Q&A with Corcoran's New Leader

Jennifer King succeeds Leo Cosgrove, moving up to principal at South Side school

After serving as vice-principal for six years, Jennifer King, 38, takes on a new role. She sat down with The Stand
Aug. 5 for a conversation. This is an edited transcript.

TS: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
JK: I was raised here in Syracuse. My family moved here from Plattsburgh, N.Y., where my father was on the Air Force base. I attended Syracuse schools, graduated from Nottingham High School in 1993, then went on to Le Moyne College and got my master’s from SUNY-Oswego. Then my certificate of advanced studies from Syracuse University, so I’m pretty home-grown. I got my start in education about 18 years ago. I was an elementary ed teacher. I taught first grade, and then most of my years were in second grade. So I did that for about nine years and then I was promoted to an administrative intern here at Corcoran seven years ago, which was a pretty cool experience because many of the students that I worked with at Elmwood Elementary were coming up the ranks. It was nice to come up and see familiar faces. After that year, I was appointed to vice-principal and had been doing that for six years and was recently appointed to principal July 1.

Corcoran’s new principal Jennifer King says her priority is to work with students and families to ensure that all students graduate. | Steve Davis, Staff Photo

TS: Well, that’s a cool story. You don’t often get that, being a local person seeing such local success.
JK: A lot of the kids and families that I’ve worked with at Elmwood I’m seeing come through Corcoran and it really is nice to have that relationship established years ago and now they’re coming up as young students.

TS: Did you think you’d someday be a principal in a school in the city where you grew up?
JK: It was a surprise. When I was at Le Moyne, my major was in psychology. My minor was education. My first year at Le Moyne, I went back to Nottingham High School and I started working with kids who were part of the Liberty Partnership Program, and I really enjoyed working with students. That was something that was a surprise. I really just had a real exciting time working with the kids. What was really cool was when they would see me coming in, they would be really excited to report the happenings of their lives, the good things that were going on, and I had an opportunity to tutor them. And so after my first year at Le Moyne, I knew that I wanted to go into education because I had such a positive experience with that. So throughout my time at Le Moyne, I would tutor for other programs such as Upward Bound. Once I graduated and got my first teaching job, I kind of saw myself as a long-term teacher. I thought that that was something I would do for my professional career until I retired. But then I had a close friend of mine start to encourage me to take a look on a grander scale to see how I would be able to work with students outside of the classroom. So I had taken the coursework and was pretty interested in that … and then after being promoted to vice-principal, I kind of saw that as my life’s work. Then this opportunity became available as the principal I was working with for six years had retired. And I thought, “I’ve been doing the vice-principal job for about six years, now it may be time to take on a bigger role.” And so it wasn’t what I thought I went to school to do, but I’m here now and I’m going to take every advantage of this opportunity to be able to serve the community of Corcoran.

TS: I don’t want to give away your age or anything …
JK: I graduated from Nottingham High School in 1993. I’m 38 years old. I’m totally OK with that.

TS: What’s going to be the biggest difference for you as a principal versus vice-principal?
JK: I think about that often. As a vice-principal, you work with a particular department or you work with a particular group of teachers and students. For example for me, I was part of what we call the West Academy so I maybe worked with about 30 teachers and half of the students that we have. As a principal, I know my role is much more significant in that I’m going to have to work with all of our staff. I’m going to have to manage and work with an administrative team and I’m going to be responsible for each and every student that walks through the door. And I think that that is going to be a significant change, and you want to make sure as you’re working with people that you are meeting their needs and you are providing support for your students and support for your staff, so the role is much more significant in the role as principal.

TS: If your students or colleagues were asked to give five adjectives to describe you, what do you think they might say?
JK: What I hear most from students, and some of my peers, too, is that I’m fair. I also hear that I’m positive, that I can often find the good in a situation or the good in someone. I also hear that I’m compassionate, which is interesting because that can be used for good things but there can also be a connotation that may not bode well for me when you have to make those difficult decisions.

