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This Harlem Principal Spends Her Mornings on Street Recruiting Kids

By  Dartunorro Clark and Amy Zimmer | July 31, 2016 11:23am 

 Lisette Caesar passes out fliers to passersby in East Harlem.
Lisette Caesar passes out fliers to passersby in East Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Dartunorro Clark

EAST HARLEM — While it’s not part of her official job description, elementary school principal Lisette Ceasar stands outside her East 111th Street building nearly every morning during the summer trying to recruit students.

The founding principal of the 9-year-old Mosaic Preparatory Academy, Caesar is a rising star in the city’s public school system: She recently won a Department of Education award for “Excellence in School Technology” and was tapped by the DOE to be a “master principal" to train others.

Yet, despite her accolades, her school remains under-enrolled: She has about 280 students, but has capacity for about 425.

That’s why she spends her summer mornings on the street with 200 copies of fliers advertising her school. She corrals about four parents and staffers to stand in different areas of the East Harlem neighborhood to pass them out, starting at 8 a.m. She also digs into her own pocket every year to buy advertising on Facebook to promote the school.

Her efforts are fairly low-tech and low-budget when compared to the glossy advertising materials from many of the charter schools nearby, including the Harlem Success Academy that shares her building and the Capital Preparatory Charter that Sean “P Diddy” Combs plans to open this year on East 104th Street.

On a recent sweltering Thursday, Caesar walked up to everyone who crossed her path and in one breath gave her elevator pitch: “Hi, may I give you information about Mosaic Prep? We’re one of the top schools in the district.”

caesarLisette Caesar hands out fliers to recruit students at Mosaic Preparatory Academy. (DNAinfo/Dartunorro Clark)

She’s boosted performance at her high-needs school, where 30 percent of students reside in temporary housing and 95 percent live below the poverty line. This year Mosaic came off the state’s FOCUS list for Title 1 schools with low achievement.

And though her school is not an official community school receiving city funding for wraparound services like social workers and dentists, she’s become adept at grant writing and forming partnerships to keep the school open at least six days a week to provide enrichment for students — like weekend kayaking and rock climbing trips — and their families, with parent workshops. She’s also worked with Success Academy to pass along unused meals to families at her school who live in shelters.

She’s brought in groups like Broadway Inspirational Voices, which brings Broadway singers to conduct music classes, and she’s focused so much on having the latest technology, that she now donates old Smartboards to other public schools in need in her district. Kids, starting in pre-K, visit colleges, and they go on many other trips, like one last year to the White House garden after her students won an award for their own veggie garden.

“We want to make sure every child is well rounded,” she said. “Your circumstances don’t limit who you can be.”

She uses her own story as exhibit A. One of three children to a single mother who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, Caesar didn’t learn to read until second grade.

“There were times my mother had to decide which child got shoes,” Caesar said. “I’m a living example that you can overcome obstacles and become a success.”

Though she dropped out of college for two years, she eventually graduated. Now she has two masters degrees and is currently working toward her PhD in educational leadership.

It is highly unusual for a principal to spend so much time on promotion — on top of her many other duties. But it is perhaps a consequence of school choice that principals have to learn marketing tools, some said.

“I don’t think it was necessarily envisioned at this level by either the proponents or opponents of school choice,” said David Bloomfield, education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The idea of competition was supposed to raise all boats so [schools] would try harder. But the question is whether it’s about the quality of the program or about the quality of the marketing.”

Noah Gotbaum, an education advocate who sits on District 3’s Community Education Council, said public schools can’t compete with the promotional money charters use.

“We figured out that for Upper West Success, [Eva] Moskowitz spent more money recruiting each student — about $9,000 [approximately $1.5 million divided by 168 initial enrollees] than all the other district elementary schools combined,” he said. “Plus, these public elementary schools have to take all kids at all times, which charters don't and won't. Percentages of ELL and disabled kids [are] not even close, nor poverty index, but this doesn't mention homeless kids, which charters don't have to report.”

Aside from competition with charter schools, Caesar said, district families living in temporary housing and families moving out of the district cut into her school population numbers.

“Registration goes up and down and we want to be consistent,” she said. “I don’t turn any child away whether they’re in a shelter, regardless if they have a disability.”

Iesha Morgan is one of the committed volunteers who stands with Caesar every morning. Her daughter recently graduated from fifth grade at the school, but Morgan continues to lend a hand.

Morgan said Caesar is passionate about improving the school and building a strong network of parents and staff.  

Working with a tight budget, Morgan said Caesar and parents often write letters to local businesses to get donated food for events or supplies for students.

Caesar said she writes five to six grants every summer to secure funds to revamp the school and add resources. The school’s library, playground and classrooms have gotten facelifts with the funds. Students have access to an abundance of computers and tablets and a rooftop garden, soccer field and basketball court.  

She also holds an annual summer fundraiser in the backyard of her Flatbush home, tapping her personal network to get dozens of backpacks for kids as well as notebooks and pencils and other school supplies.

“She will go all out,” said Morgan. “That school is a family school…you can call them all hours of the day and night…. [they] give out personal numbers, work numbers and Google Chat numbers."

“If there’s something on her brain at 2 a.m., don’t think she won’t text you,” Morgan said.