Longtime Scholars’ Principal, Mr. O, On the Way Out

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After more than 15 years since founding the school and serving as its principal, Brian O’Connell will leave Scholars’ Academy in the spring, in search of a new challenge as headmaster of the Lawrence Woodmere Academy (LWA).

“It is with bittersweet and extremely complex emotions that I inform you that effective March 2, 2020, I will no longer serve as the principal of Scholars’ Academy,” he wrote in an email to Scholars’ families last week. “It was a very difficult day,” he said of making the announcement to make the switch from a Scholars’ Seawolf to an LWA Tiger.

Scholars’ Academy began as an idea in Mr. O'Connell's (Mr. O, as he is more commonly called) head back in 2003. At the time, he was working as principal of P.S. 114 in Belle Harbor and started to notice a sharp downturn in student enrollment from the fifth grade into the sixth. "People were voting with their feet,” he said, explaining how students were leaving the peninsula for other schools because the then local choice of M.S. 180 was underperforming. O’Connell sent an email to then regional superintendent Dr. Kathleen Cashin with the idea of starting an accelerated program in Rockaway. “That email sealed my fate,” he said, now 17 years later.

Scholars’ began as a program split between P.S. 114 and a space at P.S. 105 in Far Rockaway, before eventually moving to its current building in 2005, and replacing M.S. 180. “There were a lot of skeptics,” he said, “There were a lot of obstacles to start this school.”

However, in his time there, it’s clear that O’Connell was not only able to overcome those obstacles, but excel. Today, Scholars’ places well above the average in test scores, as well as in the overall diversity of the student body. Additionally, U.S. News & World Report ranks the high school as the 15th best in the state, and 129th in the nation.

During his tenure at Scholars’, O’Connell helped push for collaborative learning through group work, and an increase in technology-based learning by bringing iPads, laptops, and interactive boards into every classroom. More recently, Scholars’ has started to implement more Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), which began with monthly advisory sessions where students met in groups outside of a class setting. This has now become “Renaissance Retreat” days, where students participate in groups around a similar interest, such as film.

Last year, Lawrence Woodmere had asked O’Connell to join their team there, but he had declined. Instead, he advised the school in their search for an interim headmaster after the current one had fallen ill. “I didn’t think they would be coming back to me with interest, he admitted, rather, “leave me in the rear-view mirror, so to speak.”

However, LWA had their eyes on O’Connell. They eventually did come back to him, and after negotiations, O’Connell ultimately decided it was time he moved on from Scholars’ and the New York City Board of Education. After all he had accomplished at Scholars’, O’Connell felt he had done what he had set out to do and wanted to bring what he had learned into a new challenge. “I walked around the building, feeling like I was looking for ways to make work here new and exciting,” he said. He also discussed what he calls, “midlife motivation,” and his desire to do all he can with whatever time that is afforded to him. “Am I going to use those years playing it safe here, or am I going to do something bold and audacious and exciting and new?” he said. He also stressed the need to provide for his family and financially set his children, who both attend Scholars’, up for college. Working at a private institution like LWA would make that easier, but the idea of a new challenge was most tempting. “An opportunity arose that looks to be stimulating, a little scary, and exciting at the same time...I thrive on that,” he said.

However, Scholars’, an idea that came from his own mind and a project he has helped foster for nearly 15 years, will always be his baby. “My blood is in the floor,” he said, and although it will be tough to leave his team and the students of Scholars’ Academy, he trusts he is leaving it in good hands. “The school is in a place where I am comfortable trusting that it can be maintained and continued to be improved,” he said, “I trust that I have a lot of people here who understand and own the work here deeply, they are going to be great stewards of Scholars’ Academy.”

One of those stewards is Assistant Principal Toni Marie Viera, who has worked under O’Connell for 14 years. “He built this school to be what it is today and undoubtedly, the School Leadership Team will ensure that we continue carrying out our shared vision and mission and make him proud,” she said. Other longtime teachers understand and see the impact Scholars’ has on the community, “Mr. O and Scholars' Academy have created a path for all the children of the Rockaways to enter elite colleges, while still retaining the family-like feel of a local school,” said Charles Hilgendorf, a Chemistry teacher who has taught in Rockaway for 23 years. “I do not want to see him go; he is going to be terribly missed.”

  O’Connell’s former students will remember him for his lessons, his leadership, his greeting, “How YOU doin’?”—and his occasional long-winded morning speeches about apathy and the importance of understanding the past.

“Never thought he'd leave,” one alumna, Ashley Walters, said on Facebook. “Thanks for seven years of helping us become the people that we've turned out to be, no matter how long your speeches were!”

Come March of next year, O’Connell will leave Scholars’ for his new position, but he’ll continue to live in Rockaway, and hopes he can continue to serve the community. “I am very proud of the fact we brought the peninsula together under one roof,” he said. He even hopes to possibly foster a relationship between Scholars’ and LWA in the future. However, no longer serving as principal of one of Rockaway’s schools may have its perks, “Maybe now I can go to the supermarket,” O’Connell joked. 

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