TS: That’s three. How about just one more …
JK: The one thing I hear more-so from colleagues than students is that I’m a team player. If I have an idea or if we’re trying to work on something, I do try and value the input of others as much as I can. I know that ultimately you do have to make a decision, but I try to have a shared approach with our staff. I hope those are qualities that will continue to bode well and make a difference in moving Corcoran forward. In the position of principal, you are always changing. So we’ll see what happens.

TS: What do you see as the biggest difference between when you were a senior in high school in Syracuse and now?
JK: I want to start by saying that I see that the way education has come across the last 20 years, there is certainly more rigor and there is more [that] kids today have to be prepared for. Back when I was in high school, you could get a local diploma. Regents exams were offered — you could take them — but if you passed the classes and you got the credits that you needed in order to graduate, you could. Nowadays it is certainly different. There are gateway examinations that you have to pass in order to graduate. So I think the kids today are expected to be more prepared for the global society than they were back in the ’90s when I went to school. Another difference that I see – and it’s kind of relative to where you are, looking through the lens of a 17-year-old when I graduated from Nottingham as opposed to being a 38-year-old, 21 years later — I believe that the resources that we had back then in school are not as available now. You know, back then we had a lot more programs for a lot of kids that had a lot of different needs and now some of those programs have gone by the wayside, whether it’s for budget reductions or whether there’s just no need for them to exist anymore … and I think now some of the issues and concerns students bring today are a lot more than I remember seeing. The one similarity that comes to mind when I think about being in school over 20 years ago is that teachers still show that they really care for kids. I had a wonderful experience at Nottingham with my teachers. I remember just about all of them, and the support they gave me. In fact, I just had a conversation in the last four months with my Spanish teacher. And I see a lot of that today, where we still have a lot of teachers who genuinely care for our students.

TS: So much you hear today is about suspensions, a no-confidence vote in the superintendent, tough exams that students have to take, sometimes I think it’s a wonder that you come to work every day. But you are upbeat. From your perspective, what is it like coming to school every day. Each of those issues on its own seems overwhelming.
JK: It is. The one thing I will say is that several things keep me going every day. Despite the negative comments and all of that that’s being reported, we have a group of wonderful students and we work with wonderful families, and we have a great community. Our teachers are also very supportive of our students. That keeps me coming in every day, and despite the increased suspensions and the impact that has had on our community and our schools, we still have children that are coming to school every day in search of a good education and we have teachers who are right there to deliver. So although all those other things are happening, and they do serve as distractions and those are things that we definitely do have to take a look at and see what’s going on, and find restorative practices, we still are doing good things here at Corcoran. We also have a number of families who are supporting us, and we still are getting positive feedback from our students, so you kind of accentuate the positive and work on things that are not going well.

TS: What about the low graduation rates? How do you address that on a day-to-day level, or can you?

Jennifer King feels the new shift in the high schools to career-tech will help give students greater choices and keep them in school. | Steve Davis, Staff Photo

JK: There’s a range between 55 and 63-64 percent graduation rate over the last three to four years. Of course, ITC has higher numbers, but the other schools are kind of similar … We are aware that our graduation rates have to increase, and we want them to. No one’s proud at all, and for Corcoran for the last three years we have had some increases. We’ve been in the range between 60 to 64 percent over the last three to four years. We have made slow progress. We know we have our work cut out for us. Our school leadership team and our guidance counselors are always trying to figure out different ways we can keep kids in school. What happens over time is that number you start out with in the ninth grade, you lose kids every year, and the number you end up with by the senior year (is much lower). So we are trying to put things in place and reach out to kids about the importance of finishing what you started and also provide support to them and their families so that they are able to not only graduate but also be able to be prepared for post-secondary plans for college and career. That being said, we are really trying to put things in place where we can check and connect with all students, checking their attendance, checking their grades, addressing any other issues that they might have, so they feel supported and want to come to school. So we’re trying to put some of those structure things in place so hopefully as years go on, we’re not going to be losing kids. The one thing I am excited about under the leadership of Sharon (Contreras, the superintendent) is that the high schools have the school choice and we’re all looking to develop career-tech educational programs. So I’m hoping with that model, we will be able not just to attract students but be able to keep them and have them participate in programming that they’re interested in so that they are more likely to finish and also be prepared for college or whatever it is that their plans are. I’m very hopeful about this career-tech ed piece. I believe that as kids start to have choice, they will feel good about what they’re doing and they’ll be more apt to finish and move on to great things.

