Dr. Yigal Joseph will retire this June after 12 years as Principal of New Rochelle’s Columbus Elementary School. He will be missed. Dr. Joseph’s strong leadership, marked by a boundless enthusiasm for improvement and genuine caring will be missed the most.
“He is, hands-down, the finest principal that I have ever had the privilege of working with,” said one senior-level administrator who worked with Joseph for years.
“I am going to miss his inspiration” said Luz Maldonado, the outgoing PTA President at Columbus School. “I think he understands the spirit of Columbus in our lives.”
“I will miss his compassion for the kids, his intelligence and all his good heartedness,” said Sabrina Watkins, a third grade teacher at Columbus who has worked there for 11 of Joseph’s 12 years at the school. She praised Joseph for being innovative, current and forward-thinking in his educational approach.
“I found a friend,” said Mayra Aguilar, the incoming PTA President. “He is not a principal, he is a friend. He is a power of example for everybody. If you needed anything you had him. He was always, always, always there for you and and for all the parents at Columbus. He is everything. We are going to miss him too much.
Long-time board member David Lacher, who was on the board when Dr. Joseph was hired, expressed his admiration.
“We recognized immediately in Dr. Joseph a profound intellect combined with a passion for his work which encompassed all whose lives he touched”, said Lacher.
That intellect makes Joseph unique. When Talk of the Sound recently sat down with Dr. Joseph to discuss his tenure at Columbus Elementary school he explained his educational philosophy by seamlessly weaving together strands of thought from influences that include Albert Camus, Steve Jobs, Reinhold Niebuhr, Bob Marley, Buddha, Harold of Purple Crayon fame and many more.
Dr. Yigal Joseph is a man in motion with a mind perpetually stuck in the “on” position.
When then-Superintendent Linda Kelly asked him to take over Columbus in 1999 the school was struggling. The student population included a disproportionately large percentage of high needs children — students with a large number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (the bureaucratic way of saying “poor”) and a large number of students who hear only Spanish spoken at home and can go their entire week without speaking English except at school.
The number of high needs children only continued to increase over the last dozen years yet, against the grain of conventional wisdom, students at Columbus — a science magnet school — have thrived. The school consistently outperforms the rest of the district in state Math exams.
Despite the strong test performance, Dr. Joseph takes issue with the tests themselves.
“These are dangerous times for education,” he said. “I agree with accountability but I do not agree with the methodology.”
At the same time, Joseph is a realist. He knows there is demand for greater accountability both for students and teachers.
“I tell my teachers, you have to get scores up so you can do other things.”
That mix of healthy skepticism for easy solutions, an unbounded optimism and a practical realism is quintessential Joseph.
Many educators fear accountability because they do not want to be accountable. Joseph recognizes this.
“Not everyone can accept accountability. Some teachers will look for someone to blame.”
Adding to a system that includes ELA and Math tests from 3rd to 8th grade, the New York State Report Card and AYP ratings (Adequate Yearly Progress), New York State is incorporating the new Annual Professional Performance Review or “APPR” which measures teacher performance based, in part, on standardized state tests.
Joseph objects to state’s new APPR because it undermines his belief that for a school community to succeed there must be a shared vision among the teachers.
“The new APPR only serves to pit teacher against teacher.”
He believes that investing the school with a shared vision of success is at the root of the success of the faculty and staff at Columbus have had in working with the largest high needs population in the district.
“Schools can organize for success”, said Joseph. “You start with high expectations and provide the resources and support”.
Every member of the staff from the pedagogic staff to janitors, cleaners, hall monitors, lunchroom monitors and security staff are part of that shared vision. Cleanliness and order pervade the building which is consistently among the best maintained in the district.
It has not always been easy to instill the idea in teachers to have high expectations. Joseph points to a 33% turnover rate in new teaching staff at Columbus under his watch. Yet after the initial disruptive effect of Joseph’s approach there is also stability. Only 3% of the teachers have been at the school for less than three years suggesting that a weeding out process that began more than 10 years ago is largely complete.
Dr. Joseph expresses the challenge as overcoming the “Tyranny of Good Enough”. He rails against the idea that there is an acceptable level of mediocrity that makes “good enough” acceptable for “these kids”.
