Principals Suzanne Sheerin, Luis Tejada, and Lupe Leon.
Inwood JHS 52 Principal Salvador Fernandez (center, right) and his "leadership team": Assistant Principals Suzanne Sheerin, Luis Tejada, and Lupe Leon.
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DNAinfo/Nigel Chiwaya

INWOOD — Times sure have changed at Inwood's I.S. 52.

According to teachers, the castle-shaped middle school on Academy Street was a rough place in the early 2000s, with fights, suspensions and an overwhelmed staff. Things were so bad, Assistant Principal Luis Tejada said, that the Department of Education almost classified it as an Impact School, which would have flooded it with NYPD officers in an attempt to keep order.

"We had a lot of violence and a lot of kids that didn't belong here being sent to this school," Tejada said. "We had the highest number of suspensions in Manhattan three years in a row. We had a lot of teacher turnover and truancy; we had it all back then."

Things started to get better in 2005, administrators said, but it wasn't until Dr. Salvador Fernandez was appointed principal in July 2006 that the school began to take off.

In Fernandez's eight years at I.S. 52, the school has become a model of success and has received high marks from the DOE on for its student progress and school environment. It was one of 100 pilot schools that introduced Common Core-aligned lesson materials back in 2010.

According to Fernandez, the key to I.S. 52's success is a comprehensive, data-driven focus on teacher development. The school has clear guides to help teachers develop lesson plans, manage their classrooms, organize their records, and set goals, and develop into leaders. 

In addition, I.S. 52 has two 90-minute planning blocks each week where teachers can collaborate and share tips and strategies. The school also has a non-punitive class visitation system, allowing teachers to gain feedback from their peers.

The guides — or rubrics, as they are called at I.S. 52 — earned the school a $15,000 innovation award last August.

In 2014, Fernandez, 54, will retire after over 30 years as an educator. But before he stepped away, the principal and his leadership team sat down with DNAinfo New York to discuss professional teacher and student development at the school.

Q: Data and numbers a very important part of your strategy. How did you develop such a focus on data?

Fernandez: When I started in the DOE in 1980, I was actually a math teacher. I just like numbers. But it's also really important to understand what these exams are all about: It's really to look at student work and understand what the children are strong in and what their needs are. That's what I brought into this school, and the staff really embraced all this stuff.

Tejada: I wasn't big on data before. But as we discussed it, there was an analogy to medicine: before they instituted triage, a lot of people were dying. So they decided to triage and prioritize the most important cases.

It's the same analogy for education: if we don't know where the children are weak and where they're strong, then we're treating the whole child for things we don't need to treat them for. But if we're able to isolate the areas of improvement, we might be able to do a better job.

Q: Was there a quick buy-in for the planning sessions and evaluations? Did you have to do any selling?

Fernandez: Everything was brought in piecemeal. When we brought in inter-class visitations, we had to link it to the rubrics and show people the purpose. The more the staff felt successful and saw results from their children, the more buy-in we got.

Q: You started aligning your curriculum to the Common Core in 2010. What was that first year like?

Assistant Principal Suzanne Sheerin: It wasn't like we threw this in people's faces. We were part of a pilot program, so we had a small group of people going to training and learning over the course of time, trying them out in the class and coming back and reflecting. We did a lot of professional development over the course of the year. 

Over time we started seeing that the common core standards just asked for solid teaching and best practices. Some things we were doing already, some things we needed to improve on, and it allowed us to focus on particular areas with students.