HELLS KITCHEN — Four years ago, Larry Gabbard was approached by the National Parks Service with the idea of starting a new city school that would offer students an education in historical preservation, landscape management, masonry and carpentry skills along with their Regents Diploma.
Together in 2013 they founded Mather Building Arts & Craftsmanship High School, in homage to the service's first director, Stephen T. Mather. The school spent its first year in Soho, then was relocated to 439 West 49th St. in the Graphic Communications Arts building, where it shares a campus with four other schools.
Mather is currently in its third full school year and second year in Hell’s Kitchen.
DNAinfo sat down with principal Larry Gabbard to talk about the challenges of starting a brand-new school and the plans he has for its future. This interview has been edited for clarity.
What’s been the biggest hurdle in getting Mather off the ground?
Time. Finding enough time to get everything you want to get done, done. The curriculum. And you’re trying to train new teachers and train a new assistant principal and set up new systems so it feels like we all know what we’re doing. It’s so important that systems are in place so there’s a real sense of community even from day one. That’s hard to do.
Can you describe the partnership Mather has with the National Parks Service?
So, one of the deals that I said when we started talking about ideas for the school was that the National Parks Service couldn’t be just be a partner in name. They really had to want to be involved in the school. So the career and technical education part of the curriculum has been written by the National Parks Service. We spent three years really working on that. NPS folks actually come in and teach some of the classes.
It involves site visits to NPS sites for field experiences around some of these things. We use the lens of historic preservation to teach some of these trade skills. Then we have a National Parks Service liaison who’s here every day ... he works with teachers on actually implementing the lessons on historic preservation. In the freshman year, they go on six field trips. Four of them are to National Park Service sites, two of them are to partner sites like Prospect Park. That’s a great place to do landscape management and historic preservation and so they are a partner with us.
What kinds of skill sets do you hope your students learn by the time they graduate from Mather?
We have a set of core values we hope to instill in our students: being action-oriented, responsible, having social and emotional awareness, having what we call conscientious and aware positive risk-taking and being collaborative. Those sort of embody the idea of the work. If you have an employee or you're working with a colleague who embodies these things, you can get anything done.
For students who still want to pursue carpentry for instance, this idea of showing up on time, being responsible, being action-oriented, being conscientious and aware [is important]. The union will be like "you’re the kind of person we want to work with."
Part of the school’s job is to train them to be the citizens you want them to be.
How did you first get into teaching?
Ten years ago, I left PR and marketing. I was working at a venture capital firm and CitiBank and then I went to the South Bronx. Not to be cliché but life sort of happened, 9/11 happened and my dad died in Indiana. I just wasn’t happy with venture capital. I was making good money but I wasn't enjoying my life; I was just doing my job. I had always wanted to be a teacher but I'd always avoided it. It’s a real difficult job, but I love coming to work every day.