“We are capable of excellence”, said Joseph.
He sees no room for complacency and is comfortable with confrontation. He notes that to make a pearl requires a grain of sand inside an oyster, implicitly acknowledging his role as a disruptive force.
Yigal Jopseh’s firmly held beliefs on education and administration have been shaped over a 40 year career than began in upstate New York. He began teaching English in 1970 at East High School in Buffalo, NY. As a young, wide-eyed optimist he said he believed like many of his generation that he could change minds and, in so doing, change the world, quoting Bob Marley to make this point.
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”
“Teaching was more like a calling”, said Joseph. “I was interested in social justice”.
He spent several years working at the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village, New York City’s first progressive school. Founded as a public-private education experiment in 1921 to apply the educational theories of John Dewey in am ethnically diverse public school, the Little Red School House became a private school in 1932 largely due to opposition from within the public school system to the progressive ideas on education. While there he went to graduate school and became a school psychologist.
His career as a school psychologist eventually took him to the Chancellor’s Office of School Improvement to review schools and supervise intern training where he remained until he came to New Rochelle in 1999.
Joseph took away from these experiences a strong commitment to problem-based learning which emphasizes independent-thought consisting of critical thinking, decision-making and problem solving.
As an example, when students at Columbus were getting injured playing soccer during recess his initial reaction was to prohibit students from playing soccer at recess.
“We have over 250 4th and 5th graders on the ball field and playground during recess; and we have more than 280 2nd and 3rd graders,” said Joseph. “Forgetting the space issues, the lunch monitors are not well versed in organized play and we were unable to get them to coordinate that.”
Last spring, fourth grade students in Mrs. Zaccagnino’s homeroom wrote a letter to Dr. Joseph asking him to permit soccer games during lunchtime recess. He explained his apprehension and discussed the matter with his direct supervisor, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Korostoff.
Joseph saw the issue as an opportunity as a real life “problem-based learning opportunity” of direct interest to the children. Dr. Joseph suggested to the students that they write a letter to Korostoff and Kelly Johnson, New Rochelle Deputy Commissioner of Parks & Recreation about the possibility of creating an elementary school inter-scholastic soccer league as was done with basketball.
“My only caution is that this should not be a simulation.” wrote Joseph at the time. “Problem-based learning is authentic problem-solving with a legitimate outcome. If we are not hopeful that this could get off the ground then let’s not lead them down a slippery slope.”
Joseph then worked with teachers to turn the approach to Korostoff and Johnson into an class-wide interactive writing assignment to make the case for starting a league.
“Their teacher did a wonderful job in shepherding their thoughts; they made sure to include the girls and the less involved classmates. I thought their letter was terrific,” said Joseph.
The next step was a meeting between the students and Dr. Korostoff and Deputy Commissioner Johnson. The pair met with the students to do a needs assessment and to begin to determine the level of interest. The students were then charged with gathering information that would be required to consider going forward with the idea and to determine funding costs and budget development.
The problem of injuries during unsupervised play at recess was turned into a practical, solvable real-world problem, “How could we play soccer in a safe way?” which led to more problems to solve such as “Could we start up a soccer league?” and “What are the costs that we would need to cover?” Johnson is now working with New Rochelle Parks and Recreation Commissioner Bill Zimmerman to secure fields with the hope of starting things off with an inaugural inter-scholastic weekend soccer tournament.
For Johnson, the experience of being in the classroom for a real-world example of problem-based learning was rewarding.
“I enjoyed being part of the process,” said Johnson. “I had never seen or witnessed how the students went from concept to a vision to a commitment to make it happen.”
The development of an inter-scholastic soccer league epitomizes Dr. Joseph’s approach and impact on the school. Having made a decision to ban soccer at recess it would have easy to simply reject the appeal from students and just as easy to given in to student or parent pressure to let the students play soccer at lunch time. Instead, the more arduous, complex path was taken. The issue was turned into a year-long learning opportunity that both engaged and empowered students, one that will afford additional learning opportunities down the road — how to select teams, how to schedule games, what sort of uniforms to wear, and more.
Dr. Joseph frames much of his thinking on education in terms of empowering change agents — teachers, students, parents, staff.
Joseph is in a war against what Albert Camus, another influence, called the “absurd orthodoxy of habit”.
