Steinhardt Alumnus Leads One of New York City’s Most Diverse Elementary Schools
Robert Bonilla (MA ‘12), first-year principal at P.S. 217 in Brooklyn, is using his prior teaching experience and time at Steinhardt to lead one of the most diverse elementary schools in New York City as well as encourage college readiness at an early age.
As an alumnus of NYU Steinhardt’s Educational Leadership: School Building Leader program, Bonilla embodies its commitment to equity, diversity, and social justice in education.
“When Robert came into our program, he stood out as a leader who possessed a deep interest in and compassion for understanding the unique needs of individual children and their families,” said Colleen Larson, Chair of NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Administration, Leadership, and Technology. “So, it isn’t surprising that Robert is now the Principal of one of the most radically and ethnically diverse elementary schools in New York City.”
Previously from Texas, Bonilla knew he found his home in NYC once he stepped foot in one of its public schools. After teaching students in three of the city’s boroughs, Bonilla settled into his dream job as a principal at P.S. 217, located in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood.
“As a classroom teacher, I was able to see how influential an effective leader can be,” Bonilla said. “As much as I loved being with students, I knew being an administrator could have an impact on both students and teachers. I wanted to be a part of creating an environment that allowed students, teachers, and parents to feel empowered.”
With students speaking over 30 languages, Bonilla’s school is a true reflection of the city’s “rich tapestry of cultures.” In order to create an environment where children and parents from all backgrounds are served, Bonilla uses the school’s diversity as an asset to promote his students’ education.
“Robert is at the epicenter of change in our neighborhoods, with an influx of vibrant immigrant communities and the realities of urban gentrification,” said Noel Anderson, NYU Steinhardt’s Director of the Program in Educational Leadership. “For young people at the elementary level, or any stage, to be able to learn alongside youth from Mexico, or next to a young girl in a hijab, or learn about Africa with a student from the continent in the room is what our schools, and learning, should be about.”
In addition to preserving the school’s diverse community, one of Bonilla’s points of action in his new role is gearing elementary-level students up for a brighter future, one that includes higher education. In January Bonilla, along with teachers and administration, hosted College Awareness Day to promote students’ long-term success. As part of this NYC-wide initiative promoted by the NYC Department of Education, students got the chance to explore what it means to attend college and share why they would want to pursue a higher education after high school.
“I feel that it is my responsibility to begin the process of having students understand that college is an expectation and not just an option,” said Bonilla. “I am passionate about having students understand the level of competition they will face on a global scale and what they need to do in order to compete.”
On College Awareness Day, P.S. 217 invited 25 speakers ranging from college professors to student teachers to talk about their college experiences. The school also dedicated its main bulletin board to the event, resulting in a colorful collage of post-its with students’ responses to the statement “College Is…” Statements ranged from “College is expensive” to “College is important if you want to survive.” What gave Bonilla hope was that his students knew that higher education is an expectation.
“We are always delighted when our students become leaders in schools and communities where they can thrive and make a real difference in the lives of children and their families,” says Larson. “I believe that Robert has found that place at P.S. 217.”