TS: I have to ask you the magic wand question. What’s the first thing you would change right now, if you could?
JK: I would like to be able to have the resources that we need to be able to help all of our students. Students come to us with various needs. Some of them have more needs than others. Some of them have limited needs. But I think before you can teach kids you have to be able to reach kids. And I think that if we had resources in place, whether students are struggling academically, whether they’re having a hard time getting to school, whether they’re having some issues that may be impacting their behavior while they’re in school, my main thing would be to be able to give them the resources to be able to address those needs because I truly believe that if those things are taken care of, and we can get them here, then we can do the rest. We can get them excited about being here and taking care of business while they are here.

TS: But is that something you can do at the principal level?
JK: There are things that would be out of my control to be able to meet all of those needs. We are limited, and there are a lot of community agencies that are working with schools to support us the best way that they can. But for our students who may have more severe needs, those are the ones that are tough and that’s something that is hard to do at the principal level. But my magic wand would be to make sure kids have what they need, because if their needs are met, whether it’s shelter … all of those things, they will be more apt to come to school ready to learn and put forth the best effort.

TS: So this will be your first year as a principal. Can you tell us what you anticipate to be a typical day?
JK: In a typical day, you’re greeting the students as they walk in, you’re going into classrooms to see what instruction is like, you’re interacting with the kids, you monitor lunches, you deal with the issues that may arise daily, if you have any concerns from a parent or if you have a parent who needs to come in and have a conversation with you, you deal with that as well, and then you dismiss. Now within that day, it’s busy. You may be faced with five to 10 things that have to be done right away. You may have a student who may need your attention. You may have a parent who comes in who just wants to talk and so all of those things you’re dealing with at the same time.

TS: Start when, and end when?
JK: The actual school day starts at 7:50 and ends at 2:26. I’m usually in around 7:30, and it can end around 5 o’clock or sometimes we may have events that call for a longer day, such as meetings or some kind of athletic or musical event where you want to be able to go and support students.

TS: And then when you go home, it doesn’t stop?
JK: It doesn’t stop, but the one thing I’m really trying to work on is that work-life balance. I do have a 4-year-old son and he needs my time as well. There are things you can’t finish in the course of a day. I learned, probably in the first couple of years of being an administrator, that as much as I want to make sure things are getting done, you really have to figure out how you’re going to manage your time, and most importantly how you’re going to prioritize tasks. You try to figure out how you’re going balance what you have to do in the course of the day, and your home life.

TS: When you’re out and about, do people approach you when you’re trying to live your private life?
JK: It does happen. There are times when you’re out in the community when you may be having dinner, or doing a little shopping, or running errands to the bank or the drug store or such, and you do see families, but I have to be honest, most of my interactions with families are very positive, people coming up and talking about what’s going on in schools. Occasionally you have the ones who want you to address a concern right then and there. So you know, my response is usually something simple, like “I’m sorry that that is something you’re dealing with right now, but I’ll be more than happy to look into that situation and get back to you.” Usually those statements go a long way with our families, and as long as you’re giving them an opportunity to be heard and then you follow through, those become a positive experience. If they have a complaint, I’ll listen, and usually I’ll try to be brief with my response and I’ll follow up with a phone call after I check into their concern.

TS: One thing I was impressed with was how easy it was to reach you. Your email was on the website. I emailed you, you answered. Is that the way it works with parents? Do you get a lot of email from them?
JK: Usually when parents are looking to get in contact with the school, it’s by phone or they’ll stop in. That’s how we field most of our parent concerns. We prefer then to set up an appointment because we want to give parents the time they need to express the concern and give ourselves the time to get back to them. If we’re in the middle of lunch duty or preparing for a class, you don’t ever want a parent to walk away feeling like you don’t have time for them.

