Q&A with Ethical Culture’s Two Incoming Assistant Principals

18 May 2021
ByKevin Ko-wen Chen, Communications Manager

As part of its mission to provide a world-class progressive education, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School continually evaluates how best to serve its students. Constantly revising the curriculum is a given, but sometimes, being responsive entails rethinking what’s going on beyond the classroom as well.

In the 2021–2022 academic year, Ethical Culture will adopt a new administrative structure. Melinda Velez, the current Learning Coordinator, will assume the role of Assistant Principal for Learning and Academic Support, while Erik Landgren, the current Assistant Principal for Pre-K–2nd Grade, will assume the role of Assistant Principal for Faculty and Student Life. Velez and Landgren will work alongside Rob Cousins, Principal; Vanessa D’Egidio, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator; and a new Social Studies Coordinator in leading the faculty and staff at Ethical Culture.

We spoke to Velez and Landgren about the upcoming transition. 

For several years, Ethical Culture has had one Assistant Principal for Pre-K–2nd Grade and another for 3rd–5th Grade. What was the motivation for moving to a new model?

Velez: Our pre-existing structure separated the lower and upper elementary grades into two divisions. While this had some benefits organizationally, this structure made it difficult to ensure continuity when students shifted from 2nd to 3rd Grade. We realized that if we want to be a truly cohesive school, there needs to be a consistent through line from Pre-K through 5th Grade. The assistant principals should be able to form and continue relationships with families over the course of a student’s time at Ethical Culture.

Landgren: The decision to make changes to the structure was motivated by several factors: to provide Pre-K through 5th Grade continuity in all aspects of student life and curriculum, to capitalize on the strengths and experience of administrators on the team, and to help us move towards greater alignment vertically and horizontally in all subject areas and in social-emotional learning. In addition, this change in structure will allow us to better understand and support the student and family experience as a child moves from Pre-K through 5th Grade.

We realized that if we want to be a truly cohesive school, there needs to be a consistent through line from Pre-K through 5th Grade.

What lessons and experiences from your current role do you hope will inform your upcoming one?

Velez: As the Learning Support Coordinator, I work with the learning specialists, classroom teachers, and parents to organize academic support for students. As the Assistant Principal of Learning and Academic Support, I’ll continue to oversee learning support for students in Pre-K through 5th Grade. I will also be working closely with grade-level teams to help develop a cohesive Language Arts program that ensures that students are meeting benchmarks and becoming strong readers and writers. This new position will allow me to organize professional development for teachers, attend team meetings, and support new and probationary teachers.

Landgren: I’ve spent the last four years creating and maintaining relationships with students, faculty, and parents. These relationships have often felt cut off when a student reached 3rd Grade. I’m looking forward to continuing these partnerships through 5th Grade as I better understand how to support a student’s experience as they move through the full range of grades and programming we have to offer at Ethical Culture.

Over the last four years, I’ve learned a lot about working with teachers — those who are new to the School, those who are new to the profession, and those who are more experienced — and I’ll be bringing all of that to my work collaborating with the teachers in the upper grades. I’ve also learned a lot about helping new families better understand our ongoing institutional goals and the steps we are taking to meet them. I look forward to continuing that work in this new role as well.

At Fieldston Middle and Fieldston Upper, there have typically been one Assistant Principal for Student Life and another for Academic Life. At Ethical Culture, the division of responsibilities between Assistant Principals is similar but somewhat different. Can you speak a little more about that difference?

Velez: At Fieldston Middle and Fieldston Upper, the divisions are departmentalized by academic subjects. In the lower divisions, learning takes place in a more integrated fashion. The new titles reflect our desire to foster social-emotional learning and academic growth for our elementary students.

Landgren: In my new role, I’ll be the go-to person for questions related to childhood development, social-emotional learning, and behavior management. I’ll also be supporting families and teachers with day-to-day questions around nuts and bolts and programming in general.

In thinking about splitting up the responsibilities, we wanted to make sure that the teachers were being taken into consideration. Who would they go to when day-to-day issues arise? Who would they go to for help with curriculum and planning? Moving forward, I’ll be working with the faculty on communicating with families, developing a social-emotional scope and sequence, and understanding the entirety of a student’s experience. Melinda will be the go-to person for learning how to differentiate and support a broad range of student needs across multiple subject areas.

With any change in administrative structure, there's a period of transition. How do you plan to work with the other administrators, faculty, and families to make that transition as seamless as possible?

Velez: The most important thing is to maintain communication and transparency. Already, in my role, I have an open-door policy and meet with parents and teachers frequently. It is our intention to provide multiple opportunities for teachers and parents to meet with administrators.  For teachers, we will schedule frequent team meetings and individual conferences. For parents, we intend to hold several information sessions about our academic and social-emotional curriculum throughout the year. 

Landgren: The majority of the administrative team has worked together for a couple of years, and it will be exciting to welcome a new member to the group. We’re quite a tight-knit group, having gone through a pandemic and come out the other side. We do a lot of joint decision-making and often rely on one another for advice and feedback. I am looking forward to having a Social Studies coordinator join us as a thought partner in our group and will do my best to support them as they take on this newly created role. 

With most families, we already have a relationship built, so now it’s going to be picking back up that work: I saw you when you were in Kindergarten and now you’re in 4th Grade. How can I support you in your ongoing growth here?

We do a lot of joint decision-making and often rely on one another for advice and feedback.

What excites you most about next year?

Velez: I am so excited to have all the children back in the building and to see their faces. I’m also excited that I will have the opportunity to provide additional support to teachers in a way that I wasn’t able to in my previous role.

Landgren: I’m really excited to be expanding my work with teachers and students in 3rd–5th Grade, to continue to support families all the way through our programming here, and to take on a more macro view of a child’s journey and a family’s journey as they go through all parts of our division.