Back to School
Stepping in to fill Dr. Gs shoes
By Vanessa Romo
The first time Felix Ricardo Gil set foot in a school as a teacher, it was the smell that got to him. Fifteen years and several promotions later the novelty still hasnt worn off. Walking through the halls of P.S. 20 where Gil is making the transition from assistant principal to principal, he smiled broadly and inhaled deeply. Theres something so familiar about the smell of a school, he said. I dont know what it is, but they all have that smell, it just takes you back.
This type of enthusiastic outburst is not unusual for Gil, 35, who joked that P.S. 20 has taken over his life especially since learning he would become principal. Although Gil had been assistant principal of the Lower East Side school on Essex St. for the last school year, he said he was surprised when Leonard Golubchick, the former principal for 28 years, announced his retirement.
Hes a legend around here, Gil said, referring to Golubchick whose reforms helped transform P.S. 20 from one of the worst performing schools in the city to one of the best. No one expected Dr. Golubchick to retire anytime soon, so when I came I thought I was going to be here of a long time as assistant principal, he said.
But Gil is undaunted by the legacy left behind by Golubchick whom he calls a fixture in the community thats irreplaceable. And he is determined to carry on along a similar path in his own way.
Sitting behind a large metal desk in his new office, which had just received a fresh coat of paint, he said, Im coming into a fantastic situation. Im very happy to be here because Dr. Golubchick and the teachers have created an incredible school, along with the community.
P.S. 20, which will have about 850 pre-kindergarten to sixth grade students entering the school this week, has received nationwide attention for its results in improving students state test scores. With 60 percent of students reading at grade level and 75 percent doing math at grade level, the school is ranked in the top 15 percent of New York Citys public schools.
It is also one of the poorest schools in the country where 99 percent of students receive free lunches. The student population is almost entirely made up of immigrant children or first generation American-born and 71 percent are learning English as a second language.
Gil plans to continue to develop many of Golubchicks programs including staff development training which he said is imperative to meeting the ever-changing needs of students. He will also keep striving to obtain the holy grail of education that point at which every student in every classroom is where theyre supposed to be and no one is left back.
He rests the responsibility for achieving this goal squarely on his shoulders and those of his teachers. There are still kids were not reaching and that is unacceptable, he said. Its not enough to have one way of teaching anymore. For teachers to say, Well I taught him what I was supposed to teach him, he just didnt get it, then pass the responsibility on to the next teacher, he said, his voice climbing in exasperation. With all we know about cognitive education today, teachers need to have a bag of tricks that will work for all the students in their classroom.
It is also the reason that class size needs to remain small, said Gil. Even though were a school of 850, it feels like were a school of 120 and thats because of our practices and what we do. No one here is anonymous. Everyone has a name. Everyone here is an individual.
Gils passion for producing innovative teachers who are willing to explore new methods of communicating with students comes from his own experience as a public school student. Growing up in Washington Heights Gil attended P.S. 98, J.H.S. 52 and Norman Thomas High School. But he said it wasnt until the fifth grade that he went from being a mediocre student who had a difficult time in school, to an excellent one with a great appetite for learning.
What was happening is that I was just bored out of my mind and wasnt challenged in a way that could really tap into what I could do, he said. But everything changed when he was transferred into a new class. I found this teacher in the fifth grade that was incredible and who really turned it around. Ms. Sherman, he said with a smile and a nostalgic sigh. If it were not for those incredible teachers who took time to work with me and find out what it was that really made me tick, I probably would have ended up on a street corner like some of my friends on the block. I dont think I would have gone to college.
Except for a brief stint as a manager at a sugar production company, Gil has spent his professional career in education despite comments from friends and even teachers that he was too smart to go into a field that was not financially lucrative. He taught social studies and language arts courses for ten years and was assistant principal at Corlears Middle School in the Lower East Side for three years before taking the position at P.S. 20 in 2004.
Im really excited to get started, Gil said, sitting on the edge of his seat. Hes looking forward to working with Javier Muniz, P. S. 20s new assistant principal whose former position at the Region 9 Office of English Language Learners will benefit the English language learners tremendously, he said. Referring to Muniz and the entire staff at P.S. 20, Gil said, Were running the school as partners. Its a community here. Its not just the principal. Its the principal, the counselors, teachers and the assistant principal working together.
Leaning back in his chair and clapping his hands together Gil sat silently for a moment. Finally he said, The thing that hasnt changed in education from time immemorial is that youre dealing with kids and kids are amazing.