In his best-selling metaphorical novel, The Plague, the French-Algerian existentialist wrote:
Many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits, as yet. Plague was an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come.
For Joseph, change is about not just make changes in habits but obliterating them entirely through a process of continual improvement. There is no such thing as “gradual change”.
“It’s not enough to have ‘practical strategies”, said Joseph. “Change is sudden”.
Joseph acknowledges with specific off-the-record examples the need to have sharp elbows over the years to fend off forces both inside and outside the building that would seek to undo what he has built at Columbus. Other battles have been made public.
Shortly after he took the helm at Columbus, Dr. Joseph began to express his dissatisfaction with the district’s centralized approach to Special Education students which was to refer students with suspected disabilities to the Committee on Special Education (“CSE”). Joseph believed that his staff had a better understanding of their students and their needs and that he had the resources in the school building to address those needs better than an outside committee. He worked with his own team to develop a strategy of identifying and responding to struggling learners without a referral to the CSE. This led to a turf war with the Special Education department which saw Joseph’s approach as an attempt to circumvent their processes. The approach worked out by Dr. Joseph and his team at Columbus is a custom-version of the RTI program later adopted by New Rochelle district-wide hence the recognition that Dr. Joseph was doing RTI before the rest of the district.
Joseph has taken on his fellow psychologists, as well.
Joseph often cites educational theorist Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University. Dweck rejects the notion that intelligence is innate and that students are either lucky and born smart or unlucky and not. Joseph embraces her work on the the Effort Effect which rejects the notion of fixed intelligence, instead holding that intelligence is fluid, a notion not accepted by many psychologists.
Another battle he has fought has been against the conclusions in the highly influential Coleman Report (Equality of Educational Opportunity, 1966) which held that student performance derives from family background.
The report is often cited as an argument that school funding has little effect on student achievement. It is often referenced by both sides, albeit unknowingly in most cases, in the so-called “North-South” debates over public education in New Rochelle. Critics of the district, especially district spending, cite the conclusions of the report to argue that high taxes to support lavish school spending does not translate into good education. Proponents of the district often blame poor outcomes at certain schools (e.g., Isaac E. Young Middle School) and among certain sub-groups (e.g., Black/African-American, Latino) on the failure of parents to get involved with their children’s education.
Dr. Joseph sidesteps the debate by rejecting the entire premise of Coleman.
He is strongly influenced by the work of Ronald R. Edmonds who introduced the concept of Effective Schools. Edmonds sought to reframe the findings of the Coleman Report, arguing that it is school response to family background not family background alone that determines student performance.
In 1979, while on the faculty at Harvard and working in the New York City school system, Edmonds wrote:
I want to end this discussion by noting as unequivocally as I can what seem to me the most tangible and indispensable characteristics of effective schools: (a) They have strong administrative leadership without which the disparate elements of good schooling can neither be brought together nor kept together; (b) Schools that are instructionally effective for poor children have a climate of expectation in which no children are permitted to fall below minimum but efficacious levels of achievement; (c) The school’s atmosphere is orderly without being rigid, quiet without being oppressive, and generally conducive to the instructional business at hand; (d) Effective schools get that way partly by making it clear that pupil acquisition of basic school skills takes precedence over all other school activities; (e) When necessary. school energy and resources can be diverted from other business in furtherance of the fundamental objectives; and (f) There must be some means by which pupil progress can be frequently monitored. These means may be as traditional as classroom testing on the day’s lesson or as advanced as criterion referenced systemwide standardized measures. The point is that some means must exist in the school by which the principal and the teachers remain constantly aware of pupil progress in relationship to instructional objectives.
For Joseph, inspiring teachers to have a high expectation of their students is crucial to a school’s success.
“Beliefs are so powerful because they generate real outcomes”, said Joseph, producing a 1998 article from the New York Times to support his point.
…scientists, as they learn that the placebo effect is even more powerful than anyone had been able to demonstrate, are also beginning to discover the biological mechanisms that cause it to achieve results that border on the miraculous. Using new techniques of brain imagery, they are uncovering a host of biological mechanisms that can turn a thought, belief or desire into an agent of change in cells, tissues and organs. They are learning that much of human perception is based not on information flowing into the brain from the outside world but what the brain, based on previous experience, expects to happen next.
