Q&A with Automotive High’s principal: ‘There’s always pressure in this building’

There may not be another principal in New York City under more pressure than Caterina Lafergola.

The head of Automotive High School since 2011, Lafergola has been tasked with improving one of the two most notoriously low-performing schools in the city. For years, less than half of the students at the Greenpoint high school have graduated on time. It weathered a nasty labor dispute in 2012 and faced the threat of closure more than once. This year, a string of highly critical stories in the New York Post damaged school morale.

Speaking in her office after another meeting about her school’s future on Tuesday night, the 44-year-old Lafergola joked about where the stress has taken its toll.

“Look at all the gray hairs and wrinkles,” she said. “I’m really only 25.”

But she is both serious and defensive when asked to discuss her work in more detail. Last year, every Automotive employee — including Lafergola — had to reapply for their jobs. This year, the school is juggling the requirements of two school-improvement programs, including the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program, which has brought new services and boosted the school’s budget.

Big challenges remain. Of Automotive’s 32 teachers, 14 had never taught before this month. A new state law means the school is also dealing with the threat of an outside takeover. And only a handful of parents attended the Tuesday hearing.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Lafergola said in an interview. “You gotta be tough.”

Chalkbeat asked Lafergola about what she’s learned from four years leading Automotive and what her plans are for the year ahead. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On why only a couple of parents attended the hearing
Tomorrow is back-to-school night and parents have to make a choice: When do I take off of work?

Our parents don’t live in the neighborhood. None of our children come from this area. And our parents have big responsibilities. It’s not that they don’t care about their kids. It’s that they have to sometimes make difficult choices.

On high stakes
I’ve been here since 2011, and in five years I think we’ve had three or four different kinds of reform. I think the stakes are always high. I don’t know that the pressure is any more or less this year. We’re a school that’s constantly under a microscope, so there’s always pressure in this building.

The biggest pressure is bad press. Bad press that’s not true. And it’s very demoralizing to the people in the building and the kids who know what’s going on in this building to read the trash that’s in the newspapers.

But in terms of support I don’t think we’ve ever had this kind of targeted support before. I feel very optimistic this year, and I feel like the data today showed that we’re making progress. But we never get credit for what we do in this building.

On the challenges her students bring to school
They’re traumatized. Last year, one of our babies was murdered. Died like a dog in the street.

I mean, that’s traumatic. These kids suffer trauma constantly. They have adults in their lives, and not necessarily their family, that pigeonhole them into these slots without really ever taking a chance to getting to know them. They have adults who make promises and don’t keep them. They have adults who judge them. They have a society that judges them without ever getting to know who they are. So I think that our children suffer from a tremendous degree of trauma.

And I think that they suffer from a tremendous degree of ambivalence about what school has to offer them. I think that, in many cases, because boys engage differently than girls in a classroom, people often mistake their energy and their spirit for a lack of ability. But the problem is that we’re not channeling their ability properly. And so when we assume that kids don’t have potential, we treat them a certain way. And that’s the worst thing you can do to a child.

Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola. (Photo by Geoff Decker)

On her new teachers, and the ones who stayed
I have 14 brand spanking new teachers. That brings a challenge in itself. I think that it’s a learning curve for everyone, but we’re excited about the potential.

We have some veteran teachers that are new to the school, and then we have teachers that have been here who are the backbone of this school. We have our career and technical education staff, some of our deans. We had a teacher recently transition to an assistant principal’s position.

So the core of people that remained after the rehiring process from the previous staff — these are people who are truly committed to the vision of this school and truly committed to the students of Automotive High School. That’s not to say that the people that came before weren’t committed. But it’s a different kind of energy, it’s a different kind of work.

And I think that the new teachers, it’s hard for them too. This is only their 11th day of school. And kids, no matter where you are, when you’re the new person they’re going to push you to see how invested you are in your work.

On her biggest challenge, professionally and personally
Lots of compliance issues — just lots of different moving pieces — and still remaining true to the idea of knowing the kids and being in classrooms. You get pulled out a lot, last year especially. And especially at the end of the year with all the hiring. It was really difficult.

