Meet Downtown’s 2 new principals


By Julie Shapiro

Lower Manhattan’s two new schools still look like construction sites, but this week the city picked the principals who will run them.

Terri Ruyter will lead P.S./I.S. 276 in Battery Park City and Nancy Harris will lead the Beekman St. school. Both schools will open with just kindergarten students next fall in Tweed Courthouse, then they will move into their new buildings when the buildings are ready.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver planned to announce the new principals at his School Overcrowding Taskforce Thurs., Jan. 15. He is glad the city selected both principals so early.

“That’s what’s important — showing [parents] that we have a commitment and we’re moving forward,” Silver told Downtown Express. “We’re making it happen.”

Ruyter and Harris both currently work for the Dept. of Education. Ruyter is implementing an American history grant in city schools, including some in Lower Manhattan, and Harris is an achievement coach.

“I’m nervous and excited,” Ruyter, 49, said of taking the helm at P.S./I.S. 276. “To be offered the opportunity to start something from scratch is a gift that’s too good to turn down.”

Ruyter is enthralled by the prospect of teaching in the city’s first green school, and she wants to tie environmentalism into the curriculum. She hopes to do an edible schoolyard program, where kids study how food grows, and she also wants to teach students about Manhattan’s geographical history, how it was once crisscrossed with rivers and swamps.

In general, Ruyter wants the students to learn more from experiences than from textbooks, so that they become independent learners.

“I believe in progressive education, but I don’t think that means anything goes,” Ruyter said. “I like them to also challenge themselves, set goals…think about, ‘What is my best work?’”

Harris described her hopes for the Beekman school similarly, focusing on the balance between rigor and creative inquiry. She wants to draw on the expertise and success of Lower Manhattan’s other elementary schools but also give Beekman a separate identity as a K-8 school.

Harris envisions the school “enriching the community and being enriched by it,” meaning that students will learn about their neighborhood’s history and ecology, while also being taught the importance of activism and volunteerism.

“It’s exciting to not only create something new, but to create something new in such a dynamic neighborhood,” Harris said.

Ruyter and Harris will share space in Tweed Courthouse on Chambers St. next fall. The six kindergarten classes in Tweed, which also houses the Dept. of Ed. headquarters, will relieve overcrowding at P.S. 89 and P.S. 234. Ruyter hopes to move P.S./I.S. 276 into its B.P.C. building in the fall of 2010, and Harris will likely stay at Tweed another year before Beekman is ready to open in 2011.

“Obviously there are challenges with not having a permanent home right away,” Harris said. But she is glad that the incubator will give her a chance to work closely with Ruyter and share ideas about the new schools.

Ross Global Academy has used the Tweed space for three years and will be moving next year. Ruyter said the space was “lovely” and did not sound fazed by starting the school in a temporary location.

“The space isn’t really what makes the school,” she said. “It’s the teachers, building a community, what’s happening with children in the classroom.”

One advantage of starting the schools so small is that parents can be sure it will be a nurturing environment with lots of individual attention, Ruyter said.

Parents whose children are entering kindergarten next fall and are zoned for P.S. 89 in Battery Park City or P.S. 234 in Tribeca will be able to choose if they want to attend one of the new schools instead. Kindergarten enrollment is open now and runs through March 2, with parents ranking their choices on the application. If not enough parents decide to send their children to the incubator, the city will place children who live near the new schools in the incubator.

“I’m sure it’s a very nerve-wracking thing,” Ruyter said. “You want something safe…. [But] parents Downtown are really lucky to have so many options.”

Anne Albright, co-chairperson of P.S. 89’s overcrowding committee, said meeting the new principals would help parents decide where to enroll their kids. The city will soon announce meet-and-greet sessions with the new principals.

“I’m happy the D.O.E. has done this and put them in so far in advance,” Albright said. “It gives them more time to plan the school.” The Dept. of Ed. had previously said they would name at least one of the permanent principals this year for the incubator school, but had not committed to having both in place.

Maggie Siena, principal at P.S. 150 in Tribeca, has worked with both Ruyter and Harris.

“They’re both wonderful,” Siena said. “I’m really thrilled with the assignments. I think [the D.O.E.] made a wise decision.”

Siena described Harris as exceptionally bright and forward thinking, and Ruyter as passionate about building the curriculum, especially in social studies.

“Opening a school is tough, and being in one place then another is tough,” Siena said. “But they will find the advantages within the disadvantages.”

No one knows about the challenges of opening a new school better than Ronnie Najjar, founding principal of P.S. 89.

“There are a lot of daunting challenges ahead, but it’s exciting,” Najjar said.

She and Siena both said they looked forward to working with the new principals as they get the new schools off the ground.

Ruyter has worked in elementary schools for 21 years, including work as a teacher and more recently a literacy specialist. She is now administering a federal grant to train teachers on new ways to teach American history.

Ruyter lives on the Upper West Side with her husband and daughter, who is in high school.

Harris, who declined to give her age or discuss her family, is a longtime member of the Downtown community who attended New York University and spent much of her career on the Lower East Side. She co-founded CASTLE (Collaborative Academy of Science, Technology and Language Education), a middle school, several years ago and became assistant principal there. Last summer, she left the school to become an achievement coach, working with schools to improve students’ accomplishments.

Harris recently moved to Kensington, Brooklyn.