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2009: Principals of the Year

Koetke’s Lab for Learning
Building on a school’s success with a bevy of innovative programs

Mara Koetke’s favorite elementary school memory growing up in western Pennsylvania was when she wrote a eulogy for Mickey Mouse.

“It was very somber but humorous,” she said. “I mostly remember assignments that called upon me to be creative and to think.”

These same goals are what Koetke hopes to bring to P.S. 77/The Lower Lab School, where she has been principal for a little longer than a year. Koetke, who received a Ph.D. from Teachers College at Columbia University, is a former vice principal at Anderson Middle School. She was an elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C., and Connecticut before moving to Manhattan.

On her first visit to Lower Lab, during an art and poetry festival in 2008, Koetke remembered being impressed by the school’s energy and dedication to social and emotional learning.

“I felt that it was a very good match for me. It made me want to be a part of that community,” she said.

Approximately 340 students are currently enrolled at the school, which caters to gifted students in District 2. Since Koetke’s arrival, several new programs have been operating at full steam, including the WordMasters vocabulary challenge, Latin for upper grades and a continental math league competition. The school is also working with local enrichment organizations, like Young Audiences New York, Wingspan Arts and the Livable Streets Program. Already thinking of more enrichment plans, Koetke said she’s interested in a meta-cognitive curriculum that gets students to think about thinking.

For Gina Ryan and her son, Koetke’s presence has been a breath of fresh air.

“She’s introduced programs with the gifted child in mind. Parents are thrilled,” Ryan said.

Her son, a 5th grader, loves the school’s instrumental music program. Led by music director Brian Shaheen, students are taught how to read music for violin or cello. Ryan called Lower Lab a treasure with great leadership.

“As the parent, you just hope your principal is someone who knows what she’s doing,” she said. “She understands the kids.”

One example: This past spring, a 4th grader wrote a letter to Koetke about a penny drive. The project went on to raise more than $500 and received help from P.S. 198, which shares the building with Lower Lab. The student’s mother, Jill Perry, said the penny drive was an opportunity to give back to the community.

“My daughter was so excited to be allowed to make her idea into a reality. Dr. Koetke looks out for all the children in the building, not just her own,” Perry said.

For Koetke, education is about creating an environment where children feel safe to take risks.

“I do feel a tremendous sense of obligation as a school leader to make sure that we’re working hard to provide the students with challenging and engaging experiences,” she said.

Tara Ryan, co-chair of the Parent Teacher Association, said she was amazed by Koetke’s ability to build programs in just one year. She added that Koetke’s open-door policy has allowed parents to better communicate and work with the school. The first PTA meeting lasted for more than three hours.

“That,” Ryan said, “pretty much said a lot about her.”

— Peggy Truong

Mara Koetke, Principal
P.S. 77/The Lower Lab School
1700 Third Ave.
New York, N.Y. 10128


Above: Mara Koetke remembers being impressed by Lower Lab’s energy and dedication to social and emotional learning during her first visit to the school. Photo by Andrew Schwartz



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