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Principal Remains in the Classroom at Elisabeth Irwin High

 Ruth Jurgensen, the principal at Little Red Elisabeth Irwin in SoHo.
Ruth Jurgensen, the principal at Little Red Elisabeth Irwin in SoHo.
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DNAinfo/Danielle Tcholakian

SOHO — Ruth Jurgensen started teaching English at Elisabeth Irwin High School right out of graduate school in the late 1990s. She left for a few years to work in fashion but couldn't resist the pull to return.

"I love teaching," she said. "I'm a teacher at heart."

Even now, eight years into her tenure as the school's principal, Jurgensen still teaches an English class.

"There's nothing more rewarding than talking about, for me, literature, with just the brightest minds," she said. "I learn so much by being in the classroom. I get to go to school every day."

Jurgensen said it's not necessarily standard for administrators to teach courses, but it is something she encourages.

"It's the best way for me, the dean, my vice principal, to connect with students — and to connect with our colleagues as faculty members," she said. "There is no top-down, 'This is what I think and you have to do it.' We're all in the classroom together, we're all approaching the same students, we're all approaching the same challenges and the same goals."

Jurgensen is emphatic about the school's philosophy of "progressive education."

"We have a lot of choice, a lot of independent projects," she said about Elisabeth Irwin, which is also known as LREI (with the lower school at the Little Red School House a few blocks away).

"Our students know that they're respected as learners, so we just partner together and have this dynamic and really interesting high school experience," she said.

Most seniors are off-campus during the spring, working on independent projects or doing apprenticeships.

The campus underwent an expansion in recent years, though that's hard to tell from the outside. The façade of an adjacent brownstone that's seemingly identical to other homes on the block hides a sprawling labyrinth of hallways, with pockets of outdoor space for students to learn urban agriculture, work on art projects or eat lunch in warm weather.

The student body has grown as well. This year's graduating class is the last class of 45. From here on out, each grade will have at least 60 students, Jurgensen said.

What other challenges do you face?

All of our students are prepared for college, but we also want to make sure that they're prepared for different aspects of life. Preparing for college is fairly easy, but how to make sure they're resilient in light of a very fast-paced and changing world.

Everybody has a kind of story about high school. I want our students to remember high school as being a time where their needs were met, they were allowed to take risks, and they were really supported in finding what their passions are.

What kind of challenges do the students face?

I think that they are challenged by what's next. They feel so secure here, they feel really loved here and looked after here. We've heard that from students, that they're surrounded by really interesting, very different people here. They go to college and most colleges don't have the diversity that this high school has. So, how to find ways to engage with other students that may have had a very static experience in high school, and how to remain connected to what's important to them.

What is progressive education?

Progressive education meets teenagers exactly where they need to be. They need to be engaged in a different way. "Progressive" is education, period. It's really the only way to educate, in my opinion, for sure — where you're asking questions and it's about critical thinking and you're analyzing information, it's not just "Here's a test. Did you ace the test?" And that's it. You've learned nothing by teaching to a test. We don't teach to tests.

That said, we have kids who take APs, and do all the College Board testing, but we're all here with a wink and a nod like, "You know what, here's how you take this test. You have a wealth of information to draw from to succeed in an AP test, if that's what your interest is."

But we won't teach to a test. That's the best way to make sure that your kid hates school, is by teaching to a test, seriously.