UPPER WEST SIDE — One of principal Carland Washington's top priorities is to have both the respect and the trust of the middle schoolers at West Prep Academy — a school that's been through a remarkable turnaround since its start in 2009.
"I set very high expectations for kids," Washington said.
"I want West Prep to be the premiere school in District 3 ... a go-to school," he added. "We’re doing some heavy recruiting."
Last spring, Washington took the reins for former principal Roberto Padilla, who was initially brought in by the DOE in February 2011 to get the rebellious student body into shape. Two-and-a-half years later, attendance was up — as were grades — and there was a waitlist for the 200-student school.
He said the transition went smoothly because he had served as assistant principal, and students already saw him as one of the school's "co-leaders."
DNAinfo New York spoke to the 34-year-old North Carolina native about how he plans to keep the school on track and what's worked so far.
The school no longer has a reputation for rowdy students with out-of-control behavior. What is your approach to discipline?
We do a lot of counseling with our students. We try not to do suspensions. We are very big on caring about our students. We want to understand why our students are acting a certain way. Most of our kids are coming here with issues from home. They come into school frustrated. It's not something we created here. We get them to understand their emotions before we get to a conflict situation. 'How does your mood affect how you’re approaching the situation?'
If you build a relationship with kids, they feel you know them and they know you. There’s not a whole lot of wiggle room [for acting out.]
Students take notice when you're around. How do you make sure classrooms run smoothly even when you're not present?
Some teachers don’t set expectations at the beginning of the year. I was very deliberate that this is a culture-building session, before we pull out any curriculum. At the beginning, let’s establish expectations. Use this time to figure out which kids are going to test you.
How do you keep teachers' morale up?
Staff bonding is very important. We've had at least two staff retreats — overnight trips with the staff to build that capacity that we’re here for each other. Teenagers are teenagers. The work can get difficult. We have a very good staff. They’re very supportive. They stay after school. They’re in it to win it. The staff is a cohesive unit. We really care about the children. That forces [the students] to change.
Parent involvement during the middle school years can be a challenge. What are some of the ways you're increasing parent participation?
By getting parents to 'Principal Breakfasts' quarterly. Parents meet at 9 a.m. and have coffee and donuts and I share what’s been happening and any announcements that need to be made.
We're also hiring a new counselor this fall who will reach out to community organizations that facilitate workshops for parents ... that cater to our population: Work readiness. We brought parents in to learn English. Healthful cooking classes. Zumba class ... We need parents to come into the building. We want to envision the school as a community center.
In regards to growing the school, where would you like it to be in terms of numbers?
Three hundred is a good number. That would afford me a few more teachers. We really want to provide our students a suburban-like experience, with more sports, and curriculum. We have basketball and lacrosse and flag football. We are getting a lot of tennis and soccer students from P.S. 84. I would like to offer soccer and track and field.
We’re very big on the arts. We have a drum line teacher. The drum students march in the Puerto Rican Day Parade. They love it. There aren’t too many middle schools that have a drum line.