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Empowering the School Community

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Empowering the School Community

Joseph Zaza, Leon Goldstein High School

Talk about trial by fire. Joseph Zaza’s first week on the job in 2001 as principal of Leon Goldstein High School coincided with the terrorist attacks of September 11th. The school, located in Brooklyn on the campus of Kingsborough Community College, was never in danger, but during those first terrible hours, no one really knew what was going on. To make matters worse, the school’s students and teachers were at that time scattered across several buildings on campus. That meant that Zaza, even as he dashed from building to building himself, was forced to rely on a staff he’d only just met.
In retrospect, the experience was an object lesson in a precept Zaza has since come to value highly: distributive leadership, the notion of getting people to take ownership for their piece of the total system. That idea is also one of the key philosophies imparted by the TC Cahn Fellows program, in which Zaza participated in 2005. Zaza had entered the program with the goal of moving the Goldstein school, which was already one of the city’s better performing institutions, “from good to great.”
 
To do that, Zaza created a committee made up of teachers, parents, social workers, guidance counselors, and the school’s pupil personnel team, and empowered them to meet regularly and come to him with their own ideas.
 
“All these other voices created a dialogue around what the school needed to reach every child,” says Zaza. “And those voices had been silent for many years because they weren’t at the table.”
 
One issue put forward by the committee concerned the school’s student-activity hour, which was set aside for student clubs and was not being used to its full potential. Today, students still get involved in clubs during that hour. But now the time also is used for tutorials for students who need extra help, or for community service, as part of the school’s new requirement that students devote 40 hours each year to community service.
 
“The committee didn’t ask me if their proposal was a good idea,” Zaza recalls. “They came to me and said: ‘This is the idea —will you support it?’ And we were able to remove some difficulties so they could make the program successful.”
 
One critically important element of a successful school —parental involvement—had proven especially difficult to develop at Goldstein because students live all over the city, with some traveling up to two hours by public transportation each day. After hearing suggestions about how to improve Goldstein’s school store, which had been a glorified storage room, Zaza encouraged the school’s Parents Association to take charge. Today, several parents are involved in the venture, which opens for business every day, selling school supplies and Goldstein’s own clothing line, which includes t-shirts in 64 different colors.
 
The parents also proposed a carnival that has since become a regular end-of-year event at the school.
 
Of course, even the principal needs a sense of community, and for Zaza, the Cahn program has provided it. Zaza and members of his cohort have created and maintained a group called the Alumni Network of Cahn Fellows for Distinguished New York City Principals. In February, the alumni met at Teachers College to hear WNYC radio host Beth Fertig talk about her new book, Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read: Three Students and a Mayor Put Our Schools to the Test.
 
“I valued the ability to call upon a wider array of principals who led different types of schools—from elementary to high school, and from relatively low-performing to very high-performing,” says Zaza, now in his ninth year at Goldstein. “I’ve learned, not only from my own challenges and how I’ve tried to overcome them, but by hearing about the lessons my colleagues have learned as they continually improve their schools.”
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