VIPs step into new shoes as Principal for a Day

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Students at PS 116 in Jamaica got a civics lesson when Borough President Helen Marshall took over as Principal for a Day last week and took the reins of the District 29 school.

Just a couple of miles away children at the Duke Ellington school got an earful of the music that made the school's namesake a jazz legend when producer John Schreiber brought a live jazz band to the Jamaica educational institution.

Marshall and Schreiber, president of the John Schreiber Group entertainment production company, were among hundreds of business, community and political leaders around Queens and the city who tried their hand at running a public school last Thursday as part of the annual Principal for a Day program.

The event, now in its 10th year, is aimed at giving people who are normally not directly involved with education a chance to see first-hand what it is like to head a New York City public school. Principal for a Day is run through PENCIL, the Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning non-profit group, and hosts more than 400 principals each year.

Marshall, a former teacher, presided at PS 116 at 107-25 Wren Place in Jamaica and was greeted by a chorus of "Good morning, Ms. Marshall" in each classroom she visited.

"I feel really welcome," she said to one second-grade class. "I love being in a classroom with you children. I think it's the greatest place to be."

Students learned about Marshall's life inside and outside of politics, as they asked her questions about her job, her election, her family and her favorite color - red.

Marshall explained that she oversees government agencies and community groups in Queens to insure the borough runs smoothly.

"I meet a lot of people and I help resolve a lot of problems," she said. "I love what I do. I've been in the state Legislature, the city legislature, and now I'm only for Queens. I help things work better for the whole borough, and I get to come visit schools like this one."

Marshall also gave the students a brief lesson on the city's budget deficit.

"I'm very worried about the budget because we need more schools in Queens so everyone has a seat," she said. "It's my job to make sure we get enough money for schools and make sure the schools are working well. Obviously, this one is working very, very well."

Marshall, who participated in the Principal for a Day program last year at the East Elmhurst school her children attended, has always made education a priority.

"A society is measured by its education system," she said. "Our most treasured resource in the whole world is people. The only way to nurture people is to educate them."

Principal for a Day John Schreiber brought nourishment in the form of a seven-piece band to PS 140, the Edward "Duke" Ellington School, at 116th Avenue and 166th Street in Jamaica. The jazz band put on two performances for the District 28 students, exposing the children to a number of Ellington's styles and techniques, as heard in songs such as the "C Jam Blues" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (if it Ain't Got that Swing)."

"I know from experience how significant early positive experiences with music can be for children," Schreiber said. "A lot of kids this age have not heard live music. Many of them have not heard jazz music performed."

Schreiber, a Hollis native who won a Tony Award for his company's production of "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," also brought a special guest, Duke Ellington's granddaughter, Mercedes Ellington.

"I think it's really important the kids make a connection between Duke Ellington and their lives," he said. "It becomes more vital to them."

Mercedes Ellington, a renowned dancer and choreographer, joined the band for a little two-step and to share an anecdote about her grandfather.

"I didn't get to see my grandfather very much while I was growing up," she said. "I remember I used to call him 'Uncle Edward,' even though he was my grandfather, and he would call me 'Aunt Mercedes.'"

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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