A Principal for All Schools


Mary Ann Fagen has been on the staff of P.S. 110 on the Lower East Side for 33 years. And even before that, she was a student at the elementary school. She became a teacher there in 1964, then was assistant principal for 15 years, and has been in charge since 1996.

She is open, amiable, direct—and clear in her principles of teaching and learning. She told me that those principles are centered on Dr. William Glasser’s psychologically based management system, called Control Theory and Reality. What those formidable words come down to is basic common sense.

“You can’t control people,” Fagen explains. “People have to learn to control themselves. Early on, you have to teach children that they are responsible for themselves.”

By way of example, she told of an exchange she frequently has with students. A kid comes in and complains, “He hit me!”

“Why? What did you do to start with? What else could you have done before the hitting started? In the future what can you do in a situation like that?”

The principal then said to me, “They have to learn that they have options. Some parents have to be taught more than the kids.”

As she spoke, I was looking at a set of perky self-portraits on a wall of her office. They were drawings by students at the school. Over them hung a banner: “We Are the Children!”

The children not only learn to read, they yearn to read. This happens in large part,
Fagen tells me, because the teachers in the
lower grades have implemented PAF (Preventing Academic Failure)—an Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching reading.

What this educationese means, in lay language, is that people learn in different ways and at different speeds.

Or, as Fagen puts it, “We have a high standard of instruction rather than a schedule of performance”—that is, flexibility, rather than a factory production line.

“Teachers are able to assist more students to reach success because our premise is that successful performance does not occur for everyone at the same time.”

The premise works. In the most recent citywide reading and math tests, 70.7 percent of P.S. 110’s students were above the national average in math and 61.1 percent were above average in reading.

Moreover, teachers keep learning—and not only by taking courses. At P.S. 110, teacher time is structured so that teachers can learn from each other.

According to the UFT contract, each teacher gets a preparation period every day. But unlike many schools, P.S. 110 has
mutual preparation periods. Instead of each teacher working out plans by himself or
herself, all the teachers plan together, exchanging ideas—and problems.

If a teacher doesn’t know quite what to do with a failing or refractory student in her class, another teacher, out of her own experience, may suggest a more effective method for dealing with that kind of child.

Also, because the teachers work together, each of them gets to know other children
besides those for whom they are directly
responsible. Paul Goodman, author of Growing Up Absurd and one of my early mentors in reporting about schools, used to emphasize that teachers should know as many kids in the whole school as they can. That helps the kids, because if a child is having trouble with one teacher, the kid can get help and comfort from someone else on the staff.

This cannot be done, of course, in huge factory schools, which, Paul used to insist, should be done away with. Many high school students get so lost in those factories that they never find out what they’re capable of. The way to deal with the huge buildings that already exist is to break them up into minischools.

At P.S. 110, where there are only 534 students from prekindergarten to sixth grade, there are four minischools: primary, lower, middle, and upper schools.

But even that isn’t enough to deal with the developmental needs and capacities of each student. So, Fagen says, P.S. 110 adds “a Lower School Reading Intervention Teacher for youngsters considered at risk of not mastering reading skills.”

Also, in the school as a whole, “an Enrichment Resource Room Teacher works with small groups and full classes to develop
higher-level thinking skills through thematic approaches.” I’ll have more about these themes—and the way they’re transformed into remarkable projects—in next week’s column.

The school also has “learning specialists” who collaborate with the lower and middle school teachers to create alternative strategies so that all the kids end up with a real-life feeling of self-worth based on knowing how intelligent they are.

And unlike some schools that don’t even have a library—or have one that is more like a closet—the library at P.S. 110 attracts many regular users who learn to be lifelong readers. In addition, the librarian—a digital-media specialist—works with classroom teachers to show them how to use information-management skills in their curriculum and classes.

Abigail, a second grader, writes: “I hope my grandpa comes to see my teacher for open school week. I know I’m good at reading in class because I sound out the hard words. I look at the pictures to help me. I look in the dictionary to help me find the meaning of a word I don’t know. I love to read. Reading is a very exciting thing.”

By the end of the first grade, 80 percent of the students are reading at or above the national average.