By Maya Rader
In the coming 2016-17 school year at P.S. 40 elementary school, assistant principal Stephanie Lukas will assume the role of acting principal while Susan Felder, the current principal, takes part in a year-long fellowship program. Daria Agosta, a fifth grade teacher, will take over as assistant principal in Lukas’s stead.
Lukas has been assistant principal for ten years. Before she came to P.S. 40, she taught kindergarten uptown, first at P.S. 151 and then at P.S. 165. The latter had a partnership with the Professional Development School program, meaning professors from Columbia University’s Teachers College would come to Lukas’s classroom to do research. In turn, Lukas received student teachers and could take free classes at Teachers College. Through her school’s connection to the college, Lukas worked with many other teachers and education professionals on joint projects, including co-teaching a seminar for people going into education. Lukas said that from this experience she saw, “that you can have an impact without just being in the classroom.”
Lukas and Felder knew each other before Lukas interviewed for the job of assistant principal at P.S. 40. When Lukas was working at P.S. 165, Felder worked at a school nearby. Felder worked with new teachers as a literary staff developer, so she would sometimes bring new teachers into Lukas’s kindergarten classroom to observe.
Later on, when Felder was hired as P.S. 40’s principal in 2005 and was looking for an assistant principal, she called Lukas and asked her to interview.
“My first reaction was ‘no, I’m not leaving my class,’” said Lukas. But Felder asked Lukas to spend a day at P.S. 40 to rethink it, and after spending time at the school she was sold. “Once you walk into this building there’s no doubt that this is the most amazing place in the world,” remarked Lukas. She added that P.S. 40 “feels like this unbelievably warm community and I think there aren’t many schools that have that.”
Lukas has been part of the Peter Cooper/Stuyvesant Town community since she was a kid. “I went to Stuyvesant High School when it was right down the block and my mom taught at 104 (Simon Baruch Junior High School) through most of my childhood, so I was really running around this block for a long time,” explained Lukas.
Lukas said the fact that her mother was a teacher influenced Lukas herself to become one. She explained, “She went to work really excited every day and I think that seeing that kind of fulfillment made me see the power of teaching.”
Even in her early days as assistant principal, Lukas integrated teaching into her job through teaching a class for kindergarteners called Kinderfun.
Lukas said, “My favorite thing that I’ve done (as assistant principal) is getting to create my own program and teach it.” In the program, Lukas would develop kindergarteners’ language skills through singing and creating songs, reading stories such as “The Three Pigs” or “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” acting those stories out, and playing group games. Lukas said because of the demands of her job, she had to stop leading Kinderfun four years ago.
Felder’s fellowship involves mentoring ten new principals in their first year so Felder will still be checking in at P.S. 40 every couple of weeks to mentor Lukas.
Lukas explained that one of the mandates of participating in the fellowship is having a strong assistant principal to fall back on. “Everybody felt that I fit the bill,” said Lukas.
Daria Agosta, who is taking over as acting assistant principal, has been teaching at P.S. 40 for 14 years in third, fourth and most recently fifth grade. Agosta was one of the only teachers in the building with a School Leadership License, a necessary requirement to assume the position of assistant principal. The license is attained through taking a series of courses and completing an internship.
Lukas said that although the principal has the final say, running the school is really a team effort between the principal, assistant principal and other members of the staff. Lukas explained “while truly the principal’s word is law, the decision-making hasn’t been done alone.”
Lukas said that the year-long shift in principals will not lead to dramatic changes in school policies. When asked if Lukas’s approach will be different from Felder’s as principal, she responded that over the years, “we’ve created a vision and a mission together that we both worked really hard to implement and the plan is to keep that vision going.”
Lukas said that one of Felder’s strengths is the ability to keep everything running smoothly in a school. Lukas compared running a school to keeping many plates spinning in a circus act. Lukas explained, “Plates are spinning everywhere, and to keep every plate spinning is really hard. (Felder) has shown me how to keep those plates spinning.”
“Felder has really big shoes to fill,” said Lukas. “She has done such an amazing job and has led such a beautiful school for so long that if anything doesn’t go well this next year, I’m really afraid people will say, ‘Well it’s because you couldn’t handle it.’”
However, despite Lukas’s qualms, she is also looking forward to her new role and to working with the staff, parents and students. “I’m excited to hear their voices, get their feedback and be responsive to the community.”
Lukas mentioned that she thinks one of her strengths that will help her is her attitude towards feedback.
“I won’t be bruised if somebody says they don’t like an idea of mine… I want to hear what other people suggest and I want to think about it and I want to figure out how we can make (their ideas) work.”
She added, “That’s the only way you can really do this job: if you know it’s not about you. It’s about this incredible school.”