The website, Inside Schools describes Maspeth High School as “a highly structured school with a classical curriculum that includes four years of Latin and fine arts. Students are held to high standards in their behavior, dress, and academic performance… Maspeth’s curriculum seeks to balance math, science, humanities, and the arts. The importance of public speaking and writing are emphasized in all classes.” Now when was the last time you heard of a New York City public school that did this? The man who envisioned this and made it all possible is the Principal, Khurshid Abdul-Mutakabbir.
Principal Abdul-Mutakabbir is a visionary and an innovator, and a passionate, determined educator who in his leadership capacity at Maspeth High is determined “to train students to become critical thinkers and life-long learners.” He is passionately dedicated to his ideals and goals, and strives to achieve them with an unbridled enthusiasm. At our meeting I discovered that his serious and stern demeanor masks a surprising sense of humor, and that he appears to be deeply appreciative and grateful for the support and dedication he receives from his teachers, students, and administrative staff. School Secretary, Assunta D’Ambra calls him “awesome,” Office Assistant Bobbi Jo Verrone claims “he’s very fair,” and gym teacher, Fabian Suarez insists he is “determined.” I left our meeting convinced beyond a doubt that Mr. Abdul-Mutakabbir is not only an asset to our community, but also to the New York City public school system as well.
Mr. Abdul-Mutakabbir was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. He went to Catholic Schools from grades one to twelve. He attended a Jesuit high school, Boston College High School, then graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C. After college, he worked on Wall Street as a Financial Analyst, first at Salomon Brothers, then at Citibank, and finally at Deutche Bank. Always proficient at mathematics, he shifted gears and became a math teacher and taught at Carnarsie High, and then transferred to a small high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. In 2010, he was admitted to the New Leaders, New School program at Boston University, and in 2011 he became principal of Maspeth High School. The school moved new building on 57th Street in Maspeth in 2012. Mr. Abdul-Mutakabbir is married with three children and lives in Lefferts Gardens.
THIS INTERVIEW TOOK PLACE INTHE PRINCIPAL'S OFFICE AT MASPETH HIGH SCHOOL, 74th Street and 57th Avenue in Maspeth
Q: Whose idea was it to create a high school devoted to a classical education?
A: It was my idea. I got the idea to write for the Department of Education to create a high school devoted to a classical education based on my own education. When I wrote my proposal to the Department of Education, I asked myself what kind of education do I believe in? I didn’t want to write about the type of school I knew nothing about. A lot of schools have progressive ideas that I didn’t feel would work. I wanted to stick to what I felt are the basics of education, and that’s the classical stuff: Latin, Art, Greek, Math, Science, and just educate the way it’s been done for thousands of years, and it works. I believe that all knowledge is interrelated. Take Leonardo Di Vinci, for example, he was a scientist, but he was also a painter, sculptor, and mathematician.
Q: After the car crash by Maspeth High School and PS 58 in September has anything been done to improve the safety of your students?
A: We saw the video of this and it looked like an out of control driver who rode on to the sidewalk and hit kids. I honestly don’t know what you can do to prevent something like this from happening. If this were a case where kids were crossing the street and somebody came and hit them, I’d say okay, let’s put in a speed bump or more signage. But this is a case where a car just drove on to the sidewalk and hit the kids. It was just a horrific, isolated incident. I feel it’s a complete tragedy what happened to those kids. If you see the video, and it’s a shocking video, the car comes out of nowhere, jumps the curb and drives on to the sidewalk, and continues to go about fifteen or twenty yards! Now, if I’m driving a car and I am suddenly on the sidewalk, I’m going to stop, but this car keeps going fifteen or twenty yards on the sidewalk, hits the kids, and slams into a bodega. That’s something way beyond trying to beat a red light. As a school, given that particular scenario, I don’t know what we could do to prevent an out of control driver from doing this. If the Community Board wanted to propose setting a speed zone or putting a speed bump in front of the high school, I would be fine with that.
