Three years ago, McAuliffe Elementary in Hermosa, had a bad reputation. Students were unruly, fear and mistrust were rampant among staff and the community was not involved. Academic performance was poor. By 2004, McAuliffe had landed on probation.
Later that same year, the local school council ousted the principal and decided to hire the assistant principal, David Pino, who was also the school’s disciplinarian, to take his place. The area instructional officer, who is charged with making sure schools perform well academically, was alarmed.
“I was looking at the scores and they were not moving,” says Olga La Luz, who oversees Area 4. “I met with the LSC during the selection process, and they wanted to make this [assistant principal] the principal. It made me nervous.”
“She will be the first one to tell you that she wasn’t sure about me,” says Principal David Pino.
But while La Luz kept a close eye on him during his first year on the job, Pino made some bold moves—among them, hiring an assistant principal who was savvy about curriculum—and things began to change. Student discipline referrals plummeted 69 percent and teachers felt appreciated and became more focused on their work.
In one year, McAuliffe’s test scores jumped eight points and the pre-K to 6th-grade school was taken off probation. La Luz was duly impressed and decided to take a step back and allow Pino to do what he needed to do, a tactic she adopts when schools are led by effective and self-directed leaders.
“That’s an incredible thing to do in your first year,” she says. “He was focused. His administrative and instructional teams were empowered. Why would I want to get in this man’s way?”
‘I did the opposite’
Despite his previous focus on discipline, there were signs that Pino had the makings of an instructional leader. “The previous principal put me in charge of putting out fires,” says Pino. “I think this is why the AIO could not see what I could do.”
But the LSC saw it.
“We saw he wasn’t part of the problem,” says LSC Chair Juliet Maldonado. “When he brought suggestions [to the previous principal], which we thought were good, he was shut down.”
It didn’t take long for La Luz to see it, too. “I noticed he knew a lot more than he was allowed to [demonstrate] before.”
And Pino was determined to prove that he could be effective. “I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that the previous administration had made,” he says. “Whatever had been done, I did the opposite.”
First, he hired Serena Peterson, the assistant principal at nearby Pulaski Elementary whom he knew when both were teachers there 15 years ago, and put her in charge of curriculum. A Golden Apple finalist, Peterson was Pulaski’s curriculum coordinator and had also taught math, science and reading.
“I didn’t hire her because she was a friend; I hired her because of what she could do,” says Pino.
“When I told people I was coming to [McAuliffe], they physically recoiled,” says Peterson. “The reputation was that bad.”
The hire also sent a message to McAuliffe’s staff that there were two leaders paying attention to instruction, says La Luz.
Next, Pino tackled teacher quality and school culture. A month on the job, he fired two teachers, one of whom had been abusive to students. Some other teachers retired, moved out of state or left to work at other schools. Out of a faculty of 45, he replaced 16.
He made sure teachers received training, had enough instructional materials to do their jobs and arranged the school day so teachers would be free to meet at the same time, something that didn’t exist before. He also launched a weekly newsletter to keep staff informed and held one-on-one meetings.
He follows up area instructional team walkthroughs with walkthroughs of his own, which is encouraged by the district and is now required of all area 4 schools at La Luz’s request.
For students, he created quarterly honor roll assemblies and a student-of-the-month program to honor good students. He installed a salad bar to promote healthy eating habits and brought back recess, swapping 12 staff parking spaces to make room for a playground.
‘Wonderful place to work’
La Luz says she gives schools like McAuliffe—where the principal and staff are focused and moving in the right direction—the space to keep going. She and her staff spent 25 hours at the school last year, a fraction of the time spent at schools with more pressing needs for academic support.
“I have 28 schools and 13 of them are on probation or restructuring,” says La Luz. “Some of them are just about there. They just need more support.”
In the meantime, loose reins for McAuliffe have paid off. Pino decided to keep the extra reading teachers he was required to hire when the school was on probation. He has also set up a full-day kindergarten, partnered with a neighborhood law firm—which hosts holidays parties, tutors students, and coordinates winter clothing and school supplies drives—and kept the school open in the evening so community residents can take GED and English as a Second Language classes.
“This is a wonderful place to work,” says 5th-grade teacher Sharon McGowan, who has been at McAuliffe for seven years. “Morale is high. Teachers are engaged. Children are engaged. Is this new? Yes.”