During the past few months, it’s been my honor and pleasure to interview the principals of the East Side’s public schools and share their stories with East Side Monthly readers. This month, I spent time with Susan Stambler, principal of Vartan Gregorian Elementary School at Fox Point, which is located on Wickenden Street and serves 434 pre-kindergarten through fifth grade students.
A New York native, Ms. Stambler started her career as a teacher and school administrator on Long Island. She moved to Rhode Island to work as a principal in the Coventry public schools for eight years. She served as a principal in the New London (CT) public schools, and then as the director of school-aged services at Providence education nonprofit Meeting Street. In August 2012, Ms. Stambler joined the Gregorian school community, motivated by a desire to return to working as an elementary school principal and a proactive choice to participate in the Providence Public Schools.
“I missed the kids,” Ms. Stambler recalls as she describes why she moved from the nonprofit world. “For me, the most exciting part of this job is being able to see the progress that individual students make. I also wanted to work in this district. Providence schools can have a bad reputation, but that is not the reality. There is a tremendous amount to offer in this district and I wanted to be part of the change that’s happening.”
Ms. Stambler arrived at Gregorian after a period of principal turnovers that felt destabilizing to many students, staff members and parents. Despite this, Ms. Stambler perceived the school to be a strong community, bolstered by longstanding and committed family and community engagement. “I know it’s a cliché,” Ms. Stambler observed, “but it really does take a village to raise a child. Schools that are most successful are like this one, those that engage stakeholders for the benefit of all students.” In addition to a collaborative Parent-Teacher organization and strong neighborhood roots, Gregorian benefits from Susan Stambler in the classroom at Vartan Gregorian ongoing community partnerships with a wide range of organizations, chief among them Brown University, which has had a special relationship with the school since it was renamed in 1997 in honor of Vartan Gregorian, Brown’s 16th president.
As an example of Brown’s commitment to the school, for over two decades, Brown’s athletic teams have been paired with classrooms; athletes spend time with the students, providing academic and personal support. “For some kids, that contact with a Brown football player might be a memorable event that will stay with them even after they leave elementary school. Providing a holistic experience makes this school a special place,” Ms. Stambler says. “We are always looking for leverage points to decrease gaps in achievement and educate the whole person, and there is clearly a model at this school where parent and community engagement is showing good results.”
Ms. Stambler identifies Gregorian’s teachers and staff members as its most valuable asset, saying, “We have committed teachers who have been here for a long time. To have such a dedicated, skilled staff without a lot of turnover is a tremendous gift, and they are the reason why the school has been such a great place for our students.” Though it is no longer in force, Gregorian was governed for a number of years by site-based management, which provides significant planning and leadership opportunities to staff members. The resulting skills and habits of mind among Gregorian’s staff members have persisted since the district’s shift away from site-based management, and in Ms. Stambler, they found a principal eager to continue collaborative leadership. Stambler’s sense of collaboration extends beyond the walls of her school; she believes that it would be useful to establish critical friends groups among teachers and school leaders from the East Side’s schools or even citywide.
Evident throughout our conversation was Ms. Stambler’s vision of elementary school as a powerful experience for most young people. “I want them to come away feeling like they’re confident as people and as learners,” she says. “If we’re successful, we’ve helped them develop an interest in being lifelong learners who know that sometimes things are hard, but that they can reach goals with effort. A good educational experience makes kids feel good about who they are.”
Vartan Gregorian Elementary School at Fox Point will be offering tours for prospective families with students who will be entering kindergarten; call the school at 456-9377 for more information.
Email Jill Davidson or check out her blog.