Fresh out of Mason Gross School of the Arts with an M.F.A. degree in visual arts, Alicia Wargo made ends meet by working for nonprofits that enlisted artists to teach in New York’s  public schools. In serving many schools and many teachers, Wargo MGSA’00 came to understand what worked in the classroom—and what didn’t. In 2006, two nonprofits, DreamYard Project and New Visions for Public Schools, started DreamYard Preparatory high school in the Bronx, inviting Wargo to be a full-time visual arts teacher. She figured she would do it for a year, but came to cherish the experience. After her second year, she accepted the invitation to be its assistant principal.

Since 2012, she has been the principal of the high school, which emphasizes an arts curriculum and which was recently recognized for its student achievement. Four years ago, the school’s graduation rate was only 46 percent; last spring, it was 68 percent (the city average is 74 percent). The high school has been part of mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal Schools program, which looks to turn around troubled schools instead of shuttering them. Of the 94 schools originally in the program, 32 have been closed or merged and 21 of them, including DreamYard prep, have made enough progress to receive the designation of Rise; the school can now wean itself of the Renewal program’s support.

“Going to art school honed my collaboration skills and provided me with endless opportunities to solve problems creatively,” says Wargo. “Most importantly, being an artist prepared me to accept criticism and become self-reflective. This skill has been instrumental as a principal, especially as a leader who has been required to engage her community in school turnaround work.”

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: You got an M.F.A. in visual arts from Mason Gross; today, you are the principal of a high school. How did you get from point A to point B? 

ALICIA WARGO: After I graduated from Mason Gross in 2000, I moved to Brooklyn, got a studio in Williamsburg to continue making art, and began exhibiting my work, mainly in group shows. To pay my bills, I started working for a few nonprofit organizations that placed artists in public schools to work on arts-integrated projects alongside classroom teachers. One of these organizations was DreamYard Project. In the spring of 2006, one of the program directors at DreamYard approached me and shared that they planned on opening a school and wondered if I might be interested in becoming part of the founding faculty as a visual arts teacher. It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I said yes. I thought that I would stay a year and then return to making art full time, but I discovered that I loved working with young people. After two years in the position, the founding principal approached me and told me that he thought I would make a great assistant principal (the school didn’t have one yet). While I had never considered becoming a school administrator, when he suggested it, I felt that it was the right path for me, so again I said yes. DreamYard Project completely funded a second master’s degree for me at Bank Street College of Education. After the founding principal left in March of 2012, I didn’t need someone to suggest that I take over DreamYard Prep; I knew that I wanted the job. 

I often joke that I might be the only former artist who is a principal in New York City’s Department of Education. While I didn’t begin my life after grad school intending to work in a high school, much less become a principal, I was open to the opportunities that were presented to me as an educator. I’ve always been passionate about education in addition to my aspiration to become a professional artist. Life led me to becoming a principal and many of the skills that I learned as an artist serve me in my current role. 

RM: What strengths of yours did you discover that perhaps you wouldn’t have fathomed possessing (or had the potential to develop) when you left Rutgers?

AW: As an artist, you are responsible for what you produce in your studio and choices you make as you present that art in the world. As a principal, you are responsible for the well-being and education of hundreds of young people and the adults who educate them. I never imagined that I would be able to successfully navigate a responsibility of this magnitude. A few months ago, I overheard a teacher comment, “I never worry about what to do if an emergency happens. Wargo always knows what to do.” I laughed when I heard this. I actually don’t always know what to do, but I always have to commit to a decision and convince my community that it is the correct course of action to take. Parents and families are trusting me with their children, and my staff is trusting me to guide them as to how best support those children. 

RM: How has your background made you a more effective principal?

