New York City
March 2003

Elizabeth Sciabarra: Chief Executive for New Schools Development
by Joan Baum, Ph.D.

If Elizabeth Sciabarra is stepping smartly up to the plate in her new position as Chief Executive for New Schools Development in the restructured Department of Education, the reason is obvious after just a few minutes’ conversation. She brings to the job a rich intelligence informed by both art and science, and a confidence and enthusiasm that suggest she expects to hit only home runs. Elizabeth Sciabarrais also an administrative pro, with a celebrated track record as an educator, indicating that she knows how to work and play well with others, as they used to say on report cards of old. Significantly, the play includes an unusual creative turn that epitomizes her educational outlook. Sciabarra began her career as an educator at Brooklyn Technical High School, where she taught English, became an Assistant Principal, and later, the principal of New Dorp High School. More recently, she became part of Rose DePinto’s team, at the district and central levels, first as Deputy Superintendent, and then Superintendent. From her early days as teacher up until two years ago, she coached competitive dance teams that over the years have garnered over 100 regional and national awards. Dance? What has that to do with creating and transforming the city’s high schools or with professional development and administrative restructuring? The answer is, everything.

Her parents enjoyed ballroom dancing, and music, says Elizabeth Sciabarra, has always been in her family, but what nature provided, so to speak, creative imagination nurtured, and soon, jazz, novelty dance, hip hop, high-kick and military-type dance drills became for her a way to enhance the education of young people. As she saw, dance routines and props designed to convey a theme, required rigorous training and demonstrated the interconnectedness of learning. She’s never been a linear thinker, she notes, preferring broad-spectrum considerations that take into account the mutual reinforcement of the arts and sciences, and in the larger world, the collaborative approach of schools working with regional and central offices, teams of educators, local communities, and funding constituencies. And so, when Elizabeth Sciabarra talks about “theme schools,” she means theme-based. A performing arts theme school, for example, is understood not as having a narrowly defined career-track curriculum but as offering an integrated academic program, informed by the performing arts. The idea is that students who choose this theme school will find their interests reflected in all their studies.

The words “rigorous” and “challenging” come up often in Elizabeth Sciabarra’s descriptions of her role at Tweed central, where she is continuing her work on transforming and creating schools. Under the new education administration, “regents curricula” is a given since all high schools are standards-driven. In addition, The New Century High School Initiative, fueled by Foundation money—Gates, Open Society and Carnegie—has required new high schools to link with community based organizations, colleges, professional schools, and/or industry, to create a smaller learning community model with a lead partner. The Chief Executive is both excited and energized by the speed at which new schools are being established. Last September, for instance, under the New Century Initiative, 28 new high schools were opened, the majority in the Bronx. September 2003 will see additional New Century High Schools, in the Bronx and Brooklyn with many new schools of various configurations opening in the next five years. A new school does not necessarily mean a new building, as long as the central idea of creating autonomous space is realized. So there might indeed be 2-3 separate theme schools housed in one facility. The existing school, with appropriate resources and support will be transitioned out, along with their rigid 45-minute periods, and the new schools will be provided with support and creative opportunity, so that the themes, whether in the humanities or sciences or more career-related areas, will not be subject to artificial time constraints.

Particularly impressive about the new Chief Executive for New Schools Development is her solid intellectual grounding and commitment to critical review. “The bottom line,” she says with purpose and passion, the absolutely “non-negotiable issue,” is to have every school successful, a goal that can be achieved by studying best practices around the country and by ensuring that those components that make for success—effective instructional leadership, particularly at the principal’s level, strong curricula, and a safe, welcoming school culture—are implemented, funded, and sustained. Administrative and teaching staff who are well-prepared, innovative and dedicated, and programs that are challenging and engaging, provide all children and parents throughout the system with “schools of choice.” Her main role in effecting this objective? To be “the engine” and “the facilitator” for the new projects and the new schools. Yes, the going will be rough—learning new dance steps can be awkward and frustrating, but the rewards for those who learn to dance are richly satisfying—personal growth, belonging to a community, and taking pride in performance, whatever the discipline.#


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