Under a blue-and-gold sign—down the street from a gabled Victorian home and a bucolic church of stone arches—is the entrance to Lincoln Elementary School on East Lincoln Avenue in Mount Vernon. Even in a county known for the quality of its education, Lincoln stands out. Whereas only up to 88 percent of New York State fourth-graders met state education standards in 2009, Lincoln’s “meet or exceed” rate didn’t dip below 96 percent in any subject from 2002 through 2009. And, to hear education officials all the way up to the U.S. education secretary tell it, it was former Principal George C. Albano who got the school there.
“I always loved working with children and making a difference,” says the 66-year-old, who is now principal at the William E. Cottle School in Tuckahoe, but still lives down the street from Lincoln, where he worked for more than 30 years.
Albano’s techniques at times seemed unorthodox: When the son of the school board president worked for Albano as an administrator in Mount Vernon, and the latter didn’t find his work adequate, the principal got him transferred. Albano also sometimes worked as hard to get parents to come to meetings as he did to keep students interested.
Despite his quirks, Albano’s successes at Lincoln have been lauded in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige praised the school openly, and Albano spoke about education at the United Nations in the summer of 2010. Peabody Award-winning education journalist John Merrow declared that “George Albano has figured it out.”
“Lincoln is a very special place,” says Principal Rebecca A. Jones, who took over in September 2010 and credits her predecessor for much of the school’s culture of accomplishment. “The teachers have an abiding commitment that goes beyond what I’ve seen in my entire teacher experience, which is twenty three years.”
Until 1978, though, Lincoln—which had educated Dick Clark, Art Carney, and E.B. White—was a near-all-white school of 500 students. The state, however, constructed a new building for an additional 200 mostly African American students who would be bussed in—with little added funding. “The first three months were extremely chaotic,” says Albano, who became principal in the middle of the transition. “Parents of bright children were pulling their kids out. I was on a mission to prove the chaos wasn’t about race; it was about ignorance. My first year, there was zero tolerance for disrespect.” He told teachers to keep their doors open. “If I can hear you yelling at a student,” he recalls telling them, “that’s verbal abuse.” He played classical music in the halls to calm everyone down and got the president of RCA to donate classical music concerts twice a year.
Albano even spent $4,000 of his own money to bring in pictures of accomplished people from all races to serve as inspiration, placing photographs of black and white athletes in the gym and scientists near the labs. Losing money to Lincoln never seemed to bother Albano: his pension was actually higher than his salary for the last eight years of his career at Lincoln.
Albano also demanded parents receive their children’s report cards in person, offering to meet them anywhere, anytime. If parents raised their voices, he’d sometimes ask them to leave. He was, he says, willing to bend rules and go to court over issues. Some parents even reported him to the superintendent; nevertheless, he served for 31 years without one teacher lodging a grievance against him.
Today, the Mount Vernon school district has among the lowest SAT scores, per-pupil expenditures, AP-class-taking rates, and graduation rates of any district in the county. A mere 63 percent of fourth graders in schools designated financially similar to Lincoln in a 2008 evaluation met or exceeded state standards in English Language Arts. Yet Lincoln students, some with parents who couldn’t read, went on to elite private schools and Ivy League colleges.
“I couldn’t believe what the kids were doing and the level that they were doing it at,” says David Pope, a benefactor of the Cottle School who helped bring Albano out of retirement. Lincoln, he says, should be a model for schools across the country.
“I devoted my whole life to this school,” Albano says, “to prove that black, white, rich, and poor could learn together.” That mission, it seems, may endure.