On a sunny Friday morning, the hallways in a Bronx school buzzed with excitement as students prepared to celebrate their prom in the first floor cafeteria, which had been converted into a disco-themed dance floor.
Principal Ava Kaplan greeted a group of P186’s eighth graders as parents, teachers, and other administrators hovered over them with cameras. Everyone gathered around to cheer the 29 students who, because of serious cognitive and physical disabilities, are part of the school’s alternative assessment program.
Kaplan bent down and waved one hand across her face. “Beautiful,” she said in sign language to a girl in a white lace dress.
The prom is a welcomed break in Kaplan’s busy schedule – running a special education school requires the Bronx native to take on additional responsibilities than a district school principal would because of the extra support her students require inside and outside of the classroom.
Now in her fifth year as principal, Kaplan’s no-nonsense attitude helps her oversee the large special education school, which has five campuses, 542 students, and more than 200 staff members.
The Bronx school is under the umbrella of the Department of Education’s District 75, which encompasses all of the city’s special education programs for students who have autism, cognitive and physical disabilities, hearing or speech impediments, and other serious issues that make it difficult for them to regularly attend a district school.
As principal, Kaplan’s duties often extend beyond the walls of P186. Some days, Kaplan is a social worker; other days, she’s a guardian. And everyday she’s a demanding boss who expects her staff to keep up with the complicated responsibilities that come with caring for some of the city’s most challenged students.
The annual prom for the school’s eighth graders with multiple disabilities is a bright spot in Kaplan’s chaotic schedule.
“I get choked up seeing how different they look,” said Kaplan, as she observed the students dancing with each other. Streamers lined the walls, and blue and yellow balloons twisted together to make an arch over a table teeming with cupcakes covered in bright icing, swirly rainbow lollipops, and juice boxes.
Kaplan has known most of the students since they were five years old or since they transferred to P186 because they needed the kind of support that wasn’t available in district schools, such as additional teaching assistants who are trained to care for disabled students.
After addressing the crowd of beaming students and parents, the 56-year-old marched back to her office, walking almost as fast as she speaks.
Kaplan thrives on her hectic routine. Her days began around 7am but only end when the phone stops ringing and the stream of emails slows down for the night. She then drives nearly an hour and a half – on a good day with little traffic – to her home in Putnam County.
“I don’t like to be stagnant, I like to always be on the move” said Kaplan, who was raised in a housing project located not too far from the school.
Kaplan has spent her entire 19-year career as a public school educator rising among the ranks at P186. She has a total of 34 years of experience working in special education.
Ten minutes after getting back to her office, Kaplan is already doing three things at once without breaking a sweat. The school’s data analyst searches her computer while Kaplan speaks to Adrienne Edelstein, the District 75 network leader who is in charge of 15 special education schools. Kaplan quickly helps her assistant principal deal with a problem involving a child with severe diarrhea. In middle of this, Kaplan manages to say hello to the students who stop by her door.
“She’s very hands on. If you call her, she’ll be there,” said Don Albright Jr., who is the school’s senior psychologist. He’s worked with Kaplan since she first started as a coordinator at P186. “She knows how to negotiate well,” he added.
As an undergraduate at Lehman College, Kaplan had no idea that her dream of buying a car would lead to her lengthy career in special education. She started out working as a lifeguard at a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed boys.
“I had no idea what emotionally disturbed kids were all about. I came from a stable family,” she said. “I was like, wow, these are kids that the city schools couldn’t handle.” She loved her experience so much that she decided to get a master’s degree in special education.
Kaplan uses her vast experience to help her deal with the variety of problems that comes with overseeing P186. She pays close attention to the emotionally disturbed students.
“I feel like these kids don’t get a fair share for whatever reason, in their personal lives or maybe in school, and they come here downtrodden,” Kaplan explained.
“I get angry too. If someone cuts me off early in the morning, and I haven’t had a sip of coffee, let me tell you, I grow fangs,” Kaplan said, chuckling. “But the point is that everyone gets angry. We give them coping mechanisms.”
Staff members appreciate Kaplan’s high expectations because she sets the same for herself. “She has an open door policy for her students, her staff, and the parents, which is rare for principals,” said Millie Guzman, a school secretary who has worked with Kaplan for over 15 years. “It’s definitely difficult to run a special ed school.”
Students with special needs tend to have lower test scores than students without disabilities, and District 75 schools can struggle to meet the city’s performance requirements as a result. But they are still encouraged to show progress over time. P186 fell short of that metric when it received a F on its Department of Education progress report in 2010
“Academically, we move the kids along at the rate that we can. It’s a slow rate but I think we’re successful. It’s not shown, unfortunately, on the state exams,” Kaplan said. “But I see what the kids do in the classrooms and it’s phenomenal.”
The school improved its standing in 2011 by receiving a C.
“I like to be numero uno but unfortunately our progress report scores don’t indicate that,” Kaplan admitted, adding that the students perform well in ways that can’t be measured by tests.
But Kaplan, who is a martial arts enthusiast, said that she doesn’t want her role as a principal to take over her entire life.
“When I leave the school building, I separate myself. You have to do that,” said Kaplan, adding that she keeps busy by spending time with her family and taking care of her two dogs and seven cats.
However, by Monday morning, when the first bell rings, the Bronx-native resumes her role as a strong willed principal who doles out tough love to staff members and parents. “You might not like what I say but I shoot from the hip.”