You can’t do this work unless you love it because it will chew you up and spit you out. I love the work. I love the kids. It’s what it’s about. But sometimes, especially in a situation that we’re in — the politics and the media — if you’re not really focused and you don’t know what the work is about, it’s very easy to fall prey to that diversion and not really keep your eye on the kids. There are days where I don’t leave here until 10 at night and I’m here at 6:30 in the morning every morning. It’s hard work. It’s not easy work.

As the principal, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. So you could be the best principal in the world, but people are only going to look at what mistake you made. That’s what they’re going to remember. They’re not going to remember all the kids you touched. They’re not going to remember all the positive changes you made. They’re only going to remember what they want to remember.

So that’s a challenge. But in my mind, I go to sleep with a clear conscience every night knowing that I’m doing what’s right for kids and that’s the only thing that keeps me going.

On the rollout of the Renewal turnaround program
I think that, comparatively speaking, I’ve been very fortunate with the support that I have received as the leader of this building and that the school has received as a whole. I think that what we’ve asked for, we’ve gotten.

I think that the restaffing was a huge move by the Department of the Education and the UFT [the city teachers union]. I have to give credit where credit is due. The UFT could have said no, we’re not doing this. People had to come to the table and agree to do this, and I think that the process here was done with fidelity. I think that we were fortunate because we were able to really have the difficult conversations, always guided by what’s best for kids.

On the hiring and re-hiring process
It was a very different process this time around. That’s what I’ll say. And the very same people at the table. Not on the city side, but on the UFT side. And the process was very different.

We were very thoughtful with the questions and how we crafted them. We were very thoughtful in what to look for. Those took hours. I think at one point it took days to create those questions and come to an agreement around what the decision would be for what to look for and how we would rate them.

On what hiring brand-new teachers has taught her
I don’t think the teacher preparation programs are in line with the realities of education today in urban schools. So I think that our prospective candidates were not always as abreast of best practices and understanding of the keys to good instruction as we would have liked to have seen. I think that maybe we need to start shifting the focus of teacher preparation.

On how the school has changed since she took over
When I took over this school, this place was a madhouse. There were 20-minute transitions [between classes], there were rampant gang affiliations, there were drugs. It was a disaster in here.

You walk in this building now, three minutes and they’re in the classrooms. The kids are happy to be here and that shows in the attendance.

There’s no rocket science here. It’s getting kids to come here because they feel safe. They feel valued and they feel like they’re getting an education. They’re being treated respectfully. Nobody talks about that.

Nobody talks about the fact that this school was one of the most violent schools in New York City. There’s a reason why there are metal detectors in this building. No one has been able to do what my team and I have done in the five years that I have been here. No one has been able to do that. And we did it because we treat kids like human beings and we listen to them and we get to the underlying issues so that they don’t manifest in negative behavior. Nobody wants to know about that.

How the Common Core standards are changing how her students learn
Say what you want about Common Core — I don’t necessarily like the rollout of Common Core — but I think that Common Core is producing a higher caliber of student. Because we’re creating kids who are thinkers.

I’m not saying that they’re coming on grade level, but I think that they’re coming with better skill sets. I think that we’re definitely seeing kids who are coming in with the stamina to write a paragraph, with the stamina to read a passage knowing how to annotate.

On running a school where 98 percent of students are boys
It just looks different. It feels different. And I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I would much rather work with my boys than anyone else, but when you’re dealing with adolescent males, and if you’re not equipped, and you don’t understand the male adolescent mind, it is difficult sometimes to reach them.

On Automotive’s approach to discipline
I’ll be honest, we do not do restorative practices. That is what we’re working toward now. We just do the Kathy Lafergola approach to kids, which is, be straight with them, be consistent, be honest, and be fair. And listen. And you know what? It works.

On getting a ‘F’ on her progress report from the city in 2013
I’m a perfectionist. I’m a competitive person. Never in my life have I had a “F” next to my name. I don’t even have words, and God knows I can talk.

We had a lot of work to undo and we have a lot of work to do. People want this instantaneous change, but if you read any of the literature it takes between five and seven years to turn around a school. So we’re well-positioned at this point to get to the tipping point, but it takes time.