From 1995 to 1999, Jinx Cozzi Perullo presided over Stuyvesant High School as an innovative principal who pushed the boundaries of her office. When controversies erupted over sexism at Stuyvesant, she held open forums and let students air their concerns. To deal with problematic teachers, Perullo fought the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), making sure that teachers were being held to a high educational standard. Since retiring, Perullo has taught educational administration at PACE and has been involved with the Peter J. Sharp Foundation. Below are excerpts from a conversation between The Spectator and Perullo.
The Spectator: How long has it been since your days as principal?
Jinx Cozzi Perullo: I left in June 1999, so it’s 10, almost 10 years. Incredibly so.
TS: What do you miss most about—
JP: Kids. I miss being around, I miss the energy of kids. I miss being in a situation where […] I can have an effect on their lives, on their thought processes, and also have an effect on staff’s thought processes, and you know, trying to move the school. The school always has to be moved. Schools always have to change. They just can’t remain stagnant, because society changes.
TS: What kind of changes did you make as principal?
JP: Not as many as I would have liked. […] People would always say, “Well, this is the way we do it.” And my question was, ‘Well, how did you make the decision to do it x, y and z way?’ And as long as there was a process, and we could justify things and we could talk about it, that’s one kind of global piece of change I think I brought to the school. The other thing I tried to do, I guess primarily, was to be an advocate for kids. […] It was such a big anonymous place. I wanted to reinstate homeroom. I wanted the kids to be able to have user-friendly people, let’s say for program changes, and all these processes.
TS: Do you feel you were successful in eliminating some of Stuyvesant’s anonymity?
JP: I think I was successful. I think kids felt more comfortable coming to the administration. I think our involvement with the SU and the fact that I had an open door—as a matter of fact, [former principal Abraham] Mr. Baumel’s secretary who was with me for about a year, she was so sweet—when you walk in, there’s an entrance to the backroom, to the principal’s office. There’s the entrance all the way in the corner, but then you can also get in to the conference room. So I used to open that all the time and she would always close it. So the first couple of days I was opening and she was closing. We were just hysterical. So one day she walked into the back and there was a kid standing there. She said, ‘See, this is what happens when you open that door.’ I was so excited that someone wanted to come in and talk. I was lonely the first couple of days. Actually, I went up to the senior bar and they told me I couldn’t stay there unless I had spent four years in the school.
TS: Stuyvesant offers some wonderful and some incompetent teachers. How did you handle incompetent teachers?
JP: When I first got to Stuyvesant, I asked every chairman. The first week, I made a two-three hour visit with each chairman. And really, each chairman, without even being asked, had issues with maybe one teacher, or maybe not. And I really needed to see what that person had done with trying to help that person, those teachers. But, what we did was, I found that, I don’t know if you know, but a teacher at the end of the year gets a rating. It’s either an S, U—it used to be also a D for doubtful. There had been several teachers before my time who had been around for a while and had gotten U ratings maybe two, three, four, five, six years in a row, but were still there.
TS: Were these ratings from administrators?
JP: Yes. The ultimate rater is the principal. First it’s the chairperson and the only way you can do it is by observing x number of times, meeting with the teacher, offering training, mentoring the teacher. […] I made no bones about working with the assistant principals and telling them I would help them [teachers] if I thought in fact it was necessary. But you have to help them as much as possible, and that’s hard. I know that one thing that this administration, meaning Klein and Bloomberg, has done is it has eliminated a lot of the union transfer plans. In most schools—and I was in the system for a very long time—the transfer plans are where the issues are. Teachers really come and they think they’re going to retire. Especially they come to Stuyvesant and they think they don’t have to teach. So they don’t challenge the kids and the kids survive in spite, because you know what you’ll do. You’ll go and learn on your own. But those things have been eliminated and that, I think, is a very, very positive thing, all of the transfer plans. Principals have much more discretion now in terms of whom they hire.
TS: If you could return to Stuyvesant to do one more thing, what would that be?
JP: Well, some of what I wanted to do has already happened. One of the things I wanted to do was automate the college office. I couldn’t move the college office as quickly or as deeply as I had wanted to do. The processes were great, but they were slow and not part of the 21st century. When colleges were starting to accept online applications, there was a fear. Nobody wanted to do the SSRs online. Everything was paper, paper, paper. But a lot of that’s been done.
I’m still in touch with [former Assistant Principal Technology] Steve Kramer—actually he worked with me on this project that I’ve been involved in for 10 years—so I was very excited about that. I don’t know what the lines of communication are now between kids and the administration because I really haven’t been in touch. But I would like to make sure that that was solidified and really look at things like how we learn, how courses are offered. One of the things I kept thinking of, sometimes maybe we had 10 kids for the most advanced, super-duper physics or math course on the face of the earth, and we didn’t, we couldn’t offer it. But there was a professor who could teach it two days a week. So why didn’t we do it in a modular setting?
TS: Have you had much contact with Principal [Stanley] Teitel?
JP: Not so much in the past five years. In the first couple of years there was a lot. He had actually asked me to mentor him, and I was in the school a lot because, at PACE—when someone does an internship, there’s someone at the university who coordinates the internship and evaluates the internship and the intern, and there were four teachers, Olga Livanis, […] she was the AP Bio, Kelly Harrington, who’s no longer there, and there were two others, Stuyvesant teachers, who were doing an administrative internship at PACE. Then I would have to come and observe them and whatever their internship was. So, for the first two years, I was at Stuy a lot, so much so that the UFT chapter was very upset that I was in the school, and they put up a big, big, big to-do. […] Of course we were very much in touch after 9/11 and I used to attend some things that I had started and become involved in. But I would say in the past five years, we speak, but it’s usually not school-related business. I’m kind of out of the loop. My secretary, Annette Arroyo, was his secretary and I was very close to her, but she retired before your time, I want to say about 5 or 6 years ago. So, once she left, and once [former English teacher] Dr. Shapiro retired, and once Steve Kramer retired, even though I still have people in the school whom I know well, I’m really not that close to anybody who’s still there.