May Person of the Month: Andrew Pignataro
Anthony Pignataro is the Vice Principal of Collaborative Arts Middle School (CAMS) in Queens, New York. In this role, he is responsible for school culture and for the facilitation of the Team for School Initiatives and Student Support Team. Mr. Pignataro was nominated for “Person of the Month” by Turnaround for Children Social Work Consultant Renee Prince, who describes him as “humble, dedicated and hardworking, often dedicating his time and personal resources to mentor and support students.”
THE 180: How have you seen CAMS evolve because of its partnership with Turnaround for Children?
ANTHONY PIGNATARO: For me as an administrator, [the partnership] has given me a better understanding when working with high-needs children, by helping me identify the risks that they have and challenges that they’re going through. Turnaround has helped us communicate better with all students, by making us aware of how we speak to them.
THE 180: How has Turnaround helped you communicate better with students?
ANTHONY PIGNATARO: They emphasized the importance of modeling positive talk and speaking kindly to one another. I think sometimes we take that for granted and don’t address it enough when it doesn’t happen. Turnaround has helped us implement strategies in our lessons to make sure that it is happening. If we’re asking students to [speak positively], we should be doing it as well. I wouldn’t want to ask a kid to do something that I’m not even trying to do, so I think it’s important that the teachers use positive talk in all of their meetings, not just in Turnaround sessions.
THE 180: As assistant principal you wear multiple hats, taking on the leadership of the Student Support Team and Team for School Initiatives coordination, something that’s usually done by a counselor or social worker. How did you come to take on these roles?
ANTHONY PIGNATARO: With my role of discipline, it was a good way for me to look at both sides of the spectrum – not just handling the accountability and consequences [for negative student behaviors], but asking why these things are happening. When students do something wrong, there needs to be some type of accountability, but what are we doing on our end to prevent it from happening again? Suspensions don’t work all the time. If a student is constantly being suspended, then that strategy is not working. So it’s looking at why a student is behaving this way and what we can do to prevent or minimize the situation. I think that’s how the student grows.
THE 180: Can you tell me about the boys group you run and how it got started?
ANTHONY PIGNATARO: Principal Holloway has a girls group [for struggling students] called Pretty Brown Girls and we decided we could do something similar for the young men at CAMS. Every Tuesday during eighth period Mr. O’Neil, the dean, and I meet with about 15 or 16 of our most challenging young men. We discuss conflict resolution and character development, get some pizza and just hang out.
THE 180: What do the students think of the group? Are they active participants?
ANTHONY PIGNATARO: I mean pizza helps, I’m not going to lie. But when we get them there, they really do participate. There’s a few off task behaviors, but for the most part they’re genuine. They have discussions with one another and go back and forth in a respectful way. We made a point of letting the students know it’s okay to disagree. As long as you can back up your point and do it respectfully, there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with what someone else says. It’s an opportunity for these students to meet outside of the classroom and just have genuine discussions.
THE 180: What strategies or practices has Turnaround brought to CAMS that you find yourself using the most?
ANTHONY PIGNATARO: I think the team builders. I never would have thought to do a team builder, and even when the idea was originally presented to me, I wasn’t too excited about having to do them. It just wasn’t me. But I’ve actually grown to enjoy and look forward to them. It’s a good way to set the tone of the meeting, bring everyone together and then segue into the work.
THE 180: How has Turnaround been an asset to CAMS?
ANTHONY PIGNATARO: I think it’s the resources Turnaround brings. It’s another person, another pair of eyes, another group of professionals bringing their expertise in, whether it be classroom management or facilitating conversation and discussion.
THE 180: What do you think is the most important thing that students need to succeed?
ANTHONY PIGNATARO: They need to know that the teachers care. Kids often think that the teacher is against them or always on them, instead of understanding that the teacher should, and hopefully has their best interest in mind. And I think it’s doing the “lunch and learns” together and encouraging teachers to have non-academic conversations with kids. Kids need to know that [teaching] is not just our job, it’s our career.