Dr. Joseph likes to tell the story of how Columbus teachers responded to his insistence on the power of belief to cause real change by presenting him with a copy of Harold and the Purple Crayon, a 1955 children’s book by Crockett Johnson. It is not hard to understand why:
Harold, is a curious four-year-old boy who, with his purple crayon, has the power to create a world of his own simply by drawing it. Harold wants to go for a walk in the moonlight, but there is no moon, so he draws one. He has nowhere to walk, so he draws a path. He has many adventures looking for his room, he draws his own house and bed and starts going to sleep. He does so only in his dreams though.
Joseph is Harold but a wide-awake Harold, creating a new reality through belief supported by means turned into action.
The power of the teacher to transform lives through believing in and supporting students is described in a book that Joseph regularly distributes to teachers, Thank You Mr. Falker, an autobiographical account of a struggling learner by Patricia Polacco. In the book, she tells how, as a young student with dyslexia she struggled to read. At a time when not much was done to address learning disabilities she describes the feeling of drowning and in need of rescue. The low self-esteem that came with her struggles were compounded by a bully who teased her and made her “feel dumb”. Mr. Falker intervened to stop the bullying and through that experience came to learn of her reading difficulties. He got her a reading specialist and today she is a published author with many books to her credit.
Mr. Falker had reached into the most lonely darkness and pulled me into bright sunlight and sat me on a shooting star. I shall never forget him…so this book was written both to honor Mr. Falker, but also to warn young people that mean words have a terrible power…and that they should do all that they can to see that teasing stops at their school.
It has not all been a bed of roses for Joseph — or his staff.
“Initially there was resistance to teams that were self-directed”, said Joseph. He said many teachers have long been accustomed to top-down, male-dominated leadership. The reaction of many teachers during his first year was to worry about who will be blamed if students don’t perform when they are being made responsible within a distributed leadership model.
He tells the story of several changes he made after his first year, what he calls his “assessment year”, during which many people were coming to him with a great deal of information all at once. He watched and listened, looking for ways to makes sudden, impactful change.
One of the first things he noticed was that certain core subjects were being de-emphasized in a school schedule that revolved around the AMPEL program ( Art, Music, Physical Education, and Library).
“I observed that when time ran out in classrooms, social studies and science went out the window,” said Joseph.
In seeking to identify the reason the school schedule was anchored around AMPEL, Joseph discovered that the gym teacher was preparing the schedule. When he asked the gym teacher why she was taking on the added responsibility of schedule development, she said “I want to give myself the best schedule”. Joseph took the scheduling responsibility away from the gym teacher and made core subjects the priority.
A second change was to end the practice of punishing kids by putting them in the hallway.
A third was to adopt a co-teaching model where ESL teachers were based in the classrooms avoiding the need to pull ELL students out of the regular classroom during the school day, a major disruption in a school with such a large number of ELL students. Joseph recognizes that poorly done, co-teaching can be a dumping ground for failed or lazy teachers or that the classroom teacher might try to boss around the other teacher creating resentment. In a successful co-teaching environment, Joseph said, the students cannot tell which teacher is which as the teachers work side-by-side and learn from each other.
A fourth was the introduction of problem-based learning. In a problem-based learning environment, problems must be real not simulated.
“The annual EXPO event is a perfect example of problem-based learning”, said Joseph. “Last year 4th grade students work with an architect. Teams worked to create, design, and market their ideas to panel who offer a critique then make a selection. A new design is created based on the critique of the winning team and that design is actually built taking a 2-D concept to a 3-D reality.”
After these changes were made at Columbus, test scores began to increase. Yet, while good in theory, any of these changes could easily fail on their own without strong leadership as many teachers, administrators and parents noted. The difference have been Yigal Joseph.
Dr. Joseph’s mixture of boundless optimism and faith in his staff and students to overcome obstacles tempered with an understanding of human nature’s tendency to resist even beneficial change makes for what might be called a realistic idealism. This explains why he describes his role as change agent in terms of both Reinhold Niebuhr and Buddha.
Niebuhr, a theologian and American foreign policy thinker, was cited as a key influence on foreign affairs by both John McCain and Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. Obama’s acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize was heavily influence by Niebuhr.