Since the incident, we do not allow our students to cross 74th Street from school to where Stop n’ Store is anymore. We make them go all the way to Grand Avenue or to 57th Avenue to wait for the light, and have an Agent escort the students across the street safely.
Q: Recently students from the Grant Street Campus in Brooklyn came to Maspeth and a brawl occurred outside Maspeth High School resulting in the arrest of a 15 year-old. Care to elaborate about what happened and what is being done to prevent it from happening again?
A: First of all, there was no brawl outside Maspeth High School. There was no brawl near Maspeth High School. We have stated this to everybody. It did not happen here, period. I don’t understand where that misinformation came from.
This is exactly what happened. Last Wednesday (11/13 /13), myself and my staff were outside on the street before our kids came out. We surveyed the area outside our school. There were no kids there. Normally, if we see kids that are not from our school, we walk up to them ask them who are they here for? We are not even required to do this. And if they don’t give us a reasonable answer, we tell them to walk over to Grand Avenue and to not stand in front of or near our building. We are very good at that. I’ve never seen another school that does this. We really try to own the block. There were no kids from Grant Street Campus here that day when I was out there.
At dismissal, our kids walked up to Grand Avenue, crossed the street, and hopped on busses to go home, and the remainder of our kids walked down 57th Avenue. There was absolutely nothing happening outside at that time. At about three-thirty, myself and Mr. Matos our Operations Director were standing in front of the school having a conversation. Typical day. Nothing out of the ordinary. We were going to have an Open House later that night, so after dismissal, I went inside did a little paper work, and around four o’clock I went to move my car. I came back to the school. At about ten minutes after four, a group of our students returned to the building and I noticed that one of them had a bruise on his face, and these were kids from our baseball team, good kids, and they said “we got jumped.” And I asked “where did you get jumped?” They said at “Crowley Park.” Some had videos of it. So the assault happened one hour after dismissal at Crowley Park, which is a quarter of a mile away. Our kids came back to the school instead of home. They felt safe here. When they came back to the school, I immediately called 911.
What actually happened is that a girl from our school and a girl from their school who were once friends, had a fallout, and the girl from Brooklyn came here to confront her. It wasn’t clear whether or not she wanted to fight. The girl from Maspeth started talking about this during the day and these kids went to Crowley Park to see what was going to happen. So when our kids went to Crowley Park, the kids from Brooklyn immediately started assaulting our kids. Now our kids there tried to break it up but the kids from Grand Street ignored them. The student who was assaulted is a good kid; he’s on our baseball team and wrestling team, and he was trying to help his friend by pulling a kid off him when another kid from Grand Street wacked him with a wrench. This whole melee happened in about two minutes. A police car pulled-up and the kids scattered. After that, our kids came back to our school traumatized and worried about the whole episode. That’s when we called 911 and sent the injured kid to the hospital.
The next day we spent the entire day investigating the incident, talking to kids, telling them how foolish they had been to go to Crowley Park. It’s important to note that the great majority of our kids did not go to Crowley Park that afternoon. They probably knew about it, but just didn’t want to be bothered.
Now, this past Wednesday, November 20th, the Grand Street kids returned for round two. They got off the 59 bus at around 3:30pm. I know because I’m there at that time of day, every day and I saw them.
We knew they were coming back because our kids found out and told us. Myself and two uniformed safety agents were at the bus stop waiting for them and when they got off the bus, we said “Welcome to Maspeth. What do you want?” They then walked down to Grand Avenue. I called Detective Bell of the 104th to notify him, and then walked behind them three or four blocks to PS 58, where they took off and ran towards the LIE intersection. Two of our teachers got in their cars and monitored those kids until they finally got on the bus and left without incident. We contacted Grand Street Campus and their school said they’re looking into it. So we did things here that were way above and beyond what most schools could have done.
