Going for greatness

Principal poised to restore luster to PS 24

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After five months as the interim leader, Steven Schwartz is now the permanent principal at Spuyten Duyvil P.S. 24 — a new job which has brought him full circle.

That’s because Schwartz grew up in Riverdale, attended Robert J. Christen P.S. 81, playing softball with his father at Seton Park, and taking the field as part of the local Little League team. In fact, some of the people he grew up with are now parents of students going to P.S. 24.

And with that, he already has big plans for the school.

“Right now, we are No. 2 in the district, and we won’t be happy until we are No. 1,” Schwartz said while holding his 3-year-old son Jordan on his lap. The transition took place before spring break, and Schwartz found himself at the school anyway, bringing not only Jordan, but his wife Bethany and 1-year-old daughter Hayden, too.

Months of turmoil
It might be excitement now, but Schwartz wasn’t always enthusiastic about the position. In fact, after learning of P.S. 24’s troubles in the media, Schwartz almost didn’t take the job.

“I decide to take it, but I wasn’t sure if it was what I really wanted,” he said. “And, very quickly, I started to fall in love with the staff — even the parents — and it just felt like a natural fit.”

Many of those troubles started after principal Donna Connelly, who said she felt forced out of her job in 2015 after a series of controversies including the removal of teacher’s desks and the loss of the school’s annex space at the Whitehall, a co-op a few blocks away. Acting principal Andrea Feldman would get demoted a short time after taking over when questions arose about her handling of the student registration process, and later she left the school.

Former District 10 superintendent Melodie Mashel retired after an internal investigation found she permitted “non-school personnel” to participate in the registration process.

Then last year, former assistant principal Manuele Verdi filed a lawsuit against the education department demanding $14.2 million, claiming he was targeted after claiming Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowtiz led an effort to exclude minority children from attending the school. The case was withdrawn in February, and refiled in federal court a short time later.

Verdi later filed a suit against Dinowitz for $5 million in federal court, before withdrawing it and refilling in state court. Verdi claimed that Dinowitz’s allowing his chief of staff to be present during student enrollment last fall violated students’ privacy and anti-discriminaton laws. Moroever, Verdi alleged Dinowitz defamed him by blaming him for the loss of the Whitehall annex space as well as the school’s overcrowding.

Ezra Glaser, the attorney representing Verdi, also failed to respond to requests for comment.

“This case is utterly devoid of any merit whatsoever,” said Charles Moerdler, Dinowitz’s attorney, adding he would seek sanctions against Verdi’s legal team for the constant filing and withdrawing of the lawsuit — four times at this point, Moerdler said.

Making it right
Schwartz was first introduced to P.S. 24 in the 2015-16 school year when he supported district principals as a teacher development coach. He became the school’s interim principal in October 2016

How can he make P.S. 24 No. 1? Schwartz said he’s starting with the curriculum. Some of the planned changes include completely changing how math is taught, using curriculum he found success with at his previous school.

Beyond that, Schwartz wants to find ways to provide additional support for teachers. That includes partnerships with other schools so teachers can learn best practices from instructors outside of P.S. 24 as well as teachers receiving personal feedback from Schwartz twice each week

And then there’s overcrowding. Schwartz wants to find a way to resolve it, but it will take meetings with the School Construction Authority and local politicians to make it happen, he said.

The loss of P.S. 24’s annex space at the Whitehall, located a few blocks away, makes the need even more pronounced.

Parents have been cautiously optimistic. Leah Zarahn, who has a son in the fifth grade, said she thinks Schwartz is “fantastic.”

“He’s really come in at a time when the school was in quite turmoil, and he’s putting systems in place (so) that (they) are bringing the school back to his glory,” she said. “Unfortunately, my son is graduating this year, so we won’t get to see his full potential.”

Schwartz, Zarahn added, has been “candidly open” with parents on the challenges the school faces. Yet people need to give him time to put things in place before they can fully access his work.

CORRECTION: A federal lawsuit filed by Manuele Verdi, a former assistant principal at the Spuyten Duyvil School P.S. 24, was withdrawn in February and refiled in March. A story in the April 20 edition stated a different outcome.

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