Volume 75, Number 16 | September 07 - 13, 2005

Back to School

A special Villager supplement

Dr. G retires at P.S. 20; cured once-troubled school


By Vanessa Romo

After 28 years of standing beside the brightly painted double doors leading into Public School 20 and greeting students and parents by name each morning, Principal Leonard Golubchick, a beloved figure at the school, retired with little fanfare on Aug. 31.

Golubchick, who’s best known by students and staff members as Dr. G, has been lauded nationwide for the work he’s accomplished at the Lower East Side elementary school, where most of the children are from low-income families. Throughout his tenure, he implemented a remarkable number of arts and education programs and dramatically increased the school’s test scores, placing P.S. 20 in the top 15 percent of city schools in reading and math.

But it wasn’t always this way, said Golubchick, 61. When he started in 1978, the school was an environment fraught with tension between students and teachers where more emphasis was placed on discipline than learning. At the time, 400 students were enrolled at P.S. 20 and it was one of the worst-performing schools in the city, ranked in the bottom 10 percent in reading and math.

“My first day as principal, I walked into a school where gangs roamed the halls and teachers didn’t talk to each other. They’d argue in the hallways and kids would have bloody fights and general chaos reigned,” he said, shaking his head at the memory.

Today enrollment at P.S. 20 has more than doubled. About 850 pre-kindergarten-to-sixth grade students have registered for the new school year starting Sept. 8. Nearly all are immigrant children or first-generation Americans and 65 percent are learning English as a second language. Ninety-nine percent of students receive free lunches.

Yet, thanks to Golubchick and his staff, test scores consistently improved and the school has become a model for innovation.

“One of the things I’ve always tried to do here is to make sure that children are on path,” he said, punctuating each word with a darting gesture of his right hand for emphasis. “Teachers assess children and keep raising the bar and the assessment is such that the children understand how they’re being assessed. They can tell you how they can move from one level to another. Right away it makes them smarter because when you know what you have to do to be successful it stands to reason you will strive to obtain that goal. And that’s part of the philosophical base which has helped us move the educational agenda here.”

Just days before his official departure, Golubchick stood in the school’s main hallway doing what he does best — he talked with teachers about maximizing funding and stretching the school’s precious dollars as far as possible to serve the greatest number of students.

“I call it a mosaic of funding,” he said referring to the various grants he has secured for the school’s arts, dance, computer, tutoring and architecture programs over the years.

A virtual grant guru, Golubchick has funded class field trips to national monuments and museums, Science Day, Saturday tutoring, a Dear Santa gift program and even a literacy program for parents by partnering with companies like Estée Lauder, Scholastic and Wachovia Bank.

The school recently received a $125,000 grant from Borough President Virginia Fields for technology. Henry Street Settlement has partnered with P.S. 20 for the last 15 years, providing after-school art and architecture classes.

A product of the public school system, Golubchick said he was a less-than-perfect student. “I really was not a good student in the classical term of good student,” he said with a mischievous smile. Instead, he was an inquisitive child who “sometimes didn’t fit the box that teachers try to put students in.” Which is why, he said, the teachers and staff at P.S. 20 think outside the box. “P.S. 20 is a large school,” he said, “but it’s really like an alternative school with an alternative-school philosphy in the ways that we incorporate social studies themes with the arts and technology.”

Golubchick, whose life story is the stuff boys’ fantasies are made of — he played minor league baseball in the Carolina League for a year after high school until he was injured running into a hole in the outfield, and he helped “capture Nazis and general bad guys” serving in intelligence in the U.S. Navy — said his decision to leave the school, though difficult, was a financial one. “Sometimes we have to make executive decisions in our lives,” he said. “And this was a financial decision.”

But Golubchick is not retiring from the education field. He will continue to teach social studies courses as an adjunct professor at Hunter College and Long Island University, which he has been doing for several years. He’ll also continue working on grants in an official capacity on an “as-needed” basis.

He has great faith in Felix Gil, P.S. 20’s former assistant principal who will be taking over for Golubchick. “He’s an excellent person and he will continue with what has to be done educationally.”

Strolling through the school’s front doors last Tuesday he said, “Officially tomorrow’s my last day. Unofficially, never. I’ll never leave P.S. 20.” Stretching both arms wide open, as if embracing the school, he added, “We have to keep fighting for our schools and no one fights for this school like I do.”

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