TS: How often does that happen, you’re talking personally with parents?
JK: Daily. We usually start the year with around 1,350 students. Usually every day there’s a parent that comes up to school and it doesn’t always have to be to lodge a complaint. Usually we have a couple parents stop in a day.

TS: Do you usually meet with parents personally, or someone else?
JK: Some parents prefer to speak to certain administrators. We have four vice-principals. If (the parent) is familiar with one of them, they’ll request to talk to that person. Sometimes because the four of us are busy in the course of a day, we may have a number of things going on, and if that person is not available, one of us will be able to pick up and help the parent.

TS: What’s been your favorite moment here?
JK: The times I have been able to sit down with students and connect.

TS: Can you think of a specific time?

Jennifer King says it is reassuring when she hears feedback from students who followed her advice and succeeded. | Steve Davis, Staff Photo

JK: Can I give you two? The one that comes to mind now is a student who just graduated in June 2014.  Before she left, she came into my office and she gave me a big hug and she said “I want to thank you for being my mentor and helping me through a lot of things at Corcoran over the last four years.” And I was just so touched. I know a lot of times for students that there are adults that do make a difference, but it was really nice to hear. This student has done very well; in fact, she is going to start Newhouse (the communications school at Syracuse University) in the fall. And then a different note, there was another young lady who came to me to seek advice on a difficult situation. She was the type of student who usually will react first. And she came in here, told me, “You know what, I’ve thought about what you’ve said and I came to find you to help me figure this out before I get myself in trouble.”  You hope that every time you sit down and have conversations with students that you can make a difference and they walk away listening to the things you have said. And they do listen to you. Now, maybe every time they don’t choose to engage in the things you talked about, but it’s almost like you’re that bird chirping on their shoulder when they find themselves in positions that are compromising.

TS: Sometimes do you get scared when they listen to you? Like “Oh my gosh, they’re going to do what I advised them to do. I hope I was right.”
JK: Well, you know, I try to work with students to get them to understand that there will be a consequence for everything that you do, and it doesn’t always have to be negative but for every action that you take part in something will happen. Do your best to make sure you are doing the right things and those consequences will be positive. You don’t ever want to put yourself in a situation where the outcome can be very negative or difficult to overcome. We often have those conversations, and I just hope that they listen.

TS: Do you find that scary at all?
JK: I find it much more challenging, and I have to laugh because I was thinking about this last week. You know oftentimes teachers would come to you and they would ask you questions and most of them you could answer and for the ones that you were unable to answer or you just weren’t sure, you would always defer to the principal. You always had that ability to be able to do that. Now when it’s you as principal, you don’t have that anymore. The buck stops with you. I just had that revelation last week and it was “Wow, I can’t say to people anymore you’ll have to ask Mr. Cosgrove about that or let me check with Leo and then I’ll get back to you.” And now it’s me. And that’s something that’s very new. It’s a different way of thinking and I think it will be a challenge. But I’m up for it. I’m up for it.

TS: Now you told me you have a child?
JK: I have a 4-year-old son, and a husband.

TS: So … you have two kids?
JK: Yeah, you could say I have two boys …

TS: Well, the littlest one, the 4-year-old, where will he be going to school?
JK: We live in the North Syracuse city school district. Right now he’s attending Merriday, which is in the city of Syracuse, on James Street.

TS: So what’s it like for him, with his mom now being a principal?
JK: I think it will be interesting for him, and here’s the thing I’ll say about him. He is very energetic. He loves to learn but he loves to play too and he has to be told often that he needs to settle down, so I think this will be an interesting journey for the both of us. I think that when his teachers find out his mother is a principal, the expectation will be that he knows how to behave and that they shouldn’t have too many issues from him and he should just sit down and do the things that he’s asked to do and from my end, my issue will be, I am a principal in a school of about 1,350 students … I need to be able to control my own son and work with my own son as well as I’m working with them and meeting their needs. So … I do think it’ll be an interesting journey for the both of us.

