Public figures play principal for one day

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Scott Rapoport has been to PS 161 in Richmond Hill before.

As a reporter for CBS 2, Rapoport was part of the media covering the school in February when a rash broke out among the students and teachers. After the rash was gone, he returned to show parents things were getting back to normal.

But Friday was different. This time he was in charge.

Rapoport joined about 20 business people, politicians, entertainers and other professionals to take control of schools in District 28 in southern Queens as well as many more across the borough and the city as part of the annual “Principal for a Day” program Friday.

The program is aimed at giving people who are normally not involved with education a taste of what it’s like to head a New York City public school.

“The idea was to bring the business world and outside leaders to the table and say this is what education is all about,” said Etta Carter, a deputy superintendent for School District 28 at a Friday afternoon reception for the district’s Principals for a Day program.

Now in its ninth year, Principal for a Day is run through the Public Education Needs Civic Involvement program, or PENCIL, a non-profit group, and hosts about 450 principals a year, said Carol Gresser, one of the program’s founders and Queens’ former representative to the Board of Education. She now teaches at St. John’s University.

“To have started in 1994 and to see how well it’s doing — it just gets better every year,” said Gresser, who spent the day at PS 144 in Forest Hills, and who has been a principal every year since the program’s beginning.

Like it should be at any school, learning is mixed with fun for the rookie principals as well as the students. One of the first lessons for the principals was just how demanding it can be to lead a school.

“The perception is that a principal’s job is a little stack of books on a desk, a little red apple, and shuffling papers,” said Jermaine Garden, the full-time principal of PS 160 in Jamaica.

So the real principals stepped back and let their visitors learn firsthand.

“They got to do what a principal really does — walk around and be visible,” said Cynthia Edwards, principal of Queens Gateway to Health Sciences in Jamaica.

Ted Madara, an investment banker who spent Friday at PS 160 in Jamaica, jumped in headfirst, and broke up a disagreement between two students before the school day really began, Garden said.

“PFAD is an incredible way to go in and see the front line,” Madara said. “You’re a CEO, a CFO and a linebacker.”

Principals for a Day also worked hands-on with the students. Madara read “The Little Engine That Could” to kindergartners. David Keeselstein, a publisher with AOL Time Warner, talked to the yearbook staff at Russell Sage Junior High School in Forest Hills. Rapoport taught Shakespeare to fourth- and fifth-graders at PS 161. Estelle Cooper, assistant commissioner for the Parks Department in Queens, promised to plant trees outside PS 220 in Forest Hills.

Carter used the opportunity to remind the principals for a day that impending budget cuts will affect the schools.

“It’s really going to impact tremendously what you saw today,” she said.

But the seriousness of the topic couldn’t diminish the enthusiasm the temporary principals felt.

“I’ve got a thing or two I can learn about how to manage and bring people together,” Keeselstein said of Russell Sage Junior High.

Cooper was impressed with the students she met at PS 220.

“You worry about the future of the country and then you see these kids and there’s nothing to worry about,” she said.

Most impressive, however, was the students’ commitment to learning.

“I said to them, ‘well I’m your principal today, what should I do? Should I take your homework away?’” Rapoport said of students at PS 161. “They said, ‘No, we kind of like our homework.’”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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