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New York City
October 2002
Inside the Superintendent’s Office:
Supt. Vincent Grippo, District 20

by Marie Holmes

On the fifth floor of a sparkling, newly renovated building, with views of the nearby Verrazano bridge, Superintendent Vincent Grippo and his staff oversee 31,000 children in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Borough Park, Parkville, Dyker Hights, New Utrecht and Bath Beach.  Framed etchings and watercolors decorate the office and hallway walls, and if it weren’t for the attached labels, nobody would know that the artists were still in grade school.

“We want artists who like to teach,” says Grippo, rather than “teachers who like art.” He also notes, jokingly, that professional artists, preferring to teach part-time, also come at a significantly lower price than regular classroom teachers. These artists, as well as music teachers, serve the elementary schools of District 20, which boasts a district-wide elementary band  an orchestra and Suzuki violin in seven kindergartens. Because the state mandates art and music education only in middle and high school, many elementary schools, for lack of funds, do not include them in the general curriculum. Other arts programs in the district’s schools include partnerships with the Frick Museum and the Metropolitan Opera.

Yet the 31,000 children who attend the district’s 23 elementary schools and 8 middle schools hardly spend all their in-class time finger painting or playing musical instruments. In a district where an estimated 40-45 percent of

students come from homes where English is not spoken, literacy is another major focus area, particularly when it comes to professional development.

“We have a very language-rich literacy approach,” says Grippo, which involves “reading, writing, speaking and listening.”

Each school has up to five teachers who are certified as Reading Recovery teachers by a program run out of NYU. “It’s like intensive care for youngsters in the first grade who are experiencing difficulty with literacy,” explains Grippo. Last year, District 20’s fourth graders scored third citywide on standardized exams, above the averages for both the city and the state, despite having the fourth largest number of English Language Learners citywide.

Grippo contributes this success to a number of factors, primarily professional development.

“It’s the most important thing. You’ve got to teach teachers to work smarter, not harder–they already work hard.” He also credits a whole-child approach and after school programming made possible by funding from 21st Century Schools.

The district supports an inclusion model for special education students, in which students are brought into the mainstream classroom, along with another teacher and a paraprofessional.

“We’re trying to keep kids in their classrooms and keep down the student-teacher ratio,” says Grippo.

With slimming city budgets, how does district 20 manage to afford all these “extras”?

Foremost, explains Grippo, “we run a very lean administration.” He admits, however, that the district has been “very lucky in getting grants.”

Within the last two years, the district has been awarded a federal Magnet grant of $5 million, $7 million to improve teacher training, $2 million from 21st Century Schools for the after school programming, Comprehensive School Reform Education grants from the State Education Department and several other sums.  The individual schools have also received funds, such as the two Annenberg grants for arts education that were announced last June.

Like many districts, 20 relies on one staff grant-writer, as well as other temporary consultants.

“You have to be competitive,” reasons Grippo. “You have to be a manager. You have to know your budget and how to use it.”

Competition, Grippo  believes, isn’t necessarily a negative thing, even in the public schools. Middle-school students in the district, for example, apply to small theme-based academies carved out of large middle schools. “Our middle school kids literally make a choice. They don’t necessarily stay in the same school,” says Grippo. “Oddly enough, the competition works. Schools get worried and they start to make changes.”

The Superintendent strongly feels that “a building does not define a school,” which is lucky, given that district 20 is 107 percent utilized, despite the opening of a new school in September, the addition of portable classrooms and the new early childhood center, which houses a number of beautiful new kindergarten classrooms in the lower floors of Grippo’s office building.  

In one classroom, a group of five year-olds sat on a brightly colored rug, listening to their teacher; in the cafeteria, folded tables had been pushed against the walls to make room for physical activity as the children jumped in and out of colored hula-hoops.

“The real challenge,” says Grippo, “is to get a quality program into every school, into every

classroom, into every grade, and leave no child behind.”#

City, State:

Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2002.


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