Q: There are rumors in the community that another school will be merging with Maspeth High School. Is that true, and if so how will it affect your school, the teachers and the students?
A: No, not to my knowledge. There is a Special Ed school on the second floor that has been there since day one. They operate separately from us and have their own principal and their own administration. We have some dealings with them, like when we have an assembly we’ll invite them to join us. It’s a very small school. They only have forty students.
Q: When do you think Maspeth High School will be filled to capacity and how will it affect the community?
A: Next year, and I think it will affect the community in a positive way. More kids from this community will look at our school as a viable alternative to other schools that the kids from this neighborhood have traditionally attended. We’re providing a top notch education, and as of next year we’ll be on the brink of having our first graduating class so people can see the results. Right now we have over thirty clubs, and we require fifty hours of community service. We just did a clean-up with the Juniper Park Civic Association, and we’re continuing to form partnerships with other community groups. We are always looking to work with the community because our students are from the community.
Q: What are your goals at Maspeth High School?
A: My goal is to have the number one open enrollment public school in New York City.
Q: What do you expect from your teachers? What makes a good teacher?
A: That he or she be a reflective practitioner who takes ownership for student results
Q: What do you expect from your students in order to be successful at your school? What makes a good student?
A: Hard work, dedication and a strong value system.
Q: What achievement are you proudest of since you became principal?
A: I think getting the clubs and extracurriculars up and running. Right now we have about 30 clubs, ten or eleven sports teams, and those things are hard to get off the ground. What makes me proudest is when I return to the building after dismissal around 3:40 and I walk through the hallways and still see so many of our students still there participating in clubs and sports.
Q: What do you think about charter schools?
A: They have some good ideas, which I have used. There are good charter schools and bad ones just like public schools. I have friends who have taught at charter schools and have become principals at charter schools. I’ve hired teachers who have come from charter schools. Now that there are so many of them, they’re all different, not similar. I think a more appropriate question would be “what do you think about this particular school or that school.”
Q: What three adjectives best describe you?
A: Determined, Passionate, and Fair.
Q: What is the chief motivator in students at your school to enable them to achieve success?
A: Some are self –motivated like in the honor’s classes, but I would say that most students are motivated by their teachers and the parents.
Q: How do you think the NYC school system will change under Mayor de Blasio?
A: There’s talk about De Blasio giving more power back to the community education councils, which could prevent schools from being closed or charters coming in to do co-locations and would give parents more authority about what happens in the local schools. So we really don’t know for sure what Mayor elect de Blasio is going to do. It remains to be seen.
Q: What changes would you like to see that would benefit you students with the new mayor?
A: Less standardized testing. And a better system of transfers.
Q: Which teacher influenced you the most?
A: My eighth grade teacher, Sister Barbara Joseph. She was the first teacher that took a strong interest in me. She was the first teacher who had regular contact with my parents, who forced me to stay for detention when I played around too much in class, and she had very high expectations for me. She made it her point that she was going to mute my behavior and make sure that I was academically focused. It was the first time in my life that I realized that I could be a very engaged student. She helped me transition to Boston College High School which was a very rigorous school and to be successful and to really have confidence in myself.
Q: What book influenced you the most?
A: 1984, by George Orwell. It put a lot of things in perspective and it made sense to me then concerning why a lot of things happened. And on a professional level, I’d say Good to Great by Jim Collins, a book about how a company can go from being mediocre to being a truly, great company, which can be applied to schools as well.
Q: What would we be surprised to learn about Khurshid Abdul-Mutakabbir?
A: You would be surprised to know that I’m not Middle Eastern and that I don’t have any Middle Eastern background. That’s usually the biggest surprise, and that my mother’s Irish and my father is from the Caribbean. And also that I have a dry sense of humor. I like to laugh and joke, although I come off as being very serious and stern.
Q: In one sentence define yourself as a person?
A: I am an individual who wants only the best for everybody around me.
Thank you, Khurshid.