2002-04-25 / This Week's Attitude

This Week’s Attitude

This Week’s Attitude

By Neil S. Friedman

A Day In The Life Of A Principal For A Day

For the third consecutive year, I had the opportunity to spend a day in a Brooklyn public school when I participated in the Principal for a Day (PFAD) program.

This year was particularly appealing because I was assigned to Public School 52 in Sheepshead Bay, the elementary school I attended for six years.

This unique event, which has happened every spring for the last eight years, matches public figures, as well as business professionals and civic leaders with city schools in order for them to see what a day is like in one of the city’s schools.

Actually, I first volunteered when a District 18 principal challenged me to see first-hand the complexities of her profession — even if just for a day. I benefited from that experience and decided to continue taking part.

Of course, the tedium of the daily grind, notably the endless paperwork, doesn’t come with this single experience, nor does the thrill an educator senses when they see the sparkle in the eye of a student who has just learned something new or grasps a concept for the first time.

Nevertheless, the brief experience is unforgettable.

When I arrived at P.S. 52 last Friday morning, after the school day was underway, I found Ilene Altschul, the school’s principal, patiently waiting for me at the security desk.

After signing in, she escorted me to her (the principal’s) office — a site I fortunately was never required to report to as a student.

An 11-year veteran of the New York City school system as a teacher and assistant principal, the youthful Altschul is in her freshman year as principal. She administers almost 900 students and about 75 teachers. A formidable task anywhere, but particularly at an inner city school.

I was impressed by her preparation. She had outlined the entire day, which consisted chiefly of speaking to a dozen or so fourth and fifth grade classes. Prior to my arrival, each class had been briefed about my background as an alumnus and my profession.

Most of the youngsters were also prepared with a variety of questions for my 15-20 minute visits. Most of the questions were interesting and revealing, concerning my job and the stories about which I write.

One surprising query that was repeated at almost every session was "Do you remember your meanest teacher?"

I honestly didn’t, but I answered tactfully, attempting to offer a swift lesson in the process. I told the attentive nine- to 11-year-olds that what they may perceive as harsh, whether from a teacher or a parent, is usually an adult trying to impart an idea or lesson that will hopefully benefit them.

Some questions focused on what it was like when I went to the school and why I chose journalism. For the latter I explained how I recall social studies being my favorite subject at their age. In a way, I explained, being a journalist, reporting on current events, was perhaps writing social studies for future generations.

In the days just before this encounter, I reflected about my years at the school, the friends I made — several with whom I remain in contact — and the teachers, whose names still easily come to mind, which must suggest the impact they had.

I reside in the community where the school is located, therefore I frequently drive by the red-brick school building at Nostrand and Voorhies avenues that opened in 1952. But, I’d only been back to P.S. 52 once since I left. One of the first things that struck me on that initial return was how small everything seemed, from the narrow up and down staircases to the small chairs and desks that I had outgrown.

I subsequently realized I was seeing everything from the perspective of an experienced teenager, long past youthful naïveté.

However, there was little that seemed familiar this time, aside from the original auditorium and gymnasium. Several years after I left, an annex was built connecting it with the primary building, nearly doubling the size of the school. But, except for some vague recollections, the interim years and events have paved over those elementary school memories, much like the asphalt of Nostrand Avenue that hides the dirt and gravel road that existed when I was a child.

In this space and vocally, I occasionally criticize the poor quality of a public school education and those teachers who seem more concerned about personal gain rather than educating students. After a third stint as principal for a day, I found little to alter my opinion, but I better understand the complexities of the problem.

Principally speaking, I find it more fulfilling doing what I do. Nonetheless, after each PFAD experience, I gain a little more respect for those responsible for the education of this city’s students.

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