Suzanne Gray, the principal of Old Bethpage Elementary School, has won the School Administrators Association of New York State’s annual award for exceptional leadership of an elementary school.
Gray, 43, was singled out for revamping how pupils learn and become good citizens, and did it all without pushing seasoned educators out.
Instead, Gray, a master teacher in her own right, worked with teachers to discover what was working and what was not, said Lorna R. Lewis, superintendent of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District.
“She’s not just an administrator that walks around . . . she’s actually a practitioner,” Lewis said.
“If there is a session that is difficult, she might be in there with the teacher teaching that lesson, or helping a teacher benchmark kids to see where they are, to see where their skill gaps are.”
Seven years ago, Gray succeeded an admired principal at the 334-pupil school.
“I think for me, building the culture was probably the biggest game changer,” she said.
One way the mother of four youngsters began was by holding a barbecue at her Wantagh home for all of the staff and their families.
“I think that’s one of the reasons we work well together; we know each other and we’re here for each other,” said Gray, who grew up in Brooklyn and Centereach.
“Everyone was working really hard. . . . We kind of bonded in that we found a shared responsibility in changing kids’ lives,” she said.
To create a culture with a “trust and a growth mindset,” she agreed on annual goals with the teachers and focused on creating uniform ways of teaching and getting teachers the resources they need.
Jill M. Gierasch, the district’s deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction, stressed the value Gray places on engaging children and on others’ experiences.
Classroom doors are often open, parades are not uncommon and bulletin boards are “process boards” displaying all the stages of mastering lessons, she said.
“She just has this very collaborative, upbeat personality, but she’s very serious, she does her homework herself, she is very invested in her own learning,” Gierasch said.
Gray formed a principals’ group to “share and steal” each other’s strategies for teaching and managing.
While she won plaudits for helping teachers with the Common Core standards, Gray also stresses what they omit: teaching “kids to make good choices” so they will succeed in life.
Kindness, tolerance, respect, integrity are qualities that will serve them well, Gray said. “We have to look at and think about what are the skills our kids will need in the future, it’s not always about being a good test-taker.”