By Nat Hentoff
Soon after I began reporting on education in the 1950s, I found the principal of Public School 119, an elementary school in Harlem. His office was always open to parents -- and often to kids. Dr. Elliott Shapiro knew the names of many of his students and paid particular attention to those who especially needed help.
In largely black neighborhoods of New York City in those days, there was an active parents' movement to have more black principals in public schools. But Shapiro was so respected by many parents of kids at P.S. 119 that they called him "the principal of the neighborhood" because they felt so welcome there.
For most of a year, I spent many days in the school, getting to know him, the teachers and a number of the students. That experience was responsible in large part for my continuing to write on education from then on, as I also kept looking for other principals continually involved with their students.
A few weeks ago, I found such an administrator: Seventy-year-old Joann Barbeosch, principal at P.S. 94, an elementary school in Little Neck, Queens. She has been paralyzed from a spinal cord injury and can no longer get to the second floor, where she has access to the classrooms. Instead, she is moored in "a cramped first-floor utility room with no ventilation" ("Paralyzed NYC Principal Holed Up in Cramped Room Waiting for Wheelchair Lift," Susan Donaldson James, abcnews.com, Oct. 16).
Students and parents are angrily agitating for the New York City Department of Education to install a lift or elevator, but, as of this writing, she's still marooned.
And dig this: In New York City, whose self-described "education mayor," Michael Bloomberg, is finishing his third term, the principal "would not elaborate on her situation at the school because of a DOE policy that prevents employees from speaking publicly."
Have the kids at P.S. 94 heard of the First Amendment?
I'm told Principal Barbeosch will soon be liberated, but it's still vital for students, parents and principals around the country to know she was the center of a community of learning at that elementary school.
Parent Gia Ann Bonavita told ABC News: "Before, she was all over the place. Kids would constantly pass her office ... Her door was always open and she was in plain sight. She was there and could hear what was going on."
According to Bonavita, whose two daughters go to P.S. 94, Principal Barbeosch "had a very open-door policy. In my experience, whenever we had an issue, we could always speak to her and surprisingly enough, you never had to make an appointment."
An employee of the DOE told the New York Post: "This is her life. Her life is school. Watching kids learn, and just being there" ("Disabled principal stuffed away in school's basement," Laura Italiano, New York Post, Oct. 14).
An active, available principal who helps make school a communal learning experience for all involved may positively affect the current splintered state of teachers' job satisfaction in American schools:
"Anywhere between 40 and 50 percent of teachers will leave the classroom within their first five years (that includes the nine and a half percent that leave before the end of their first year)" ("Why Do Teachers Quit? And Why Do They Stay?" Liz Riggs, theatlantic.com, Oct. 18).
In this Atlantic article, Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who previously taught in public and private schools, said that one of the reasons he quit teaching was "just a lack of respect. Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They're told what to do; it's a very disempowering line of work."
Not in all schools. But in many.
Adding to Ingersoll's explanation is Emma (no last name given), who formerly taught at a Kansas public school: "It stems from this sense that teachers aren't real people."
But many kids, I've found, also feel that they're not real people in school. Like the suddenly surprised fifth-grader in one former Bronx, N.Y., school, which at the time was beginning to focus on individual students rather than on collective standardized tests.
"You know," this kid said to me, "here they know my name!"
But when there is a principal like Joann Barbeosch or Elliott Shapiro visibly focused on how students can keep discovering their capabilities and on how teachers can stay motivated, educators seldom want to leave.
Elliott Shapiro was like the head of a family at P.S. 119. In a Feb. 23, 2003, New York Times obituary, Wolfgang Saxon wrote of the former Harlem elementary school principal, who died at 91:
"People of the neighborhood honored Dr. Shapiro for his years of 'outstanding service to the children and parents of the Harlem community' with a dinner in 1964 at Riverside Church. The event drew 450 guests and helped start a college scholarship fund for black students."
Principals still have much to learn from Dr. Shapiro. For example, he once said to me: "If we do give tests, let's give them on a one-to-one basis -- one child to each tester. That way, the test would involve real communication between the tester and the child.
"If a test is being given to a group of 30, how can one tester know which children are daydreaming that morning and which didn't have any breakfast?" (from my book "Our Children Are Dying," Viking Press, 1966).