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A School Transforms Itself

A success story with bilingual students
Back in 1993 when Ruth Swinney first became principal of P.S. 165, she led her friend María Torres-Guzmán around the Upper West Side school on one of her “Savage Inequality” tours. Torres-Guzmán, a professor of bilingual education at TC, saw firsthand the kind of neglect that would have never been permitted in a wealthier neighborhood: a leaky roof, missing tiles, electrical wires hemorrhaging from the ceiling.
The school had been intellectually abandoned, too: P.S. 165 had the third lowest scores in the entire New York City school system. A pioneer in dual language programs in the school district, Swinney got straight to work, filling P.S. 165 with as many English language learners as possible.
The results inspired Torres-Guzmán’s latest book, Freedom at Work: Language, Professional and Intellectual Development in Schools. Torres-Guzmán and co-author Swinney chronicle the transformation of P.S. 165 during Swinney’s six-year tenure as principal, a period when test scores rose to a 34 percent pass rate in just three years, the school’s bilingual program was overhauled and, along with many other improvements to the physical plant, the front doors received a fresh coat of paint.
The key to this transformation, as Torres-Guzmán discovered, was increased freedom at work. It was Swinney’s belief that teachers had to direct their own professional development because they knew best where their strengths and weaknesses lay. Torres-Guzmán wanted to show that change is possible.
“There was a lot that could be done,” she says, “and this school illustrated it.”

Published Wednesday, May. 19, 2010


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