'A Hard Decision to Leave': After 12 Years, PS 234 Principal's Big Move

Each morning, Principal Lisa Ripperger welcomes students and parents to the school she has led since 2006. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

Jun. 20, 2018

After 12 years as principal of PS 234, Lisa Ripperger, 49, is leaving her position as the school’s leader and taking a job as head of The Clarion School in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. Now a nursery through 4th grade, the international school is expected to eventually add grades through high school. Ripperger talked to the Trib about her time at PS 234, her feelings about leaving and about her new job. The edited text below is from that interview.

I initially thought I wasn't ready to leave 234, not ready to pick up my life. But I had to ask myself, why am I saying no? What were the things I was afraid of? I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten older at naming what I’m afraid of and teasing it apart and then tackling those things individually.

I’ve always loved the Middle East. I've traveled there a lot and it’s a region that’s really resonated with me.

I always wanted to live in another country, so this kind of thing was in the back of my mind. But I also never wanted to work in an international school. It didn't appeal to me to be with people who want to stick with their expat community. So that’s going to be a big challenge for me; I’m not going so I can just hang out with a bunch of other Westerners. But I know myself well enough that I’m not really worried about that.

One of the enticing pieces was to be part of launching a middle school designed to be an International Baccalaureate curriculum. The idea of progressive education in the Middle East is really unusual. People know it's something very different than what they grew up with, but they want something that feels like it’s the West. The idea of shifting from a teacher-centered, teacher as all-knowing, as opposed to a facilitator and engaging children in a different way, is a major paradigm shift for many parents. To go on that journey they have to trust that their kids are going to get a good education and still be competitive.

Recruitment of staff and retainment of staff will have its own challenges. You need to draw upon teachers in the United States and a lot of teachers come from New York actually.

My 12 years here is the longest I've spent anywhere. This is just such an extraordinary community and I feel so grateful to have been let into these people’s lives. Not just the lives of the families but the teaching staff, too. As a teacher, I could never have understood that in this role you’re given access to so much intimacy—to marital challenges, illness challenges and parenting challenges. In a weird way, as a school leader you become a quasi-spiritual leader and marriage counselor and you get invested in people sharing their most troubling things. They’ve taught me so much about the complexity of human life and relationships and grace and I’m blown away by the amount of even tragedy that I’ve seen happen in this community and how people come to each others aid to support each other and that’s true for the teaching staff as well as the parent community.

What I would tell the next principal is that the kids come to school everyday super excited to be here. And they feel a sense of ownership in their community, in their learning and in their independence in how they navigate the physical space. They feel a sense of empowerment in terms of how they talk to people and that is the legacy of this school. It goes back to Blossom [Gelernter, PS 234’s first principal] and early roots built around democratic principles of the families, the staff and the children. That’s the reason why everyone goes by their first name. It’s not this hierarchy where we’re above the children. I would say don’t underestimate the power of that. It’s a core principle of what this school represents in terms of the belief system around learning.

I hope that the person who comes here believes in constructivist learning because that is what this school is about. You’re going to have a hard time running this school if you don’t fundamentally believe in the idea of kids constructing their own knowledge. Because that’s what the teaching staff is about. That’s what we’ve been about for 30 years in this building and 42 years of this school’s history.

I’m confident that the school will be in good hands with the next principal. The superintendent and her deputy are engaged in the search. I think they have great understanding of all the school communities across District 2. I’m sure they’ll pick someone who will do really well and the plan is that someone will be in place before I leave so I could have some overlap and support of that person.

It was a hard decision to leave because I am so in love with this community and feel so included in people’s lives and so appreciated. For sure, it's worrisome to leave and not know if I will experience that again. I’m sure it will be different. But I know that I can hold onto how very much loved and supported I have felt as an educator in New York and I feel grateful to this community. I think they feel I’ve taken care of them, but I don’t think they really realize how much I've felt taken care of, too.