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Brooklyn Principal Transformed Struggling School into Model for Innovation

By Leslie Albrecht | December 20, 2015 5:54pm
 M.S. 88 principal Ailene Altman Mitchell and a young fan.
M.S. 88 principal Ailene Altman Mitchell and a young fan.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

GREENWOOD HEIGHTS — When Principal Ailene Altman Mitchell came to M.S. 88 in 1999, the school was performing so poorly that the Department of Education was considering closing it.

But these days none other than Bill Gates is looking to the school for insight on the future of learning. The tech leader and philanthropist visited M.S. 88 in 2014 to see its School of One program, in which students get individualized math instruction based on their learning style and personal skill set.

School of One is one of more than 40 special programs and partnerships now available at M.S. 88, which earned high marks for student achievement in its latest School Quality Snapshot.

The school's dramatic turnaround was due in large part to Altman Mitchell, who worked closely with Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, then the superintendent of District 15, to rebuild M.S. 88 from the ground up.

Altman Mitchell has put an emphasis on hiring "brilliant" teachers and cultivating partnerships with an array of private partners and universities, from the Billion Oyster Project to Columbia University's Earth Institute, she said.

Altman Mitchell now likes to call M.S. 88 a "research institute for teaching and learning." The school recently spent $3 million on two new science labs, and this year it's the first New York City school to pilot Basecamp, a software-based learning system developed partly by engineers from Facebook.

Today M.S. 88 has 1,278 students who come from nearly every elementary school in District 15. Recently the school, on Seventh Avenue and 18th Street, has drawn more students from P.S. 321 and P.S. 58 than in previous years.

Roughly 73 percent of students receive free or reduced priced lunches and the school is a like a United Nations of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, Altman Mitchell said.

Altman Mitchell is now one of the DOE's "master principals." Despite nearly three decades of experience, she still gets excited talking about her job.

“I still get so psyched when I come in here,” Altman Mitchell said. “I’m learning all the time. I never thought I would get up, 26 years later working for the NYC Department of Education and love what I do. Who gets to love their job? When you do it and do it right ... you get the goosebumps."

DNAinfo New York visited Altman Mitchell recently. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

How did you get started in education?

I never wanted to be a teacher. So I thought I would be a psychologist, but I was not a good psychologist. I got good training but it wasn’t something that I found my passion in.

So my dad said, "Why don’t you try substitute teaching for a little while?" I said, "Alright, but I’m not going to do this for the rest of my life." Guess what happened? I totally fell in love. I fell in love with the kids, I fell in love with curriculum learning, curriculum writing, and trying to do and teach and develop methodologies in new and different ways.

What was M.S. 88 like when you got here and how did you go about changing the school?

It was probably the greatest experience of my life because it was creating a new school, a new environment, building a culture from the bottom up.

[Around 2000] we were deemed a “school under review” and that was very sad. That means there’s a possibility that you might close. [M.S. 88 was taken off the SUR list by 2002.]

I was fortunate enough that Carmen Fariña, as District 15 superintendent, helped me plan this building. Carmen sat down with me and she said, "Ailene, this is what it might look like." This was her footprint, taking a large middle school and redesigning it into three small learning communities. [M.S. 88 is divided into three “houses” each with its own theme.]

I never want to say we got rid of teachers, because that sounds so callous, and it is so callous. I think we found wonderful teachers to build. They bought into the possibilities.

When we talk about innovation, innovation isn't a program, it's a product of good practice. It's creating. All of my teachers have a license to create but they also have to execute and lead.

How does the school use technology with programs like Teach to One, Mastery Connect and ThinkCERCA?

We're using it in very unique ways where it's not taking the place of the human being. It's supporting the professional development of the teachers.

We're using personalized learning so our students can really get into robust and rigorous [learning] and not have to wait. It [creates] equity and access. Our kids are learning how to get to things fast. How do we access what’s important and how do we delineate what we need to know? That’s what technology does. It gives us a variety of choices. If I had what these kids have, who knows where I’d be today?

Sometimes our former English Language Learner students become our gifted students. Those are the kids that come back and say, "Oh I made it into medical school."