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Richmond Hill Principal Believes Emotional Connection with Children is Key

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | September 14, 2015 7:47am
 Principal Jill Hoder calls P.S. 161 “the best kept secret in Queens.”
Richmond Hill Principal Believes Emotional Connection with Children is Key
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QUEENS — The first thing principal Jill Hoder wants people to feel when they enter P.S. 161 Arthur Ashe School is love.

“We make sure that every person in this building is treated as family, with respect and kindness and love,” said Hoder, 53.

"We take public education personally," she noted. "It is tailored to you, your needs and your strengths.”

The school, which has about 700 students, in pre-K through grade 5, has been achieving amazing results, she said, scoring an “A” numerous times on the Department of Education’s progress reports. It was also identified as a Reward School twice in a row by the state Education Department.

“We are the best kept secret in Queens,” Hoder said.

The school, located at 101-33 124th St., in South Richmond Hill, opened in 2001, and features colorful walls, smart boards in each classroom and a number of amenities, including central air conditioning, as well as a large gymnasium and auditorium.

Built where P.S. 57 used to be located decades ago, P.S. 161 was meant to alleviate overcrowding at nearby P.S. 55.

Hoder, who holds a B.S. in psychology from SUNY Oswego and two master's degrees — in elementary education from Adelphi University and in administration from Bank Street College, has been the principal of P.S. 161 for 10 years.

What brought you into the field of education?

In my heart I always knew that I would be an educator and work with children. It was a calling from the time I was very young. I would always have all my sisters and my friends sitting in my mock classroom and I would be instructing them. And everyone had to call me "Ms. Hoder." From there it became informally tutoring kids on the block. 

I always remember the incredible feeling that you get when the child masters the task. It makes your heart feel like it’s going to burst out of your chest. You feel as proud as they do.

I came into the system being ... a compensatory teacher at P.S. 55, right down the block.

Prior to being here, I was an assistant principal in The New Preparatory Middle School, also in District 28, and became the instructional leader of this building in the 2004/2005 school year.

What is your overall vision for P.S. 161?

Every child deserves to have somebody who is invested in them and their success and when they feel that they feel like they can do anything. 

This is a home, this is a family and we look out for each other. The school is aesthetically beautiful. We do have the amenities, but we also have the respect and the kindness that everyone who walks through the door is entitled to and that makes the difference.

We also offer differentiation throughout the day. Everyone learns in a different way, everyone learns at a different pace and everyone comes to the table knowing something different. As an educator we need to know where the learning needs to take place because we want to engage, not bore to tears.

The staff has also grown to look out for one another and to collaborate. In this building we do intervisitations all the time. Everyone goes into each other's room, everyone watches each other teach, everyone learns from each other, everyone grows together.

Your strategy has paid off. P.S. 161 is among the best schools in the state.

We have consistently high grades. Out of seven years, we’ve gotten six “A”s [on the Department of Education’s progress reports] … and we have been a Reward School from the state for the last two years. Our school survey [report] is always bright green [above average.] We are “well developed” in every category on our quality review, which is enormously difficult.

But again, it’s the connection that every person in this building makes with the children and with the parents because that’s how the growth happens. You have to be connected for the learning to stick.

The school is located in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the borough and many of your students recently immigrated from India and Guyana. How do you address that?

We have about 120 ESL students. Some of our students come from [other English-speaking countries,] but they struggle with vocabulary and idioms. So we try to spend a lot of time building vocabulary.

I try very hard to incorporate everyone. All of the letters that I send [to parents] are in Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, Spanish and English. We always have translators available for the parents.

We try hard to be festive. We have family fun day. We have barbecues. We have ice cream socials. We have Thanksgiving together. Our children come together and respect all cultures. We celebrate everything, from Diwali to Ramadan.

But our real focus right now is to support the ‘academic parent’ and by that I mean that our parents who wish to be involved with their children are sometimes unable to support the common core work. So we have workshops … to help them help their children.  

The school playground is currently being redesigned. Can you talk about that?

Our playground is being redone [through The Trust for Public Land's NYC Playgrounds Program.] It’s a fabulous million dollar grant and they make it a year-long learning process. Kids were outside capturing data on when the sun was the strongest and in what area, they researched foliage, what plants would grow best with or without the strong sun, they did all of the measurements for the design outside. It took their interest into a completely different level.

[The playground will feature] a full track, tennis courts, a water fountain and an outside classroom. In the center there will be a big sun which is going to say “In loving memory of Laura Palma” [a student who tragically died in June.]

Hopefully, it will be done by October or November.