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LES Principal Wants to Break Down Walls and Empower Students Through Art

By Allegra Hobbs | February 19, 2017 6:03pm
 Daniel Kim is principal of the now-consolidated P.S. 134.
Daniel Kim is principal of the now-consolidated P.S. 134.
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DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

LOWER EAST SIDE — Principal Daniel Kim joined a campus divided when he came to P.S. 134 four years ago. 

For over a decade, the P.S. 134 building at 293 E. Broadway had housed two separate elementary schools, P.S. 134 and P.S. 137, under the same roof. 

But the schools were divided by both physical and psychological barriers, said Kim. The building was split into halves separated by a set of double doors, while a row of filing cabinets served as a wall between the staff in shared faculty space.

After 12 years of division, the city combined the two schools into one, launching the newly consolidated P.S. 134 under Kim's leadership for the 2016-2017 school year. Now the doors and the filing cabinets have come down, and the principal has encouraged teachers from each school to combine their strengths.

"Sometimes physical buildings can be more emblematic of divisions, so I spent last year and this year working really really hard so the staff are able to collaborate to talk to each other," said Kim. 

To make one family out of two, Kim has merged of both schools' academic and artistic programs. To better serve the roughly 40 percent of the student body that have disabilities, for instance, each grade now has at least one class that uses an "Integrated Co-Teaching" model that combines general education and special education with teachers equipped to work with the strengths and challenges of each student.

Before the consolidation, P.S. 134 had a dance program but no music program, and P.S. 137 had music but no dance. On Feb. 3, the unified P.S. 134 held its first music and dance recital called "Celebrating Social Studies Through Dance: Dancing Around the World" — the first product of the newly-combined music and dance programs.

Kim sat down with DNAinfo New York to talk about running the newly blended school, which now serves roughly 360 pre-K through fifth grade students.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You start each morning with gatherings for the student body in the cafeteria — how does that set the tone for the school?

We have the cafeteria open 7:45 to 8:15 a.m. so every student that wants to have breakfast, they can come in. Our families also sometimes come in to have breakfast with the students...I always emphasize the same thing:  "Slow down your bodies, calm your minds, focus, work hard, and be kind to those around you," and I say the exact same thing every day. That’s powerful for all 360 kids. They know my expectations, the staff and the teachers and the students. Then it's, how do we get to the point where we translate that into the work that we do? 

You recently had your first concert combining music and dance as a consolidated school — how did that go?

I don't think I've ever seen the auditorium so packed — completely standing room only. And I've never seen it so joyously energetic, which I think speaks to the work that our teachers are doing.

How did bringing together the schools and addressing the relationship between educators impact the services provided to students?

I’m a strong believer in school communities needing to recognize that there is power and expertise within the building. For example, 137 had a speech and language provider and was really excellent on building culture. At 134, our speech and language provider retired at the end of my year three.

[I asked] the speech and language provider of 137 be our point, to be able to say, "Ok, how do we collaborate across the board for students? We’re having struggling, we’re having stuttering issues — challenges that are beyond the expertise of classroom teachers. How do we talk about it, how do we share the expertise between the two school communities?"

And at 134, students didn't have a chance to do music, and at 137 didn't have a chance to do dance. These are important things. Why don’t both schools have them?

So particularly for the dance performance, some of the students had danced for four or five years. Some of our students had never danced before. So they are catching on really quickly on the different expectations about how to hold themselves, everything from stage presence to movement. And that was a beautiful, beautiful performance.

You really emphasize the arts — music, dancing, and visual arts — at the school. How does that guide the overall school culture?

I think it’s very powerful because students are able to express themselves and tell their stories in multiple ways.

For students who are writing, we ask them to tell their stories, or inform others of what they know, or persuade others to come to help others understand their viewpoints. Same thing with art — you're communicating something, you’re communicating your knowledge, your way of seeing things, your perspective. And I think that’s very, very powerful, and that’s vitally important to our students, whether you have a disability or not, whether you are an English language learner or not.

When others ways are challenging. This is a means in which [students] are effectively able to communicate what they’re trying to express, in music, in dance, as well as visual arts. 

How do you see your role as a principal and how has it changed throughout the consolidation process?

I think continuing to push on why we do the things we do and continuing to push and ask questions about the decisions we’re making in the classroom. I often also am very open with my teachers and say, "I don’t know everything, and you shouldn’t rely on me to give you an answer. I have supports and ideas and things like that that can support you, but ultimately its how you decide what you’re doing in the classroom with the kids."

So my role, as they’re working on that problem solving and decision making, is to help increase their tool kits — to create the context and the culture that it’s ok to ask for help, that it’s ok to form deeper relationships with our colleagues and our families.