BK Reporter Q&A: Superintendent for All Seasons in Bklyn’s Biggest District

SOUTHWEST BROOKLYN — This has been a particularly exciting year for District 20 School Superintendent Karina Costantino. She just recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of Pre-K for All and is also thrilled with the anticipated opening of the new Mafalda DiMango Campus for the Arts located on 59th Street between Second and Third avenues in Sunset Park. The new building will house two new schools: P.S. 936 for grades K to five and MS 936 for grades six to eight. Both schools will have a pronounced focus on the visual and performing arts.

Costantino has served as superintendent for 14 years and her district covers the southwest corner of Brooklyn and includes Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Borough Park, Sunset Park and the Fort Hamilton army base. As the superintendent responsible for elementary and middle schools, Costantino is in charge of appointing principals, evaluating schools and approving budgets.

Costantino, who was born and raised in Bay Ridge and attended P.S. 170, McKinley and Fort Hamilton High School, took time out from her busy schedule to talk with this paper about her career and role as school superintendent. 

Q: Can you please give us a little background about how you became interested in education?

Costantino:  Well, from the time I was little I wanted to be a teacher and I would play classroom. I loved kids and I also had a love of history. So when I went to St. John’s University I decided to get as many licenses as I could. My father taught me to never limit my options because you never know where there might be an opening. So I was very fortunate to do my student teaching here in Bay Ridge at P.S. 104 and now I’ve been doing this for 48 years. 

In 1991 there were 19 openings for principals in Staten Island where I lived at the time. I applied and got P.S. 22 on the North Shore, which was predominantly made up of immigrants. And that’s where my career as a principal started and I remained there for 17 years. Then the Staten Island regional superintendent asked if I would be interested in taking over District 20 because the superintendent there was moving on to other things. I thought I died and went to heaven going back to the place where I originally started and where I grew up. 

Q: Please tell us a little about your team and your day-to-day responsibilities as District 20 superintendent.

Costantino:  I have a wonderful team that includes my deputy Dr. Joseph O’Brien, my field support liaison Shawn McClain, Dianne Gounardes, the district director of early childhood education, William Chin, elementary and middle school family leadership coordinator, Sylvia Jasinski, family support coordinator and Camille Loccisano, Department of Education parent coordinator and they all have their area of expertise in addition to their job description so my feeling is to let them grow and let them just help each other. 

ebrooklyn media / Photos by John Alexander
District 20 School Superintendent Karina Costantino.

We have 39 principals and I’ve appointed 31 of them. Looking at the fact that we are a large immigrant district, we need to make a connection and we need to develop trust in the community. When I came into the district we were eighth or ninth in the city in English Language Arts and we were sixth or seventh in math. We’ve made gains and now we’re fifth in English and third in math in New York City, and we are one of two districts in the city that are in good standing with the New York State Ed Department. Our district is truly collaborative in the sense that the decision-making happens with parents, teachers and supervisors and it’s an effort of all of us.

Q: I know you’re very excited about the new school being named after community leader Mafalda DiMango, who was PTA president of P.S. 204 in the early 1960s. 

Costantino: You know, on a personal level, Mafalda DiMango was one of the people on the school board that was instrumental in my becoming assistant principal at P.S. 186 in Bensonhurst at the beginning of my career, so it’s very fitting now that the center will be named after her, especially since she was so supportive of the arts.

Q: The new school will certainly fill a void since the district tends to lose a lot of gifted and talented arts students to schools like Mark Twain in Coney Island.

Costantino: I believe that being a district of immigrants, art and music are our universal language and just get our kids up to sing and dance and perform and they speak perfect English, they learn and that’s why our district does so well. So for a long time I said I couldn’t understand why being such a big art district we don’t have a middle school for the arts like Mark Twain.

Former New York City School’s Chancellor Carmen Farina was interested. I told her that we have a new school going up on Third Avenue and it’s a big piece of property. We need to put in elementary schools but also need a middle school and I told her with her permission I would really like to have it focus on the arts. It will start with the sixth grade and it will not be screened. Anyone who has a love for the arts and is talented in the arts can apply. 

