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East Harlem Principal Overcomes Lack of Resources with Unique Partnerships

By Gustavo Solis | March 23, 2015 7:40am
 Lisa Nelson, the principal of East Harlem's Isaac Newton Middle School has been working in public schools for 29 years.
Lisa Nelson, the principal of East Harlem's Isaac Newton Middle School has been working in public schools for 29 years.
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DNAinfo/Gustavo Solis

EAST HARLEM — Ninety-two percent of the students at Isaac Newton Middle School qualify for free lunch, but that doesn't stop principal Lisa Nelson from making sure her students get the same treatment as students anywhere else.

“Kids growing up in Westchester, one day they have music lessons and they are on the debate team and they go to the museums and they have exposure to things that people who live in under-resourced neighborhoods don’t necessarily have access to," Nelson said.

While she can't move Isaac Newton to Westchester, Nelson has brought many resources to the school on East 116th Street and Pleasant Avenue.

She has partnered up with multiple organizations — like NYU, Mount Sinai, and Citizen Schools — to give her students after-school programs, exposure to a variety of colleges, access to science labs, personal tutors and extracurricular activities. 

Citizen Schools, for instance, extends the school day by three hours by bringing in a second staff of teachers. They organize apprenticeships that connect students with professionals like lawyers, engineers, business executives and chefs. 

DNAinfo New York met up with Nelson to talk about how these partnerships supplement classroom learning, how middle schoolers have changed over the years and her goals for the school.

How important are the different partnerships?

For whatever reason, whether it’s financial or being uncomfortable entering other worlds, my kids don’t get exposure to experiences that let them know that they can do whatever they want to do and that they are as good as anyone else.

Middle school is a very difficult age. It’s an age where kids make decisions that I really believe will impact the rest of their life. Just the fact that high school is based on seventh-grade scores, you make decisions at this age that impact everything, like which high school you go to and whether or not you go to college. Research shows that if you have not decided that you want to go to college by seventh- or eighth-grade the chances of you actually doing that decrease tremendously. 

What results have you seen from these programs?

It changes kids’ lives. I had a young man come back about four months ago to tell me that not only did he graduate from high school but he is currently enrolled in a culinary school. He wasn’t a kid who came to school with the tools to be successful and ready to learn.

For several years, we had a chef coming in and she would cook with the kids every week. She did this almost like a game show. So she had stacks of index cards and one stack had ingredients and the other card had a different type of cuisine. So a kid would pick broccoli and Chinese food. At the end of the apprenticeship they would do a Food Network-type show where we would bring in judges. It was from that experience that he decided to become a chef.

Other than lack of resources, what are the biggest challenges your students face?

It’s a hard age, it’s a hard world to be a kid in. I think about being a kid now versus being 12 when I was that age. It’s a very different world.

The crew activity in the projects has really just created a very difficult environment. It’s just hard to be a kid when if you go home if you are seen with the wrong person. It used to be gangs, gangs were structured and organized.

Crews are project-based so if I live in Wagner and if you live in Jefferson, we are enemies. Crews are disorganized, so if we are friends in school and you live in Jeff and I live in Wagner and someone takes our picture and posts it on Facebook, all of a sudden we are both victims of the other crew.

Gangs, you have to enter them, you have to be initiated. They have a series of rules. The Latin Kings never recruited in the schools. It is just this very disorganized, somewhat violent, very chaotic groups.

How do you overcome that challenge?

Our goal is to run a rigorous school where the kids are safe, where we have an orderly environment but where the kids are really cared for and where they are exposed to some things that they might not otherwise even know exists.

There are certain things that I believe are true: Everyone wants to do well in life and everyone wants to be loved. So, you can take the most surly 12 year old who comes to school and acts as if they don’t care at all, in the end all they really want to do well in life and to be loved. 

I think we have to promote hope. If you are poor, really poor, or if you are an undocumented immigrant, it’s really important for you to feel that you can influence your world — that you can make the world a better place.

What are some of your goals for this school?

One has to always want one’s test scores to go up, one always has to want one’s attendance to go up. It is that by which we are judged.

In the end, I would like to be judged by how my students do in high school because I see my job as preparing them for their next step in their journey. I could just do test prep and I could get test scores up. I want young people to be able to think about things, to be able to question things, to know what is fact and what is not fact, to know how to research things, to want to go to college.