Imagine a New York City public elementary school. A Title I school where 84 percent of the students receive free lunch; where another 12 percent of the students are learning English as a new language; where seven of the classrooms are integrated collaborative classrooms in which 40 percent of the students have special needs. With those numbers, it’s easy to imagine a school that is struggling.
But when you walk into P.S. 161 in Queens, the school where Jill Hoder has been principal for the last 11 years, you instantly feel the calm energy of a school that works, a school where students and teachers aren’t struggling. They’re thriving.
“The vision for this building is for every parent and child to know that they are respected, they are loved, they are cared for and they are included in everything that happens,” said Hoder. “It’s a beautiful thing when you see a full building of people who have that shared vision, and who walk the walk with you.”
P.S. 161 isn’t just a school that feels good. It has the numbers to back up the love. During the last administration when schools were given letter grades, P.S. 161 had a long run of straight As, and for the past two years, P.S. 161 has earned the New York state distinction of a Reward School, the new indicator of excellence.
Hoder always knew that working with young people was her calling, but in the late ’70s when she started college, New York City was laying off teachers and all her advisers pushed her away from education. Instead of education as she had planned, she declared psychology as her major.
After a few years of working in family counseling and in a group home for adolescent girls after graduation, Hoder still felt the call of the classroom. She decided to try a little substitute teaching, just to see.
“A couple of days in I came home hysterical. ‘Why did I let them talk me out of it? I love it!’” she said. “It felt like home. You know that good warm safe feeling? Walking into a school building felt like that.”
She immediately took the teacher certification exams and applied to Adelphi for a Master of Arts in Education.
She had the love, but Hoder said, “I had no methods.” Her Adelphi courses gave her the toolkit she was looking for. “I just remember thinking, ‘this is the meat that I need!’” she said.
In her first classroom, she had 42 fifth-graders. “Now, if we were to put 42 fifth-graders in a classroom, I think my teachers would walk out,” she said, laughing. “But I was thrilled. I loved every single second of it.”
Twenty-five years after earning her Master’s in Education, and more than a decade into leading P.S. 161, the love is still there, and it’s working.
“We’re a family, and this whole building is a family,” Hoder said.Against the Odds: Read about the surprising success of three other alumni.