Meet the New Guy: A Conversation with IA Principal Eric Contreras

contreras
Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal

I was in the office before he was, sitting on the couch, glancing around the room, marveling at how completely unchanged it seemed since Principal Jie Zhang had left. It didn’t end up mattering that we started late, half-way through the allotted time—he let us go a half hour over, too.

 

SW: What was the process to getting this position?

EC: It’s a series of conversations with the superintendent. I had been a deputy superintendent to the specialized high school network. So I had been able to see [the principal’s work] at a number of specialized high schools: Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, here, and a number of selective high schools, like Eleanor Roosevelt and Townsend Harris. Then, my daughter came here as well and graduated. The thing that struck me about Stuyvesant was this feverish excitement around intellectual thinking and activity. It’s unique. It’s special. And so to be able to come back to this environment as a principal was a privilege.

 

SW: What are your main concerns and anxieties about starting a new year here?

EC: I want to make sure that I listen to the needs of all of the constituent groups, and then figure out a way to make all of those needs coherent. I’ve had initial meetings with the student government, the SLT, the cabinet, but I want to get to know more of the constituent groups—clubs, teams, teachers, students that do different types of research [or] are on the robotics team. I want to know what is really important to you and how I can support that, because leadership is about creating a vision and aligning resources to support that vision, but that vision has to be connected to the needs of the people that you serve.

 

SW: Are you nervous about the job?

EC: I’m eager and excited. I don’t know if nervous is the word for me. I feel eager to start the work. I feel eager to see students come in on the first day, and talk to them, and get to know them. One of my goals is to be in classrooms and to engage in the learning and see what’s happening in classrooms and outside of them.

 

SW: How do you plan on engaging with students on a face-to-face basis?

EC: A number of ways. Being in classrooms, having an open door policy where students can come in anytime and talk to me. I want to make sure that I attend one of the meetings with each of the clubs and listen to [their needs]. I want to have ongoing meetings with the student government.

 

SW: As interim acting principal, do you know how long you’re going to be here?

EC: I don’t. That’s up to the SLT and the Human Resources process.

 

SW: Can you and will you apply to be the permanent principal?

EC: That’s my plan.

 

SW: Of all of the events we have as a school (SING!, sports games, spirit days) which are you most excited to witness as interim principal?

EC: I want to go to all of them. Our student body has such varied interests. If you really want to know Stuyvesant, you have to participate in the full dimension of its experience. Part of being a principal is knowing that your days are long, but they are also filled with meaningful experiences.

 

SW: What was the most important part of your career leading up to this position?

EC: I’ve been a teacher. I was a teacher for eight or nine years. As a teacher, I was a fencing coach, a golf coach. I was a yearbook advisor. I had very good outcomes, whether it was regents scores or AP exams, but most importantly I [sought] to create classrooms that were engaging and meaningful. You have to have a solid foundation in that before you can be an administrator. Every one of the roles I’ve had as an educator have been instrumental in shaping who I am and what kind of administrator I can be at Stuyvesant.

 

SW: What do you see as the strongest aspects of Stuyvesant High School?

EC: Student body. I was just at an event, and we were talking about the Sun’s corona with a student here, I think he’s a junior, and its effect on cell phone service, and we had a fifteen minute discussion just on that, and then I’ll talk to another student about Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson—“Who was most instrumental in shaping our early county?”—and we had a half hour debate.

[The journalist and Contreras have their own debate over the legacies of the Founding Fathers.]

 

SW: Do you like the musical, “Hamilton”?

EC: Yes. Yes, the problem is getting the songs out of my head. [Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda] has an ability to shatter this schema of what a musical is. He makes it hip-hop, but in “Take a Break,” when the son is doing the scales in classic form, it’s like a pre-rehearsal piece, or in any of the songs that the king sings, they almost evoke the Beatles with their melodies, and then he is able to cut quickly into hip-hop. He’s very gifted in not feeling like there is a juxtaposition but a seamless composition of forms.

 

SW: Do you like musicals in general?

EC: The more popular ones, like Fiddler. I like theater in general, though. I just saw “The Taming of the Shrew.”

[Having seen the performance in question twice, the journalist and Contreras discuss the feminist and political undertones of the staging.]

EC: That’s exactly the kind of conversation you can have at Stuyvesant, whether it is about “The Taming of the Shrew” or the Sun’s corona. It’s a place where you feel excited about being an intellectual. You feel excited to go from conversations about science to theater to history to literature.

 

SW: What specific actions do you hope to take to improve the school?

EC: That’s something I need to do in consultation with staff, but the open question I have is, “Are we doing enough to manage the stress of students?” My ideas are to work with [Assistant Principal (AP) of Guidance Casey] Pedrick to figure out if the guidance schedules allow for students to have access all the time to someone. We’re looking to hire a social worker this year, for the first time, to add to the guidance office. We’re looking to see if, over time, we might want to have a freshman set of classes where the guidance counselors come around so that there is a conversation around managing stress and work at Stuy, but I want to be careful to say that I come with ideas for possible plans, but I need to work with the APs and the staff here and the students to make sure that these plans make sense.