We needed to name the school and the CEC didn’t really know Mafalda, so I provided them with the history and they voted last Wednesday, to name the campus after her. So opening will probably be late August or early September. That’s something I’m just very thrilled about because I really believe that it should have happened a long time ago.

Q: It must be very rewarding to see the Pre-K for All program flourish and remain so successful after five years.

Costantino: If a school district is going to be successful one of the most important principles of learning is clarity around expectations. I said to Dianne (Gounardes), it’s never too early to begin the work that we’re doing in day school with the Pre-K students. Dianne does inquiry around her students, she does social emotional intelligence, and everybody’s been trained. If you walk into the Pre-K centers you see mood meters and you see children talk about how they feel. She does many things including a retreat in the spring for Pre-K and kindergarten teachers so they can up their game. And in addition to that, she has the Pre-K teachers that are still in our schools. Our Pre-K’s are very crowded and I’m trying to get all the Pre-K’s out of the schools and into the centers, but what Dianne does is she has all the Pre-K teachers from my community schools go to her staff development on a Monday so that connection and coherence has been very strong. She’s got close to 1,400 Pre-K students so it’s amazing what she’s been able to accomplish.

Q: Because of the success of Pre-K for All, parents have been asking when we will be getting 3-K for All in the district.

Costantino: It’s coming. Actually it’s probably coming to us by 2021, because they are going to the needier districts first where they’re testing the waters and then we’ll be getting it.

Q: Do you also oversee all the charter schools within the district such as LEEP in Sunset Park?

Costantino: By state law we oversee every school in District 20. But anytime anyone is going to start a new school, they send a letter to my office saying they are planning to start a new school.

Q: What are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of during your tenure as superintendent?

Costantino: For one thing, I always believed that principals’ conferences should be different. I didn’t think my principals should come in and hear me speak all day. So we formed “Cohorts,” with elementary, intermediate and every year we change the focus. Sometimes it was based on curriculum, sometimes location, and in the morning they visit each other’s schools and they share everything. It’s a cross-pollination of ideas and where they were so isolated before now I’m most proud of our intermediate schools because they’ve just taken off. When you walk into an intermediate school the walls just explode with students’ work and you see student ownership.

The fact that my district has embraced social and emotional intelligence at such a level, where they do growth mindset, they do ruler, which is a Yale program and they do the leader in me. I’ve got three or four Lighthouse school and I’ve got to date six blue ribbon schools, which is a very prestigious honor to receive, that’s based on the hard work of my principals. I’m also proud of the way my staff has grown in terms of what they’ve taken on. For example, Shawn had an idea for a new program for phobic eight grade students. We recommended the kids be tested and diagnosed by a psychiatrist and Shawn helped start the first-ever intermediate school phobic program. That’s all because he had an idea and now it’s the only program in the city for phobic kids. And my deputy Joe O’Brien who was interested in STEAM/STEM, was able to get a grant for a fellowship to go and study in Australia. While there he met with university professors, visited schools and brought everything back. Many of my schools now have a partnership with schools in Australia and that’s why our STEAM and STEM initiatives have taken off. And last year the Australians came to my STEAM fair and that’s all because of Dr. O’Brien.

Q: With the changing face of the immigrant population in southwest Brooklyn from predominantly Italian and Norwegian neighborhoods converting to more Asian, Russian and Latin American communities, how are schools meeting the needs of these more diverse populations?

Costantino: We are no longer in New York City a melting pot, we’re a mosaic but in that rich mosaic of all those different cultures, parents have the same dreams, the same expectations and the same concerns for their kids. They may speak a different language but that common thread runs through all of them. And that’s something I’m really proud of, being able to bring them all together.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Costantino: I really don’t feel that I’ve worked a day in my life. From the time I taught at 104 where I loved what I did with my students, I just say how fortunate I am and look forward to seeing how this year pans out and how we do because I’m expecting we’re going to make another big jump. I’ve got my principals, I’ve got my A-Team in place and we just want to keep that consistency and continuity of leadership in all our schools. It’s very important for me, being a product of District 20 to preserve the integrity of District 20. I just love what I do.

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