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04/12/11 11:30 PM ET

School flourishes with Jackie's legacy as guide

NEW YORK -- This narrow niche of a residential neighborhood near Prospect Park once stood as the flashpoint in a social and sporting revolution, and now it serves as the launching pad for countless dreams to come. Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, once flourished here, and the fruit of future generations has been planted in its footprint.

The presence of Jackie Robinson -- who became the first African-American in Major League Baseball when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947 -- is all over the school named in his honor, from a mural of his likeness out front to a trophy case that bears his name and Dodgers paraphernalia inside the lobby. He will be remembered throughout the country on Friday as MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on the 64th anniversary of his debut.

At the school named after him, Robinson's essence has been boiled down to nine core values and a creed that the students repeat every day under the watchful eye of distinguished principal Marion Wilson.

"There's a lot to a name," said Wilson of Robinson, Public School 375's treasured namesake. "I want them to understand that while their name means a lot, the legacy we're following behind with Jackie Robinson also means a lot."

Wilson has gone to great lengths to do exactly that in her five-plus years as the principal of Jackie Robinson Public School 375, which houses more than 550 students from pre-K through fifth grade. There's a separate school -- Ebbets Field Middle School -- that shares the premises, but Wilson's school has undergone an amazing transformation over her tenure.

The school had gone through five principals in the five years prior to her arrival, but Wilson has hurriedly gone about remaking the institution's academic reputation. Wilson and her staff helped take the school from a D rating to an A in a very short amount of time, and an NYC review of the school lauded the principal as "an exceptional leader whose strengths in developing people have inspired staff and students and led to rapid change and improvement." Still, Wilson doesn't want to hog the credit.

"It's about teamwork and the nine values, and you'll see it in some of my students when they come down," said Wilson. "Even if they don't explicitly say it, everything that Jackie Robinson did is an inspiration. He did things differently, and we believe we have to do things differently, too. As a team. I have a solid team, and we have an interesting mix of kids, a transient population. But I think they see where I'm coming from, and even though I didn't have experience and I wasn't from the community, they saw my heart and what I was trying to do. Coming in with the slogan, 'Excellence is our only option,' that alone made a big difference. ... I had the credentials, but when I came here, I had to show them that despite the odds, I was going to make it. Like Jackie."

The nine values Jackie Robinson incorporated into his life to become successful.

Wilson, who is currently working on defending her dissertation as part of her pursuit of a doctorate, is a dynamic and energetic woman of substance. She constantly connects with the students roaming her halls, stopping some to check for a hall pass and others to share a brief personal greeting. Wilson even asks some of her passing students to recite the school creed, a nine-sentence inspirational motto tied to Robinson and stressing the importance of educational ambition.

The affable educator penned that creed herself, and she has the students recite it every morning after the Pledge of Allegiance. And given that fact, it's interesting to know that Wilson didn't always have this mission in mind. Wilson, a natural educator who characterizes herself as "a life-long learner," began her professional career in the marketing field, and she later taught for six years and worked for one at the Harlem Children's Zone before embarking on her current pursuits.

And when she arrived, her job must've seemed pretty imposing. Wilson came into a school that wasn't meeting the Board of Education's requirements, a fact that was clearly brought home upon the first evaluation during her tenure.

"We got a D on this report card, and D doesn't stand for Diva. We're failing, and that's a problem," said Wilson of her attitude upon receiving the test scores. "I had never been a coach, but I had to develop a coach atmosphere. You have to work with the players, and you have to make the changes you need. And so we'd build them as a team, we'd take [the staff] on retreats and make them believe they can do the opposite. We went from a D to a B in one year. But I can't take credit and say it's about me. ... We do have family support, and I have two amazing assistant principals. While I'm confident in myself as a strong female, they need positive male role models as well. Having them work with me gives me wings. We can do anything and we can be anything."

Those two assistant principals -- Kirk Wilkinson and William Mingo -- are everywhere during the day, tending to their specific grade groupings and aiding Wilson with whatever needs to be done. Both men said it has been a profoundly rewarding experience to work at the school and that they've learned as much from working with Wilson as the matriculating students.

"Ms. Wilson is the leader of our team, and she definitely believes in teamwork," said Wilkinson. "I've been with her since 2006. She came in June and I came in December. I don't want to say the school had a failing status, but it wasn't a higher grade. We went from a D in our quality review all the way up to an A last year. It's still a process. We've been able to make changes in the mindset, where before parents wanted to take their kids out of the school, and now the parents want to bring kids here."

"Unfortunately, we fell down to a B again this year due to some major, major changes in the scoring system," added Wilkinson. "Not to make any excuses, but if it was the same criteria, we would've excelled like we did the year before. We didn't know the criteria until after it was done. The turnaround is good, but we're not where we want to be. We want to be at a higher level similar to those prestigious Catholic schools. Those may be private schools, but that doesn't make a difference to us."

Wilson, who cites her mother and her past principals as her primary role models, has fostered a friendly atmosphere with her students, but one that doesn't mistake congeniality for weakness. All of the students know that they may be called upon at any time while roaming the halls, and they also know that there are reasons why it's recommended that they wear a uniform.

The uniform isn't required at PS 375, but enough of the students wear it to underline that the point has gotten across. At one point, Wilson pulled a few of her students out of class to discuss the school and what it has meant to their lives. Five children -- all wearing uniforms and all in the fourth grade -- were invited for a brief sit-down around a table in a conference room.

