Talking Up Downtown: Maggie Siena

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Principal of P.S. 150 and future principal of the Peck Slip School

Maggie Siena is taking the job as the new Peck Slip School’s principal starting in fall 2012, when it opens at its incubation site at the Tweed Courthouse. But Siena is no stranger to Lower Manhattan schools—she has been the principal at P.S. 150 on Greenwich Street for the last six years. In her new post, Siena will not only be responsible for a school in its earliest stages, she will be transitioning the students and staff from the incubation site to the brand-new school building in 2014.
Siena sat down with Our Town Downtown to discuss what she has done at P.S. 150, what she’ll miss the most and what she looks forward to at Peck Slip.

Why did you decide to leave P.S. 150 after six years?
It really wasn’t a matter of deciding to leave; it was a matter of moving on to another project. As a matter of fact, if it would have come my way in another two years, I would have done it then and been just as happy. It was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

What were some of your biggest challenges and accomplishments as P.S. 150’s principal?
It’s always challenging to come into a school that is functioning really well and has a strong school culture and be the new leader. You want to make sure you keep the very best qualities of a school when you step into those leadership shoes. In many ways, that was my biggest challenge. For accomplishments, it’s really hard to say because a school is such a collaborative project. I am really proud to have worked with the staff here to build a strong social and emotional curriculum.
One thing I feel personally proud of is the work to improve the facilities of the school. It was pretty clear that windows needed to be replaced—they were Plexiglas and from the 1970s—and it took a lot of work with a lot of different people. Getting Internet connectivity improved, getting a door put into the media center, renovating the music center—all over the last six years. Everything takes a lot of time and a lot of determination and that’s something I learned here.

What will be the most difficult part about leaving P.S. 150?
Because this is such a small school, I get to know members of the community very well and get to know the kids, their brothers and sisters, families and babysitters. I’m impressed how well our staff knows the community. It’s a special thing to watch kids growing from kindergarten to 5th grade.
One of the kids is writing a persuasive piece on why I shouldn’t leave P.S. 150. Other kids have given me hugs and expressed that they are sad I am leaving. But children are resilient and I know they’ll be just fine here.

What are some of your plans for the Peck Slip School?
I want to bring to Peck Slip a lot of things we’ve done [at P.S. 150]. Integrating arts with the curriculum, having a lot of strong work around content, really learning about things, in addition to learning how to read and do math. Integrating sustainability education in the curriculum so kids are learning about their role in the environment. We do everything with the arts and integrate our studies with the visual arts, dance, music and theater.
Overcrowded schools in Lower Manhattan have become a big problem, leading to new schools, such as Peck Slip, being constructed, along with rezoning and kindergarten wait lists. Some expect there will be wait lists for Peck Slip before it opens its doors. How will you handle that?
I don’t know how privy I am to the controversy around Peck Slip. I am sure it is challenging for parents to not have the opportunity to attend beautiful new schools, such as P.S. 276.
I can say that the space at Tweed is really wonderful; it is a really good place to have a school. It is really magnificent; it has a beautiful area for children to play, a nice cafeteria and gorgeous, really large rooms. We’ll be in a good place for the next three years, and after that we get to have a new building. In terms of Peck Slip wait lists, it is something to work on with enrollment and work closely with the DOE and neighboring schools.
I was involved in the renovation of Tweed and was the principal of the City Hall Academy for a year and a half. I’m familiar with the space and I have already run a small school without fancy facilities. At P.S. 150, we have an award-winning track team, but we don’t have a gym. We have stage performances, but we don’t have an auditorium. All of it is because of a great PTA and a great staff.

Since Peck Slip will be located at the Tweed Courthouse for the next few years, how will you handle not having a cafeteria, gym or auditorium in your building?
First of all, there is a cafeteria, they just have a warming kitchen, not where food is prepared. But it is delivered to the school and prepared to be served by the staff—it is the same as hot lunch and I’ve seen it myself. We don’t have a cafeteria here at P.S. 150 and the kids eat in the classrooms.
For gym, in the first couple of years there will be a lot of space. You’ve got to see the four corner rooms in the Tweed Courthouse, we’ll be able to do some big activities and there’s a beautiful space outside at City Hall Park, which is what we’ve done at P.S. 150; have physical education classes outside. P.S. 150’s track team meets once a week, before or after school, and since we don’t have a gym they run outside. When the weather is poor, they run up and down the stairs here.
In terms of an auditorium, we’ll have performance areas, and the classrooms are pretty humongous—they’re actually pretty big for that. If we do decide to do something on a stage level, we’ll find a friend to hold something. At P.S. 150, we’ve used the stage at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center—that’s where we do the end-of-year arts festival, which is an original performance that a music teacher writes with the children.

—Lillian Rizzo

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