UPPER WEST SIDE — On a recent fall morning, Principal Marlon Lowe strode through the halls of Mott Hall II with a big smile and so much energy you'd never suspect he'd been up since long before dawn.
However, there were times at the school when conjuring such a happy disposition was more challenging for Lowe, 31, who took over last fall from beloved Principal Anna de los Santos Tornatore, who passed away after losing her battle with Stage 5 lymphoma.
De los Santos Tornatore had tapped Lowe as Assistant Principal in 2010, a year after her diagnosis, and he led the school during the year she took off to undergo treatment. His transition as her replacement was hard on everyone, but the fact that Lowe had been at the school as a teacher since 2006 and understood its philosophy helped a lot, he said.
DNAinfo New York sat down with Lowe to find out more about the school's philosophy and why he believes elementary school parents should give his school a second look.
What is the school's vision for how children learn best and how do you execute that?
The children are the focus. In a traditional classroom, the teacher stands up and lectures the whole time. There’s no engagement. Not even adults can listen for that long.
Our instructional philosophy is children need to be doing. [With our model,] the teacher leads a 15-20 minute mini-lesson on a skill or concept and then the children should be working together. Being able to work in small teams is essential. Under this model we have the kids up and about, doing. We want them to love school.
[This model has] become the orthodox thinking in the profession. But we were really at the front edge of that. We seemed insanely progressive or crazy [back in 2011].
How do you create a warm environment at the school?
We are very proud of our "client model." Our parents and our students are our clients. It just feels warm, it just feels welcome. Parents have access to the school any time they want. They’re welcome in our school. Just don’t disrupt the instruction. Don’t try to wave to Johnny in the middle of the school.
Creating parent engagement can be hard during the middle school years — how do you tackle it?
We need to move away from condescension in how we engage parents. There are some parents, where you take the child’s cellphone, and they’re in here. And then we lecture them. [Instead,] when they’re in here, now let’s engage them. Rather than being petty, it's 'Can we talk about ways we can help out Charlie?' We have to break their assumptions about these models. I want [the parent] telling us ways that we can improve.
How do you foster transparency within the school's community?
Our grade book is public. That was created by the teachers. It was a couple teachers who said 'would it be OK if we opened our grade book? This is our second year doing that.
A parent and a student gets a login. They can go in and see each of their classes and projects and their current grade based on that. It’s such a success. When you have 115 kids, it’s not easy to catch that [underperforming] trend. [Now,] you have it at the tips of your fingers. Our honor roll numbers have increased. The kids are more on it than the parents.
Your school is very diverse — 23 percent of students are white, 46 percent Hispanic, 25 percent Black, 5 percent Asian — what impact does that have?
I’ll put my diversity up against any school in the city. It’s the way it should be. It's not that fake diversity where the kids may be going to certain classrooms. We don’t track kids. We want everybody to feel like they’re one school.
Diversity just enriches people. You get exposure to different cultures. It makes you a more complete person. We do [also] have economic diversity.
What would your advice be to a new principal?
Remember to put children first. When you put children first, everything else will fall into place. You need to find people who are like-minded. You need a strong team. If you are on an island, you will not be successful. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You might have ambitious goals. Take the time and build the team.