 

SW: How do you feel about the underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at Stuy?

EC: Having a student body that is representative of the rich diversity of NYC is an important goal as an educator. I believe that supporting students in middle schools is key.  We need to actively collaborate and get input and ideas from Stuyvesant students, alumni, middle schools, and prospective students and their families as we develop preparation programs that begin earlier in middle school. I’m actively working with the Alumni Association to support a Saturday preparation program. The program has already started this summer. I want to develop a mentorship program for students who are enrolled in our summer preparation programs for middle school students. I want to create a middle school consortium of identified partner schools and work with SLT and alumni to explore possibility of hosting and supporting Dream and Discovery programs at Stuyvesant.

SW: What book has influenced you most in your life?

EC: I’m a history person, so in college I was a research assistant that did the research behind two books for a prominent professor. A lot of my academic reading has been around social sciences and history.

[Contreras gets up to get a few books off the shelves in his office.]

“[The book is called] ‘The Power Broker.’ It is about Robert Moses and New York City. Robert Caro is the author. I happen to like the history of the growth of cities and urban design and architecture and city planning. He was the person behind shaping the modern infrastructure for New York City. We would not be here right now if it weren’t for his work across decades, behind the scenes.

It speaks to idealistic vision, but his challenge was, in doing that, he sometimes used eminent domain to spill through [and] divide neighborhoods. So one example is the Cross Bronx. When he built this expressway, [he] ended up gutting entire communities, but then the argument in the book is that without that thoroughfare, New York City wouldn’t have the trade and the commerce that it has as a modern city. For me, it is an important book because it teaches that [in] leadership, you have to be a visionary, you have to be able to take strong action, but the caveat in the book is what’s most important: you can’t just do without consulting and talking. That was his Achilles heel. I believe in doing things with people, not to people.

 

SW: What do I not know about you that I should?

EC: I was a ranked fencer in high school. I love to swim, too. I find swimming is meditative. I actually think that there is an evolutionary piece, like you’re back in the ocean, or a deeply Freudian developmental piece, like you’re back in the womb. There’s a certain thing about the translucence of water that’s meditative, and you don’t hear anything. All you see is light underneath the water, and I could just do 40 laps, and I’d go somewhere else.

 

SW: Do you feel like you talk about work more than you should?

EC: Yeah, because my number-one priority is making sure Stuyvesant is being supported, gets all the right resources, [and] is moving along. My number one, from morning to night here, is making sure that I support the endeavors of not only the students but [also] the staff here, and that’s all-consuming, and it should be. I always tell people who are considering the principalship that it is a lifestyle, not a job. You have to be there for your students all the time, and the school becomes your number-one priority.

 

SW: Left or right-handed?

EC: I’m a leftie.

 

SW: What’s your favorite classic rock song?

EC, laughing: I like the Stones. “Start Me Up” is probably my favorite Stones song. When I was a teenager, I used to like a band called R.E.M. [The journalist is briefly distracted by her childhood love of R.E.M.] I remember going to the music store and buying the vinyl for what probably is my favorite L.P., which is called “Documents,” and there are so many good songs in there. This is what I liked at your age, but I can listen to all forms of music. That’s one of the things I like about Stuyvesant: students here like a variety of things.

 

SW: Do you like rap?

EC: I do like rap. I probably listen more to classic rock and classical music. I happen to like world music too, like there is a form of music in Haiti called kompa music that has an interesting blend of European melodies with some African rhythms, and French influence because it was a French colony.

 

SW: In people, what do you look for and what do you avoid?

EC: Kindness is important to me, respect for difference of opinion. I find a willingness to listen and be kind and receptive even if you disagree. I enjoy the arts. When I was the Executive Director for Social Studies, I did  a lot of work with museums, including the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and I’ve done a lot with the MoMA and the Met, combing endlessly through primary sources and secondary sources to build an entire curriculum for K through 12 from scratch. The work was endless, but I enjoy being around people that appreciate music, cinema, and visual arts.  What I don’t like is someone who is abrasive [or] doesn’t respect difference.

 

SW: Do you have a spouse?

EC: I do. She’s very kind. She’s very thoughtful and super smart, and that’s really important to me. She’s a psychologist. At night, we’ll do our reading together.

 

SW: Do you like to read?

EC: I’ve always made time to read. When I was a child, my mother would take me to the library every Saturday, and then I worked there, and then I was a research assistant. To me, reading has always been the best way to go somewhere else. I don’t know if I’m being a Luddite, but I do find that reading requires a certain level of patience [that is not found as much today].

 

SW: In reflection on the past hour, how do you feel about interviews?

EC: I think they’re great. I told you, my favorite part of this job is going to be my daily encounter and connections with students, by far. I think we, at Stuyvesant, are doing the work together. I am the school leader, but I want to keep a close ear on what the students are thinking and what they need.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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