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How a Progressive Elementary School Dealt With This 'Toxic' Election Season

 Elena Jaime is the new principal of the lower school at LREI in the Village.
Elena Jaime is the new principal of the lower school at LREI in the Village.
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DNAinfo/Danielle Tcholakian

GREENWICH VILLAGE — The Little Red School House was founded in 1921 by educator Elisabeth Irwin, who believed progressive education was essential for good democracies.

Its new principal, Elena Jaime, was drawn to the school because of that background.

"One of the things that I admired most about this place has to do with its history in terms of beginning within the public school system and the work that Elisabeth Irwin did as a queer woman," Jaime told DNAinfo New York in a recent interview.

Jaime, who lives in Sunset Park with her partner and their infant daughter, taught for 14 years at an array of independent schools, including as a founding teacher at a progressive charter school in The Bronx, before coming to LREI, as the Little Red School House is now known. (LREI encompasses both the lower school, which Jaime leads, and the high school, which is known as Elisabeth Irwin.)

"Being at a school where that's actually its mission was really important, particularly as I thought about leaving the classroom and moving into administration," Jaime said. "I didn't think I could represent a school that I didn't believe in."

Trained as a progressive educator with a degree in early childhood special education from the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, Jaime came to LREI in the midst of this past presidential election, and has kept in mind Irwin's beliefs about what it means "to really think about the child at the center of their educative experiences."

Being in the process of becoming a mother also influenced Jaime's decision, she said.

"I chose this place because one day I wanted to have my children here," she said. "Part of that is knowing that my child, as she begins to explore and learn about herself and the world, is going to be at a place where the teachers think about what her instincts are, who she is, really know her and create educative experiences that meet her needs."

Jaime sat down with DNAinfo to talk about the lower school at LREI and how the recent election affected the students.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What makes the lower school at LREI special?

Kids, when they come through our doors, are really known — their passions, their values, their families. That, for us, is a huge part of teaching a child. We think about the whole child, and about their experience, recognizing that we’re partners with families thinking about how to support the emotional and social and cognitive development of children. We really listen to what it is that a child needs instinctually in terms of their education.

We’re constantly grappling with how we can connect our students to the world around them, thinking about the classroom not just being these four walls, but the community in which they live, this neighborhood. We’re constantly seeking ways to get out in our community and to make those connections to the curriculum.

And [we're] really thinking about the teachings of progressive educators. The child is at the center of what we teach. Unless it’s somehow connected to what a child is interested in, then it doesn’t belong in our classroom.

What are you bringing from your experience as an educator to your new role as an administrator?

I would actually reframe that, in thinking of myself as continuing to be an educator, just in a different role. I haven’t taken off my teacher hat and I think any administrator that does is actually not doing their job well. I’ve been in classrooms, I’ve taught nursery school all the way through third grade and so I have a wide breadth of experience in terms of what the curriculum looks like, what are the needs of children at certain ages, and I bring that into my practice. I remember what it’s like to be a teacher and having conferences and report-writing and all of that happening all at once, and in all of the ways in which I can support teachers, I do that, because I can remember what it’s like to be supported by my administrator. Now as a parent, I bring that hat. So I’m wearing all these hats that help me to be able to connect with the people that I serve. And I love the fact that I’m also now a teacher for teachers and being able to support them as they grow professionally, developing experiences for teachers as they tell me what they’re interested in learning about. I view my role as transitioning out of the classroom but continuing to be an educator.

How have you dealt with the election?

Part of what we did as a community of adults is we thought about the ways in which the climate of this particular election season has become so toxic and really thinking of this as an opportunity to think about the democratic process and not necessarily what’s happening in the elections at this moment. The fourth-graders have been doing a lot of work digging into what democracy looks like in our country, thinking about the Electoral College, thinking about voting and sort of the idea of being able to elect our leaders, rather than what’s actually happening. They have spent a little time thinking about the candidates themselves, but thinking about the policy and really moving away from the rhetoric that’s taken a stranglehold on how the election is being thought about.

I think part of the problem with what’s happening in the world is adults aren’t really exercising those principles that they learned as young kids, in terms of navigating communities and working together. The ways in which we can highlight, this is what it means to be in a democratic society, this is what it means to work in community, we’re doing that with our little ones.

How do you get those lessons to stick?

That’s the million-dollar question. One of the things that we always are thinking a lot about is the experience that adults have, that I’ve had as a teacher, in knowing that our children can articulate those values and talk about them, but it’s in the moment when something happens and they’re feeling lots of emotions, being able to practice that. It takes a lot of exercise and work, it’s kind of like a muscle that you have to build.

In all of the ways in which we can support them as we’re stopping to recognize that, even though you’re feeling a certain way, this is a moment where you need to think about what it means to be a citizen, what it means to take care of someone in your community and be able to reflect on the choices that you make. This wasn’t the right choice at this moment. Perhaps if you had stopped and talked about what you were feeling, named what you were feeling, listened to the other person, it would have come out differently. And so there’s a lot of time put into having children unpack that and reflect on that and it takes a lot of practice.