Volume 75, Number 17 | September 14 - 20, 2005

Back to School
A special Villager supplement

New principal at P.S. 20 is setting the bar high

By Vanessa Romo

Villager photo by Talisman Brolin
Felix Gil
The first time Felix Ricardo Gil set foot in a school as a teacher, it was the smell that got to him. Fifteen years and several promotions later the novelty still hasn’t worn off. Walking through the halls of P.S. 20 where Gil is making the transition from assistant principal to principal, he smiled broadly and inhaled deeply. “There’s something so familiar about the smell of a school,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but they all have that smell, it just takes you back.”

This type of enthusiasm is not unusual for Gil, 35, who joked that P.S. 20 has taken over his life, especially since learning he would become principal. Although Gil had been assistant principal of the Lower East Side school on Essex St. for the last school year, he said he was surprised when Leonard Golubchick, the former principal for 28 years, announced his retirement.

“He’s a legend around here,” Gil said, referring to Golubchick whose reforms and innovations helped transform P.S. 20 from one of the worst-performing schools in the city to among the best. “No one expected Dr. Golubchick to retire anytime soon, so when I came, I thought I was going to be here for a long time as assistant principal,” he said.

But Gil is undaunted by the legacy left behind by Golubchick, whom he calls “a fixture in the community that’s irreplaceable.” And he is determined to carry on along a similar path in his own way.

Sitting behind a large metal desk in his new office, which had just received a fresh coat of paint, he said, “I’m coming into a fantastic situation. I’m very happy to be here, because Dr. Golubchick and the teachers have created an incredible school, along with the community.”

P.S. 20, which had about 850 pre-kindergarten-to-sixth-grade students enter the school last week, has received nationwide attention for its results in improving student’s state test scores. With 60 percent of students reading at grade level and 75 percent doing math at grade level, the school is ranked in the top 15 percent of New York City’s public schools. The students are mainly from low-income families and are either immigrants or first-generation Americans.

Gil plans to continue to develop many of Golubchick’s programs, including staff development training which he said is imperative to meet the ever-changing needs of students. He will also keep striving to obtain the “holy grail of education — that point at which every student in every classroom is where they’re supposed to be and no one is left back.”

He rests the responsibility for achieving this goal squarely on his shoulders and those of his teachers. “There are still kids we’re not reaching and that is unacceptable,” he said. “It’s not enough to have one way of teaching anymore. For teachers to say, ‘Well I taught him what I was supposed to teach him, he just didn’t get it,’ then pass the responsibility on to the next teacher,” he said, his voice climbing in exasperation. “With all we know about cognitive education today, teachers need to have a bag of tricks that will work for all the students in their classroom.”

It is also the reason that class size needs to remain small, said Gil. “Even though we’re a school of 850, it feels like we’re a school of 120 and that’s because of our practices and what we do. No one here is anonymous. Everyone has a name. Everyone here is an individual.”

Gil’s passion for producing innovative teachers who are willing to explore new methods of communicating with students comes from his own experience as a public school student. Growing up in Washington Heights, Gil attended P.S. 98, J.H.S. 52 and Norman Thomas High School. But it wasn’t until the fifth grade that he went from being a mediocre student who had a difficult time in school to an excellent one with a voracious appetite for learning.

“What was happening is that I was just bored out of my mind and wasn’t challenged in a way that could really tap into what I could do,” he said. But everything changed when he was transferred into a new class. “I found this teacher in the fifth grade who was incredible and who really turned it around. Ms. Sherman,” he said with a smile and a nostalgic sigh. “If it were not for those incredible teachers who took time to work with me and find out what it was that really made me tick, I probably would have ended up on a street corner like some of my friends on the block. I don’t think I would have gone to college.”

Except for a brief stint as a manager at a sugar production company, Gil has spent his professional career in education despite comments from friends and even teachers that he was too smart to go into a field that was not financially lucrative. He taught social studies and language arts courses for 10 years and was assistant principal at Corlears Middle School on the Lower East Side for three years before taking the position at P.S. 20 in 2004.

“I’m really excited to get started,” Gil said, on the edge of his seat. He’s looking forward to working with Javier Muniz, P. S. 20’s new assistant principal whose former position at the Region 9 Office of English Language Learners will benefit the students learning English tremendously, he said. Referring to Muniz and the entire staff at P.S. 20, Gil said, “We’re running the school as partners. It’s a community here. It’s not just the principal. It’s the principal, the counselors, teachers and the assistant principal working together.”

Leaning back in his chair and clapping his hands together, Gil sat silently for a moment. Finally he said, “The thing that hasn’t changed in education from time immemorial is that you’re dealing with kids and kids are amazing.”

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