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Principal Aims To Bring 'Neighborhood' Feel To P.S. 111 in Hell's Kitchen

By Maya Rajamani | October 24, 2016 12:18pm
 P.S. 111 Adolph S. Ochs Principal Ed Gilligan.
P.S. 111 Adolph S. Ochs Principal Ed Gilligan.
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DNAinfo/Maya Rajamani

HELL’S KITCHEN — Queens native Ed Gilligan has fond memories of his years as a student at his Rockaway Beach elementary school.

Now, years down the line, the principal hopes students at P.S. 111 Adolph S. Ochs feel the same way about their school.

“I want to create the neighborhood school that I remember growing up with,” said Gilligan, 44, who attended P.S. 114 Belle Harbor School as a youth and took the helm at P.S. 111 on West 53rd Street, between Ninth and 10th avenues, in July 2015.

Since then, Gilligan has worked to foster a sense of community for the school's 345 children and their parents.

With students from four boroughs who speak a combined 17 languages,  achieving that goal has presented both challenges and opportunities, he noted.

“It’s probably the most diverse school I’ve ever worked in,” said Gilligan, who previously served as an assistant principal in Brownsville and as a teacher at schools in the South Bronx and Bed-Stuy.

“We have so many students who do come in and out who are not from the community itself, but we want to create what feels like a neighborhood school even if you come from a totally different neighborhood."

He and the school’s faculty have focused on a few yearly events that encourage parents to visit the school outside of parent-teacher conferences — including a Valentine’s Day “celebration of friendship,” a Halloween parade and an “International Day” celebrating students’ cultures.

Those festivities drew hundreds of people last year, Gilligan said.

Weekly assemblies, pep rallies and a Spirit Week, meanwhile, have helped students connect to one another outside of their classroom activities.

“Things like that... maybe harken back to a more innocent time,” he said. “It’s things like that that build a sense of belonging.”

Gilligan “know[s] what a really good public school can be," as someone who attended them his entire life, he said. 

“And that doesn’t always mean just focusing on academics — although I do want all of our students to perform at high academic levels,” he said.

In the classroom, P.S. 111 teachers recently began using a technique known as the “Socratic Seminar.”

Teachers “remove themselves from the conversation as much as possible” and let their students talk and debate, he said.

“Our teachers worked really hard on that last year, and we saw definite improvements in the students’ conversation skills,” Gilligan said.

An addition to the curriculum known as “Number Talks,” meanwhile, has encouraged problem-solving dialogue during math classes.

The school increased its literacy proficiency level from 24 percent in 2015 to 38.5 percent in 2016, and its math proficiency level from 21 percent in 2015 to 34 percent in 2016, Gilligan noted.

“We outpaced the city increases, and we were tremendously proud of the students’ achievements and the teachers’ work,” he said. “We definitely saw an impact last year, and we’re hoping it will continue this year.”

He'd like students to feel proud of their time at the school, which is known for its “soaring owl” mascot, he said.

“We want kids to say, ‘Oh, yes, I was an Owl,’” he said. “We want P.S. 111 to be something… that they remember 30 or 40 years from now, [and] look back on with a really good feeling.”