Niebuhr rejected the idealism of many of his contemporaries before World War II in favor of “realism” in foreign policy. He became the leading proponent of the “just war” theory. Niebuhr is also widely credited with an early version what has become widely known as the Serenity Prayer.
Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.
Joseph talks a great deal about the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness”, the need to be aware of our intentions as human beings.
“We are often not aware at times of our intentions”, said Joseph, who became a Buddhist after growing up in a Jewish family. “We also need to be aware that every solution generates new problems.” He adds that the best ideas are ones that have the least collateral damage not none.
He applies these values to bringing about change in the school where being a leader is about being a change agent not a maintaining agent.
“I go to people who are likely to be the most resistant first,” said Joseph. “Preparing for change in a school often requires an iterative process.”
In June he will leave a school where he has had a tremendous impact. Asked why he is leaving after 12 years, Joseph said he has been telling people he wanted to go out on top like Michael Jordan.
Informed that Jordan did not go out on top but rather hung around the NBA for several more years after as his skills had declined and ended up spending the last two years on a losing team, Joseph showed some concern.
Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, retired from basketball after winning three NBA championships from 1992-94, signed with the Chicago White Sox minor league organization, failed to make it to the major leagues, un-retired from basketball, returned to the Bulls where he won three more NBA championships, retired, then un-retired and went on to play two desultory seasons with the Washington Wizards, a shadow of his former-self, before retiring for the third and final time in 2003.
It was suggested that he he might want to tell people he wants to go out like Sandy Koufax.
Koufax retired at the end of the 1966 season after 12 years with the Dodgers. He left the game at the peak of his career at the age of 30 due to arthritis in his left elbow. In his final seasons, he was the National League MVP (1963), pitched a perfect game (1965) and won the pitcher’s triple crown three times by leading the league in wins, strikeouts, and earned run average, winning the Cy Young Award each time — in 1963, 1965, and his last season in 1966. In 1972, he became the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Joseph happily accepted the suggestion and has begun telling people ever since he wants to go out like Sandy Koufax.
With the Jordan-Koufax dilemma solved, Joseph proudly cited a recent report on Columbus Elementary School as an example of his going out on top. The report, Know Your Schools for NY Kids, Best Practices Case Study: Meeting Critical Needs at the Elementary Level Columbus Elementary School, New Rochelle City School District, was published last summer.
The report begins:
Columbus is open and welcoming to parents, many of whom arrive with baby carriages and strollers in tow. Making parents feel comfortable at Columbus is a long-standing, school-wide goal. A bust of Christopher Columbus overlooks the school’s circular foyer, where parents and other visitors are greeted by student work posted on walls and projected from a video monitor by the security desk. Included in the student work are proposed floors plans drafted by fourth graders for the design of the Expo Exhibition Hall, a hands-on, integrated learning project.
Columbus Elementary School houses six classes each of kindergarten through grade five. Class size averages 22 students. A full-day kindergarten began in the 2009-2010 school year. The building’s cleanliness reflects a quiet energy. Student movement in the halls is orderly and comfortable. A greenhouse, nature study pond, fully-equipped science lab, digital multi-media production center, and computer lab support the learning in this magnet school for science, math and technology, a problem-based learning school. The students learn English by using it to solve real life problems.
Although Columbus Elementary has served Hispanic students, mostly from Mexico, for many years, the percentage of the Hispanic population has risen over the years, increasing the need for all teachers to teach English as a second language (ESL). Mainstream as well as ESL teachers feel responsible for developing their student’s English language ability. In 1998, 66% of students were Hispanic compared to the current 82%. Yet students consistently perform better than the state average and well above most schools with lower percentages of English Language Learners.
“As the report indicates, we have made Columbus a shining example for New Rochelle,” said a pleased Yigal Joseph looking back on his 12 years. “The teachers are excellent, we have a rigorous curriculum, the administration is respected and the building is well-maintained.”
David Lacher of the New Rochelle Board of Education may have summed it up best when he said:
“Throughout his tenure in New Rochelle, he has embodied an abiding human sensitivity, respect for his faculty and staff, engagement with his parents, and the highest regard for every student who passed through his building. For an educator, a community could not hope or wish for more.”