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New York City
August 2002

Helen Santiago: #1 IN #1
By Jacob M. Appel

Helen Santiago and Community School District 1 go back a long ways.

“My father jumped ship and hid out on Essex Street when he was 17 years old,” explains the district’s superintendent. “He was from what was then called the South Moluccas, which is now a part of the United Republic of Indonesia. For political reasons, when he was 14 he got on a steamer and went around the world once. He decided New York was where he wanted to be, went back and said good bye to his family–and then came to the Lower East Side.” Now Santiago, who is also French Canadian on her mother’s side and acquired the Hispanic last name through marriage, has come full circle. She is in charge of all the schools in the neighborhood where her father and millions of other immigrants first settled, the gateway to America that remains one of the most diverse school districts in the United States.

District 1 encompasses “the communities between the [Manhattan and Williamsburg] bridges” and includes Chinatown, Alphabet City and the traditional Lower East Side. It extends from the East River to First Avenue and stretches as far north as 12th Street. The district’s 24 schools are home to more than nine thousand children between kindergarten and grade eight. Santiago also shares responsibility for the district’s two collaborative high schools, the East Side Community High School and the Martha Valle School, which cover grades seven through twelve. The superintendent notes that these two schools stand at the cutting edge of “progressive middle school reform.”

According to Santiago, middle school reform was widely needed when she joined the district. “One of the things we’ve suffered from is that middle schools were begun in seventh grade,” she explains. “When you begin a middle school in grade seven in the climate that we are currently living in, you doom those children. They come in September of seventh grade and they know no one. A year later they have to fill out applications for high schools. If they’re coming in challenged already in reading or any other content area, they’re so enmeshed in making and creating relationships with each other as kids and with faculty and staff that this consumes a lot of their thinking time and their gray matter–and they never catch up.” One of Santiago’s goals is to establish more schools that begin in the fifth or sixth grades, when “much greater opportunity still exists to forge relationships with these children before they reach adolescence.” This issue is close to Santiago’s heart. She once taught at a school that transitioned from a junior high school to a middle school during her tenure.

Santiago’s original training is in elementary education. Yet after seven and a half years teaching in New York City, she moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, and then Peoria, Arizona, where she taught eighth grade language arts with an ancillary emphasis on English-Spanish bilingual education. She then returned to New York in the mid-1980s and worked as executive assistant to District 6 Superintendent Anthony Amato from 1987 to 1990. She also developed close professional relationships with now retired superintendents Maria Guasp of District 9 and Jim Mazza of District 3. These three mentors taught her the most important lesson for anybody involved in the art of education: “Always stay focused on kids.” She was also heavily influenced by the writings of social scientist Peter Senge and his emphasis on attention to small details. “The question Senge asks,” Santiago explains, “is, ‘How do you move an ocean liner?’ Not with the rudder, but with the trim tabs on the rudder. You make massive movement through paying attention to the little things. And I think that’s been part of the work that we’ve been trying to do here in District 1.” When the previous superintendent of District 1 left two years ago, Santiago was appointed acting superintendent by Chancellor Harold Levy.

One of Santiago’s first challenges as superintendent was to resolve a two million dollar budgetary shortfall. She did so by reducing her own staff and cutting back on over-expenditures. The superintendent proudly notes that even after these cutbacks, her district remains first citywide in per capita expenditures on children; New York spends approximately $11,000 per pupil in Santiago’s district. Yet she emphasizes that her primary area of interest and expertise is instruction. “Of course a successful superintendent has to be good at both,” she notes. “And a district has to be run on a day-to-day basis as well.” Her duties also include two annual visits to evaluate each school under her charge.

One area to which Santiago has devoted her energies is school choice. While she notes that she opposes the sort of voucher system that provides money for parents to send their children to private schools, she insists that parents need to have real options. “I think that we can do our own equivalent to vouchers through a choice program in our community school districts,” she explains. “And I think we can offer a wide range of wonderful schools for our parents to choose from.” As deputy superintendent in District 3, Santiago played an active role in expanding the variety of schools open to parents and their children. She now hopes to bring a similar range of options to her own district. She notes that District 1 is now an “open district of choice” where parents can choose to send their children to almost any school in the district.

The key to building a successful district, of course, involves choosing the right leadership team. Flexibility in hiring teachers and administrators, which has increased in recent years, makes this possible. So does District 1’s prime location; people want to work in Manhattan. “And with the right teachers and principals,” says Santiago, “you can do anything.” It can’t hurt to add the obvious: in a complex school system like New York’s, even the best teachers and principals can only do their jobs with the support of a strong and dedicated superintendent. Santiago seems to know this, and District 1 is already starting to reap the benefits in higher test scores, rapid school development and—just as important in a world of ever expanding choice and competition—a growing reputation for excellence. #


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