AW: The two experiences that have most contributed to my effectiveness as a principal have been waiting tables and going to art school. Waiting tables for years taught me how to multitask and stay calm under pressure. Going to art school honed my collaboration skills and provided me with endless opportunities to solve problems creatively. Most importantly, being an artist prepared me to accept criticism and become self-reflective. Anyone who ever has gone to art school knows how brutal critiques can be. You put your work on display and you just get ripped to shreds. Through the process, I learned how to filter out comments that were valuable to me about my work from the comments that weren’t relevant to my vision as an artist. This skill has been instrumental as a principal, especially as a leader who has been required to engage her community in school turnaround work. My school has been under intense scrutiny by both the state and the city, and I’ve had a lot of people in my ear telling me what to do to make my school better. It has been overwhelming at times. However, my background as an artist provided me with the ability to sort through all of the information given to me and listen to the suggestions that supported my overall vision for my school community. 

RM: The arts are usually the first area to get the school budget axe. But you are a witness to how effective they can be in the educational process, something that DreamYard Project emphasized in starting the school. Explain, please, how—in your various roles as a practicing artist, a teacher, and later as an administrator—you came to see their intrinsic value as opposed to, say, math or science or English, as important as these things are.

AW: Students at DreamYard Prep take at least one arts class each semester. In ninth grade, students take a visual arts and theatre integration class where teachers use these art forms to support learning in content area classes like English or history. Additionally, students cycle through one of four elective classes in visual art, music, dance, and theater during each semester of their freshmen and sophomore years. In 11th grade, students choose a major in one of these four areas and take two 90-minute classes in their major each semester until they graduate. We also offer a myriad of classes in digital photography, fashion design, poetry, and technology. While DreamYard Prep has an arts focus, the mission of our school is not to churn out professional artists. While some students go on to pursue professions in the arts, most students choose other fields of study after they graduate. However, I believe that immersing oneself deeply in an arts discipline will provide students with experiences and skills that will prepare them for any career. Some of these skills include collaboration, ability to think outside the box, public speaking, commitment, and problem-solving.

In education, we often forget to give young people opportunities to express joy. There is a joy that comes from expressing oneself in and through the arts that I know is vital to being human, especially to adolescents still trying to find who they are and how they can be in the world. 

RM: The graduation rate for students at DreamYard is up practically 50 percent, a remarkable turnaround since you took over in 2012. What key factors account for it, in your view?

AW: There is no magic bullet to school turnaround. I was quoted in the New York Times as saying “A curriculum doesn’t turnaround a school; a community does.” This is my mantra. The single most important factor for us was our ability to build a robust community, particularly among the adults. Building community isn’t an event. It doesn’t happen at one social event at the beginning of the year or a holiday party in December. It is difficult, layered work. For us, it meant adopting circles and restorative practices for all members of the community, including the staff. It meant long conversations and collaborative visioning, and effectively facilitated meetings where all voices could be heard. It meant acknowledging that we weren’t doing a great job at meeting the needs of our young people and asking for support. It meant working with families as partners in the work. 

Often, educational experts suggest a particular instructional strategy is the key to academic success. I don’t think that any instructional strategy can take root and have impact unless the school’s community of student and adult learners is strong. Once our community became stronger, we were able to implement pedagogical moves that improved classroom instruction. Instructional initiatives have the most impact when teachers, students, and families buy in and implement them with fidelity. That buy-in comes from working with and through community. 

RM: DreamYard has been designated a Rise school. What are the advantages of this new status for you and your school?

AW: There are a lot of assumptions people make about your school when it has a particular designation from the city or state. We often assume that schools with the highest test scores or graduation rates are “good,” and any schools with low achievement scores are “bad.” Schools are complicated organisms that exist within, not independent from bigger societal issues of race and equity. People view my school differently now that we are Rise instead of Renewal. This has positively impacted the number of students that applied to my school this year. We anticipate our ninth grade class to be the largest ever, and our enrollment is going up for the first time in over five years. 

According to what has been shared with me, DreamYard will continue to get the resources associated with being a Community School, which means additional funding for an extended school day, our internship program, and additional social workers. I look forward to learning more about the Rise program as it continues to be shaped by educators under our new chancellor.