Monday, November 7, 2011

48 Years at Helm, Doing What’s Always Worked

Madeleine P. Brennan maintains Dyker Heights Intermediate School 201 in Brooklyn as something of a time capsule.

Female secretaries, guidance counselors and assistant principals are asked to wear dresses or skirts; teachers may wear slacks, but not dungarees; men all wear ties. The marble staircase shines; the hallways are painted a classic pale blue. Each year before Christmas, there is Rhinestone Week, in which Mrs. Brennan encourages staff members to rummage through their grandmothers’ things for old costume jewelry to wear.

But the prize artifact of the past is Mrs. Brennan herself, who has been principal of the school for 48 years, longer than most of her teachers have been alive — longer, experts believe, than any other principal in the country. When she first arrived to work at this imposing brick building in March 1963, John F. Kennedy was president, ZIP codes were not yet in use, and the nearby Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was still under construction.

She has outlasted more than a dozen schools chancellors, who made what she described as “little changes here and there,” and watched a student body dominated by the children of Italian immigrants transform into one that is 45 percent Asian-American and 18 percent Hispanic.

But as the city embarks on an overhaul of its middle schools, Mrs. Brennan believes that what works remains the same. Consistent rules and consequences. A dedicated, hard-working staff. A calendar stuffed with activities like a Shakespeare fair and an annual musical. Sincere care for your charges.

“Teenagers fascinate me,” Mrs. Brennan said in an interview in her pin-straight office. “They are peculiar ducks, neither fish nor fowl. And you have to love them to really work with them. If you don’t love them, you are up a tree.”

On Tuesday, the city principals’ union plans to honor Mrs. Brennan, the only principal who has been around nearly as long as the 50-year-old union itself. “It’s almost dizzying when I think about how many students and educators Madeleine has inspired over the course of her long career in New York City public education,” said Ernest A. Logan, the union’s president.

She earns $148,000 a year, but with her pension and 401(k), she would make more by retiring. “I don’t care,” she said. “If you like what you are doing, you can do it for a lifetime.”

Mrs. Brennan — who stands under five feet tall, with rouged cheeks, vaguely pink set hair, and chunky clip-on earrings — keeps her age a closely guarded secret. Suffice it to say that her first day of work as a New York City teacher, according to school records, was in 1946.

She still remembers how she took the train that September morning from her home in Forest Hills, Queens, to a poor neighborhood in central Brooklyn, to teach algebra and gym. She wore a new pumpkin-colored silk dress with a Chinese neck and cap sleeves. She had wanted to be a teacher since childhood, playing school under the great arbor in her yard in Woodhaven, Queens.

Arriving at Dyker Heights for her first principal’s post, she was tasked with transforming a troubled kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school into a real junior high. Graffiti marked the walls. Unruly teenagers — “big galoots,” she called them — were smashing windows. Mrs. Brennan introduced a school song, an honor society, a band, a yearbook and a strict code of discipline.

Pride of place on her office wall belongs to a large framed certificate, dated 1970, that is a cherished reminder of how things turned around: after inspectors pored over the school for a week — counting every book in the library, interviewing every teacher — the state officially accredited it as a junior high.

Today, I.S. 201 has about 1,500 students, 68 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. It has earned A’s on the city’s progress reports each of the last three years and sends many of its students to top city high schools.
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