And there, in that sheltered setting, they were encouraged to speak from the heart about their school.

"We have more rules in the school, and more people follow the rules than before," said Zachary Coney. "More people understand that you can't get through life the easy way. Sometimes, shortcuts don't get you to the place you want to be. I'm in a place that has rules and I have to follow those rules, so when I got here, I knew what I was supposed to do."

"Although I wasn't here when Ms. Wilson started," said Chavelle Carty, "I'd heard a lot about this school from my family members. They came here, and they said that before Jackie Robinson wasn't a nice school, but then Ms. Wilson came and it started to become a good, good school. I can see that now because I'm here and she's a good principal."

Wilson lets the students answer in their own time and in their own voice, and moments later, she directs a question about the school uniforms to the group. Why, exactly, do they think the school wants them to wear one?

"When we go outside," said Alicia Jones, "We should have a good representation of ourselves and not look like we're just coming from the street. We come from a school, and a very good school."

The Jackie Robinson School Creed
The late Jackie Robinson was an extraordinary man.
I live my life knowing that like him, I certainly can.
I can do all things, be all things, and create all things.
I will yearn each day for more and more knowledge.
My dreams will include going to college.
Today, I will respect myself, my teachers, and other boys and girls.
I will live up to my fullest potential to leave my mark in this world.
Success and being the best are the sources of my inspiration,
Because in my heart I know that Excellence is my only option!
Written by Principal Marion Wilson

"I say that you want us to wear a uniform," said Tiffany Brown, "Because if we go on a trip and you're not there, we're going to represent the school uniform so people can know we have a good and neat school."

"Some people talk about different people when they wear different types of clothes," said Coney. "For instance, short skirts, people talk about them. So, in order to stop it, you enforce a uniform so we'll all look alike. And no one can talk about anything."

Her point made by the eloquence of others, Wilson asked the children if they thought people were more likely to break the rules if they're wearing a uniform. All answered "No" in unison, and Wilson went on to elaborate.

"It's funny that they say I want them all to look alike. That's not really it," said Wilson. "When I first got here, I said I wanted to turn Jackie Robinson into the first private public school. I grew up in New York City and went to public school for elementary and junior high school, and then for high school I actually went to Catholic school. I had to wear a uniform every day, and it's not about just having everyone look the same. I think it really does something for their confidence as well. I want to let them know that they can get a first-class public education, and everything I do -- even when it's driving my assistant principals crazy -- is about always making sure we do everything that's in their best interest. We already graduated and we've already done our thing. It's for us to help them, and while we don't have delusions of grandeur that we can change every one of our 560 kids, we're setting things in place to let them know that, like President Obama says, 'Education is the catalyst of change in urban environments.' "

Wilson dismisses the students and sends them back to class with a hall pass, beaming at the way they're able to express themselves. These kids, she said, are a better testament to her work than any test score.

"Just pulling kids out of class and letting kids talk, test scores can't show that," she said. "This is the reason for my existence. Even on my worst days, getting a hug or a smile just really lets me know that it's all worth it. The city and state will change the standards for how they're judged, but listening to this kind of dialogue and conversation come from inner-city fourth-grade kids -- who society and statistics say should not make it -- you would think you're in a private school in New England somewhere. They were not coached. They were not prepped. I just called them out, and they looked a little nervous like they'd gotten in trouble."

Wilson's secret to improving test scores lies in making the school a more inclusive community. PS 375 holds a Spring BASH -- which stands for Believing, Achieving, Succeeding, High hopes -- and a PRIDE celebration that promotes respect of diversity. The faculty and the students, not to mention their parents, are one big family at Jackie Robinson.

Wilson said that the parents have gotten behind the school as the situation has improved, and she also said that everyone involved is determined to keep PS 375 at the same high level it's achieved. The school was recognized in the top 20 percent of the 1,700 New York City-based schools in 2009, and Wilson thinks that everyone deserves the credit.

"We've had events where we have standing-room only, where in the past we'd have only five or 10 parents," she said. "We have family fun nights, and our PTA president comes in here every day. She doesn't get paid, but she's here from 8 in the morning to around 6 in the evening with sports and arts. We have parents that come in and volunteer. I wish we had more, and honestly speaking, I do have to offer some kind of incentive. I try to feed them. If you feed them, they'll come. But we have a school where nobody would come before, and now just seeing how many parents come out ... has drastically changed."

Every morning, without fail, Wilson shares the same message with her students. At the end of the daily announcements, she'll intone, "We are blazing and on fire for education." And subliminally, it's taken root. The students have had their educational appetites stoked, and now there's no telling where their lessons from Jackie Robinson will take them.

"Every morning, I tell them that," said Wilson. "If I'm sick or I don't feel well or it's cloudy outside, that's my driving motivation. And I love to tell them that. You notice, without prepping, they know. It's something constant, and I model what I say. They know that I'm very tough and firm. I'm like Josephina Clark, no pun intended, with the baseball bat.

"These kids are in the fourth grade now, and seeing them walk across the stage and graduate next year will be one of the pinnacles of my success. That shows me that's one of many other graduations that they're going to be a part of. ...Yesterday, one of my students from New Jersey called me, and she's graduating from high school. It felt better than even winning the lottery, which I'd imagine is a pretty great feeling. All of the kids sitting in here have that kind of relationship and know that they can come back, or they know they can Google me and find me on Facebook. They can come back and stay in touch. I have a relationship with them. They know me. They know they can come to my office, and not just for bad stuff but for something good."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.