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Before becoming principal in May 2012 at P.S. 154 Jonathan D. Hyatt in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, Alison Coviello had been a science teacher for 10 years at the long struggling elementary school. She knew from that experience that improving the learning environment for students would require major changes in the ways the faculty conducted their work. No one was talking with each other,” she says. “We were so used to being told how bad we were, and we were so scared, that no one wanted to go into anyone’s classroom, give feedback, or open their classroom. 

One of Coviello’s priorities upon taking over was to get her former teaching colleagues to become comfortable learning from each other, opening themselves to new ideas, and adapting how they lead classrooms to better engage with children. That process was rocky and difficult, and teachers who resisted her changes did not remain at the school. But as virtually all of the teachers who remain at P.S. 154 will attest, it worked, and students are benefitting as a result: proficiency on the State English Language Arts test rose from 5 percent in 2013 to nearly 57 percent in 2019, and on Math from 2 percent to 37 percent(Note: though the tests changed over that time, the magnitude of the score increases at P.S. 154 was among the largest among all NYC schools).

Unlike in the past, all P.S. 154 teachers now work closely together to analyze data about the progress of their students, both to identify challenges that individual students may be facing and class-wide gaps  that may require instructional changes. Teacher José Fernandez, who has been at the school for 17 years describes the changes under Coviello as “night and day. 

“We focus on what skills each child needs to get to the next level and figure out strategies for accomplishing that,” he says. “Then we communicate how to present those strategies to the child so everyone is on the same page.”  

Parents have noticed the positive changes. Victoria Wales is a mother of two children now at P.S. 154 and previously sent her four older children to the school. “It’s totally different,” she saysMy kids study a lot more now. They actually want to come to school. I used to have to force them. Every day my son gets dressed before I do. He is always waiting for me to get ready. I tell him he’s got plenty of time, but he wants to get going to school.”

“It’s totally different. My kids study a lot more now. They actually want to come to school. I used to have to force them. Every day my son gets dressed before I do. He is always waiting for me to get ready. I tell him he’s got plenty of time, but he wants to get going to school.” – Victoria Wales, P.S. 154 parent

Photo of Principal Alison Coviello

P.S. 154’s Principal Coviello encourages her teachers to collaborate and learn from one another. Under her leadership, student outcomes at P.S. 154 have significantly improved since she first took the helm in 2012.

Not long after becoming principal, Coviello took a series of small steps to move her faculty toward the collaborative culture that research shows is essential to effective schools. “At first we just kind of sat together and talked,” she saysAnd even that was scary for people. Then we started to go into classrooms and try to give feedback to one another. But I can remember people sitting there not knowing what to say.” 

The following year, during a collaborative walk, the teachers were well ahead of me and went right into the classroom by themselves,” Coviello recallsThat’s how knew things were shifting.” 

The principal’s other critical move was to ask teachers to participate in a four-day institute called “Responsive Classroom,” which she believes is the central reason why the school’s culture has transformed for the better. key element of the Responsive Classroom approach is to help foster community in the school. “We do morning meetings in every single classroom to build inclusiveness and allow kids to wash away anything difficult that might have happened at home or outside the school,” Coviello saysWe stand and we greet each other and we shake hands and look each other in the eye. We also give kids an opportunity to share and ask questions of each other. It’s supposed to be fun while bringing people together.”

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NYC Department of Education, 2019