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Washington Heights Principal Wants to 'Build Better Human Beings'

By Carolina Pichardo | January 24, 2017 9:27am
 Principal Juan Villar said his one goal for the of the High School for Media and Communications is to transform the nearly century-old school into a modern, technologically-advanced media and communications program.
Principal Juan Villar said his one goal for the of the High School for Media and Communications is to transform the nearly century-old school into a modern, technologically-advanced media and communications program.
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DNAinfo/Carolina Pichardo

FORT WASHINGTON — Principal Juan Villar has one goal for the of the High School for Media and Communications: to transform the nearly century-old school into a modern, technologically-advanced media and communications program.

Villar, who has been an educator for over 30 years, joined the school at 549 Audubon Ave. in 2015. Since then, he's begun an upgrade on four classrooms and a long hallway to add new floors, white boards, televisions and projectors.

“We’re a low-performing school, in the process of being transformed,” Villar said, adding the school has recently added a slew of consultants to restructure the school and change the curriculum.

“We need to address elements of our curriculum, what it is that we offer," he said, "How do we offer that? Is the curriculum reflecting student voices, or [did] a few enlightened people sat around — the administrators inside the school — and made a top-down decision?"

He said the administration is more interested in getting feedback from students, and sat down its students to ask how they would change the current curriculum.

“We came out with a good, solid suggestions from the kids,” Villar said. “So now it’s our job to spend the rest of this semester going through how to make those changes."

The High School for Media and Communications, which shares the George Washington Educational Campus with The College Academy, the High School for Law and Public Service, and the High School for Health Careers and Science since being divided in 2009, has garnered the support of elected officials and citywide nonprofit organizations. Amp Up NYC helped the school reopen the music room early last year with new guitars, piano and a special performance from Billy Joel's drummer, Liberty Devitto.

The school also launched a “What It Takes” series almost a year ago, where teachers and staff invited “prestigious actors, producers, novelists” to talk to students about their experiences in the field of media and communication, administrators said.

But Villar says there's more to do, including working with several professional development companies to increase the number of students on track to graduate. (Out of the 407 students in the school, approximately 130 are on pace.)

Villar said they also hired an expert on media curriculum program who will join the staff in February and determine what it takes to build a facility and space that reflects the school's name.

“We are trying to see — that three years from now — this school will have a television studio, a radio station, a recording studio,” Villar said. “Why not?”

Principal Juan Villar recently sat down with DNAinfo New York to discuss the school's place in the community and how the entire staff works together to ensure kids are learning. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How do you transform a low performing school?

You have different components. Before you attempt to address each of those components, you have to organize the core groups, which is group that on a daily basis work with students. You need to find a line that would define curriculum. You will have to find a line that would define what type of assessment are reasonable for these kids. You will have to find the definition of success for this community.

If you set the bar so high, you’re going to frustrate the student population beyond where they are now. If you accelerate the process for this kid to get to some level of frustration, then you are not only narrowing, but you’re closing the door for this kid to be successful in the future.

So first thing for us to do, is to get to know each other, polish that vision together, to give each one of us a fair chance to accomplish our goal.

But the other part of this job that is so relevant, that can not be sidelined, are the student voices, parent voices and the community...We need to raise that level of commitment [in students], and that level of feeling that you are part of something and a sense of belonging. 

You mentioned the demographic of the school, community and allowing students to know their place in the world. How is it a challenging to do that with your students?

It’s very challenging — but that’s why I said before that this team has to clearly define benchmarks for success. You have a school with 407 students, out of which over 100 plus are living in shelters, out of which over 100 plus are special education, out of which half of the population is newly arrived. We are aware of the magnitude of the challenge. We are aware of how hard it is, but we can not take one step back. Accepting those challenges as barriers is equivalent to setting this young generation for failure. We are not going to build excuses. We are going to build the instruments to knock down those walls.

Our job as educators is to empower them. It to show them that the only tool that can get them out of poverty is by attaining a decent education. 

What is the day-to-day like for you?

The beauty of entering this building every day is that no two days are similar. Honestly, that is the part that I celebrate the most.

When we enter this building, and you see some students — and it’s a Monday morning — they start talking to you about what they did over the weekend. And if you see a group of students moving to participate in this activity, and that other group is going to a completely different activity and this group of students is coming to request something different — you have a very moving, a very dynamic day.

What are you most proud of being here and representing the school, staff and students?

I don’t see why not this school can’t blossom into the jewel of Washington Heights: two swimming pools, two gymnasiums, two theaters, a huge baseball and football sport park, and probably 200-plus classrooms. For heavens’ sake, this can be the jewel of the Heights. This can be — and this is not because I want to tell you something that will sound beautiful — a place that you produce capable, well-equipped young people to be successful in this society.

What happened in here is that the bar was set too low. That’s number one. Problem number two is that there was no sense of direction. I’m not saying Media as the school, but I mean the campus.

George Washington Education Campus needs to build five non-negotiable [standards], and one of those is that 80 percent [of students should be graduating]. And out of that 80 percent graduating, the 90 percent should be going to senior colleges...By September we have to have 70 to 75 percent of the students on track.