In a nursery rhyme you discover how a contrary Mary’s garden grew in Scotland. But what answer would you get if you asked a Maria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn who is constructive as opposed to contrary? Principal Maria Ortega’s answer is more applicable to blossoming minds than to blooming flowers in the front yard (although the growth of these are encouraged also, see photo).
Maria Ortega has just finished up her first year as the Principal of John Ericsson Middle School (MS 126) in Greenpoint. This is her 11th year as a principal and her 18th year in the New York City Department of Education. “The students are happy, the parents are happy, and we just work hard every day to make sure that we’re giving our kids the best opportunity that they can have.” She said that in addition to her augmentations the things that have worked in the past should stay the same, “its important coming in as a new leader that you maintain the current partnerships and that you open up doors for new partnerships.”
Ms. Ortega’s energy is solar: it is bright, sunny, warm, direct, and as an eye in the sky doesn’t miss much. When reaching out to a student who had left their classroom, her focus was overarching in that she conveyed understanding of where the student was coming from but highlighted what they did in error and reasons why that behavior should be improved.
“I’m so happy to be here!” Said Maria Ortega toward the end of the interview, then chuckled and said, “I must have said that three times at least!” Her count would be correct; the interview was sporadically interspersed with wholehearted statements of, “I’m so happy to be here.” She also used the words “elated” and “ecstatic” about her position. She is at home here at this school in several ways. She grew up in Williamsburg, she went to this school as a kid, she lives nearby, and she comes from a family of educators — to name three, her mother, her sister and herself.
Neighborhood is important to her. Maria Ortega did most of her schooling within Williamsburg/Greenpoint. “I am a public school kid!” she says with relish. As for higher education, she earned her bachelor degree of elementary education from Boricua College’s Brooklyn campus on North 6th street. She travelled somewhat outside of the area when going to Brooklyn College to obtain a master’s degree as a reading specialist. She came back to her neighborhood and District 14 at the start of her career as an educator. She taught at PS 257 for six years (kindergarten for 5 years and the 5th Grade for 1 year). Her career trajectory would later take her to District 19. She valued her 10 years as a principal there, but she had been looking forward to returning and working within District 14. It was here she could give back to the community she grew up in and lives in.
“I love my district. My colleagues, our superintendent are wonderful people to work with. [They] are people that are always looking for opportunities for our kids and are working collaboratively with community based organizations like St. Nicks Alliance’s Beacon programs and local establishments,” said Principal Ortega. The close participation with St. Nicks Alliance ‘s Beacon is exemplified in the Nike Tournament (basketball), after-school programming, and their support with the chess program over the summer. “We like to collaborate with the Beacon because any initiatives we bring they support us,” she continued and added, “Our school is about Environmental Engineering, so we also have another group of partners that we’re working with now that helps us to sustain the world. We see ourselves as people that want to help in environmental sustainability.”
She went on to illuminate on some of the phenomenal activities MS 126 participated in this year: The Chess Eagles (their chess team) went to the championships (for the 2nd year in a row) in Louisville, KY this year and placed: 5th, 7th, and 12th. The kids’ interest and success at chess has generated the summer camp for the chess kids mentioned above. Another victory MS 126 enjoyed was winning the U.S. Navy Seaperch Program Regionals for middle schools in NYC, a program that instructs in working with underwater ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles). MS 126 proceeded to Nationals in New Bedford, Massachusetts and Principal Ortega was there cheering them on. “We didn’t win, but it was our first shot. 140 schools participated and we were one of the regional winners.”
An amazing opportunity for the MS 126 students is preparing for launch. They will be going to Space Camp down in Huntsville, Alabama for a week in July. In preparation for this, “I bought two plane simulators so the kids could practice how to fly a plane here so my hope is one day that our kids will become pilots. I continue to encourage the students to open up their minds about what is out there, because then they have a choice, “says Principal Ortega. She adds that the school had a Career Day on June 10th and that it’s important to expose the kids to a variety of possibilities in addition to benchmark professions like doctor, lawyer, etc. About her own career choice: she loves working with kids and mentioned that even though she had other opportunities to go into other more profitable careers she doesn’t think there is anything more worthwhile and rewarding than what she does for a living.
MS 126 ended the school year with more fanfare. On June 17th they held the 3rd Annual Environmental Engineering Expo where they showcased their Seaperch program, International Science Club, and more.
Principal Ortega gives an enthusiastic shout out to Alicja Winnicki, “She’s an excellent superintendent and works really hard with the principals. We do a lot of activities district-wide. Elementary school principals work together with middle school [who] work together with high school so it’s seamless in our district.” MS 126 has just been declared a Community School. “We are looking forward to that because it gives us an opportunity to have expanded learning programs, school-based health services, drop-out prevention strategies , parent engagement, and adult education programs.”
Being green is a chief aspect of MS 126. With a small grant they received they built a solar-powered compost bin working with La Casita Verde, a GreenThumb NYC Parks community garden in Williamsburg. They also received an Eco Schools Grant where beginning this summer they’ll be working in partnership with PS 31, PS 34, and PS 110 on restoration projects throughout the Greenpoint Community that will continue through the next 2 ½ years and will reduce school energy and water use, decrease school waste, build school gardens, and increase green space. “We are ready, willing, and able to work in all of these community projects, because this is where we live so we want to make sure we sustain our community,” said Principal Ortega.