Saturday, October 21, 2006

PHS Principal Shares Views, Information

Friday was supposed to be a night off for Plaintalker.

This writer cooked up a potluck of campanelle, string beans and red peppers along with a loaf of Allspice Orange Nut Bread to haul across Lot 7 to First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, where the second “Think Globally, Act Locally” lecture was to take place. The featured speaker was Plainfield High School Principal Frank Ingargiola.

Though sparsely attended, the evening was completely worthwhile not only for the glimpse into Ingargiola’s life, but into factors affecting urban schools.

Among the revelations:

-Despite his Italian surname, Ingargiola bases his identity on his Latino heritage and speaks fluent Spanish. He grew up in Spanish Harlem and later in Red Hook, Brooklyn. As a high school student in New York, he was so remiss in attendance that his adviser called him a “drop-in” rather than a drop-out. Well-acquainted with street life, he had a “defining moment” when he was standing next to one of his brothers who was shot four times.

Ingargiola said the experience set him on a path that led to completing studies at Fordham University and subsequently earning two masters’ degrees at Columbia University and Brooklyn College. He is now marking 27 years in education.

His philosophy of education includes not only traditional studies but such things as teaching common sense and compassion, encouraging students to become lifelong readers and making every one of the 180 mandated school days “urgent” for achieving goals.

Ingargiola disputed some urban school statistics, showing how the numbers did not reflect the truth. For example, he said drop-out statistics did not indicate the fact that Latino students have increased through immigration, so the drop-out rates are skewed lower. Another undisclosed factor on drop-outs is the number of African-American school-age males who are incarcerated and are not counted in drop-out surveys.

Ingargiola said success stories at the high school remain untold. Students are learning and structure has improved, he said. Two themed academies have opened within the school, with a third in the works. The smaller learning communities are meant to bring a sharper focus on learning in a more manageable setting than one big mass of 1,900 students.

He said “Rigor, Relevance and Relationships” have replaced the traditional three R’s. Latino and African-American students especially need to feel cared for in the schools, Ingargiola said.

It was an eye-opening meeting for anyone not in close contact with the public schools. The audience included a number of educators and some parents of young children. The teachers knew well the burden of shifting state and federal demands on districts and educators. Ingargiola said he lost several staff members to the new federal qualifications, even though some had many years of experience. The strict new standards, coupled with comparatively low pay for teachers, are contributing to a teacher shortage.

The lecture was part of a series sponsored by the church’s Social Justice Committee. The full schedule is here. Disclaimer: This writer is publicity chair for the church.

It has been Plaintalker’s unfortunate experience that trying to cover both city government and the school district is difficult, if not impossible. Often the meetings overlap. The Board of Education this year has frequently deviated from the traditional schedule posted on the district web site, meaning an interested person has to spot small legal notices to keep track of changes. Controversies over Abbott funding, unsettled contracts, gang presence and even dress codes often obscure the good news.

Frank Ingargiola’s passion for urban education and the lives of his students warrants more attention. It is likely that there are many more individuals among the district’s 1,150 employees and 7,000 students who deserve a spotlight. If the print media and this lone blogger can’t do it, maybe it’s time to gear up the local cable channel. The stories are out there and need to be told.

--Bernice Paglia


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