It didn’t take long for Jodie Cohen to distinguish herself when she became principal of James Madison High School last year.

After just one year in charge, Cohen bested over 150 principals to win the 2014 Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, an award that recognizes school leaders who jump-start successful initiatives at their schools. The prize includes a $25,000 check, sponsored by education nonprofit Teaching Matters, to be used to continue and expand their initiative.

Despite her rookie status, Cohen already knew the 3,100-student school well. She graduated from the Marine Park high school in 1989 and spent 21 years working there as a teacher and assistant principal.

But that in some ways made the job more intimidating, Cohen said on Thursday at an award ceremony with other finalists and their staffs. As the school’s new boss, she had to observe and evaluate one senior teacher who had taught her when she was a student.

“Here I am, grading them on 22 components,” said Cohen, referring to the skills that principals had to rate teachers on this year. “So, it was interesting.”

But extra classroom visits, required by the new evaluation system, is actually what helped Cohen identify the best instructional practices, she said. She used those teachers to create “model classrooms” and began urging others to visit.

“It’s not that the other teachers aren’t succeeding, but more often than not, you don’t know what’s going on in the room next door to you,” Cohen said.

Madison High School’s collaborative model fits what the Department of Education is trying to do with 72 schools through its Learning Partners Program, which encourages schools to visit one another to learn what’s working elsewhere. Cohen said she planned to apply, but didn’t think she was ready this year.

“That was a lot of commitment on our part,” she said. “We would have to allow people to visit. We do want to do that next year, but we really just wanted to ease in a little bit more.”

At Madison, one example was special education teacher Connie Hickey, who saw problems with how students with disabilities were being served in general education classrooms. Special education teachers shared the class with subject-area teachers, but the co-teaching model was disjointed and their work was isolating. 

“It tended to be, well, I’ll teach one day, you teach the next,” Hickey said. “It wasn’t working.”

Hickey and a social studies teacher worked well together at integrating special education students into their classroom. So Cohen made their classroom into a model for others to visit.

Still, it was up to Cohen to actually get teachers to visit, and she quickly realized her advocacy alone wasn’t going to work in a building with 130 teachers. To build excitement around the practice, she promoted the visits in a weekly newsletter and created a calendar to schedule visiting times.

Cohen said she plans to spend some of the $25,000 prize money to pay staff who have to put in extra hours as part of the program. Larry Melamed, an English teacher, public relations pro and grant writer for the school, is going to manage next year’s schedule for the entire school.

Cohen hired Melamed for another reason this year: to improve what Cohen referred to as the school’s “weird reputation,” caused by a small number of teachers whose scandalous behavior was gleefully chronicled by the city’s tabloids.

“That’s not what Madison High School’s all about,” she said.

Cohen’s transition was probably a lot smoother than it is for many first-year principals. She was popular among teachers as an assistant principal, so they welcomed her promotion. Also, the majority of students come from surrounding neighborhoods and few come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes. And most of the staff are seasoned educators who stay at Madison for much of their careers, so the staff had most of the ingredients needed to quickly adopt Cohen’s vision.

“All the teachers want to learn, want to do better at what they do and all they needed was a principal who fosters that learning,” said Hickey.

The Rohatyn prize is in its fourth year and named after the founder of Teaching Matters. Past winners include Salvador Fernandez, of I.S. 52 in Inwood, Rose Kerr, of Staten Island School of Civic Leadership, and Jeanne Rotunda, of West Side Collaborative.

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