When Rebekah Mitchell, 31, a kindergarten teacher for all of eight years, became the principal of P.S. 50, a failing elementary school in Spanish Harlem, in July 2004, she expected a tough challenge. Discipline was lax; pupils were as likely to be roaming the halls as sitting in their classroomsâ€”that is, when they weren't watching SpongeBob videos, a ritual so common that some teachers nicknamed the school Cinema 50. "There were no rules. There was always fighting," says Paris Scott, a sixth-grader. "It made it hard to learn."
Mitchell began by asking the building custodians to replace the windows, which were so scratched and dirty they had turned opaque. Together with her husband, Louis, some friends from the Academy, and a handful of parents, she scraped and repainted many public areas in the school.
Mitchell also eliminated classroom birthday parties, substituting group celebrations every other month. She outlawed junk food and confiscated contraband. Mitchell, who says she believes in "intrinsic motivation," also banned incentives like stickers and candy for good behavior. While she issued about 15 suspensions last fall-'"for infractions like fighting and bringing weapons to school-'"Mitchell says the suspension rate has since dropped. In addition to having sent teachers to classes at Columbia's Teachers College, Mitchell is dispatching them to P.S. 126, in Chinatown, a District 2 success story, which has been turned into a laboratory for a half-dozen "high-needs" schools in Region 9. (Under a recent reorganization of the massive school system, District 2 has been absorbed into Region 9.)
There's some evidence that whatever is happening at P.S. 50 may be working. Test scores at the school have improved overall. On city and state tests, whose results were released in June, of all P.S. 50 students tested in grades three through six, 29.6 percent scored in the top two levels in reading, an 11-point jump from the same period last year, and the best result since 2000. Fifth-grade scores soared, with over 40 percent scoring in the top two levels, a 29-point jump over 2004. But fourth-grade scores declined 7.7 percentage points. The gains were enough to take P.S. 50 off the list of "schools in need of improvement."
This article, written by Andrea Gabor, appeared in the November 8th, 2005 publication of the Village Voice.
Published Monday, Nov. 14, 2005