TS: Earlier, I asked about good moments you’ve had. What about the lows?
JK: The lowest times for me since I’ve been at Corcoran is when we experience the loss of students. Unfortunately, it is something that we have had to deal with, when we lose students to various things, some sickness, some violence. And then you’re trying to corral the community together and you have students who are all out of sorts and you have staff members who are composed but you know they are hurting, you have to figure out what you can offer with the crisis teams … those are probably the lowest times I’ve experienced in education.

TS: What is your personal strength at these times?
JK: I really rely on my faith, and you take a moment to reflect on the things that are most important. A lot times you lose sight (of that), especially in the course of a day when things are so busy. There’s this moment of gratitude that you can’t be complaining about these (smaller) things when there’s a person who has suffered a loss and is inconsolable. And so I try to remember those things when I’m working with kids and families. I find that they just want to be heard, because there is not a ton that you can say.  But you’re providing hugs, you’re providing opportunities to talk it through. That’s where my strength is because it is something I love to do, just sit down and talk with kids and just try and get them to process their feelings. I’m not a counselor, it’s not my area of training, but I am in tune to their need to just be listened to.

TS: So that is tough. Given all of that, what do you do when you have a chance to have fun?
JK: Fun? You know, I have my little 4-year-old guy so a lot of my fun revolves around the things that he likes to do. I’ll take him to the park or he loves to ride his bike around the neighborhood, so for fun and to decompress I just try to give him the time that I know he needs. So I hang out a lot with him.

TS: No golf? Not a jogger? A tennis player?
JK: You know, here’s the thing. I haven’t done this in awhile, but I’ve enjoyed exercising, going to Zumba, that 30 minutes of my own time exercising. But there’s not a lot of time with my little guy when I get off at 5 and have to put him down at 8.

TS: How many hours of sleep do you get a night?
JK: I average between six to eight. It depends. Now remember, I’m saying that as a vice-principal. Now if we were to talk in another year or so my answer may be different. I’m not expecting more sleep; I’m expecting less because it goes back to what we were talking about a little while ago — the buck stops with you. The one thing that I’m also realizing now is I don’t think people realize the magnitude of responsibility that a principal has, and this is what I mean by that statement: I think that (people) may think that the transition to a principal from a vice-principal might not be that difficult – but I had a good friend tell me this – no one realizes the work that the principal has to do in terms of paperwork, in terms of managing, in terms of making sure you’re in compliance with all these things, in terms of all the outside meetings … I don’t think people realize those things. So that’s why I’m anticipating less sleep. If I can get the same amount of sleep, that would be fantastic. But I’m going into the position with my eyes wide open and so we’ll see. We’ll see.

TS: Is there anything to add that I didn’t ask you about?
JK: My priority for Corcoran is to be able to work with students and families to ensure that all students graduate from high school and are ready for college or their career. There’s a lot that will go to that, the systems and structures that we need to put in place that we’re still working on but I’m envisioning Corcoran to be the top college-preparatory school, and I believe that we have the students, I believe that we have the staff, to make that happen.

TS: I think something like 80% of Corcoran is minority. Does that have any special meaning for you or significance for you?
JK: We do have almost an 80 percent population of students of color. Unfortunately, some of our students have received a bad reputation, a negative reputation, in that they are so far behind, the achievement gap is unable to be closed, and I want to prove the naysayers wrong. And I want to do that for all kids, but I know for some of our students … I know they are excited to see someone who looks like them in this position and I want to show them you can do anything you want to as long as you work hard and put your mind to it. I’m hoping I can serve as a model for all students … I want our students to be able to accomplish everything we set out for them and I don’t want them to ever feel like being a student of color would be a barrier for them.

 

 

— Q&A conducted by Steve Davis, Founder of The Stand