When Assistant Principal Donna Ridley began working at I.S. 181 Pablo Casals in 1995, the school didn’t have a theater program. Even today, the building lacks an auditorium. But that hasn’t stopped Ridley from encouraging students to express their creativity.
“What I find often is that these children have a million talents,” she said. “They are wonderful. But because the system is so into the academics in many schools, the focus is no longer on the arts.”
This is Ridley’s fifth year as an assistant principal at Pablo Casals. During her time at the Bronx school, she founded the school’s annual African American Gala and spearheads an African American Cultural Museum to showcase studies on African history. Students present their findings in quilts, on posters and even with music.
“The sky is the limit on what these children produce,” said Ridley, who grew up in Harlem and attended the High School of Music and Art.
Ridley’s work with math and literacy has also helped Pablo Casals become a “Middle School of Choice for Gifted Children.”
“Academically, I’m really proud of how far we’ve come,” she said, adding the school now has an “A” standing.
Principal Chris Warnock said that Ridley’s most significant impact has probably been her vision for a different approach to teaching. Using data collected on each student, Ridley ensures that pupils from across the spectrum receive instruction specific to their needs.
“She is absolutely, completely passionate about children and she only wants the best,” he said. “She will sleep here, live here—do everything that it takes to get things done.”
Ridley is already thinking about the theme for this year’s gala, which she produces for Black History Month. A playwright, she takes classic stories like Cinderella, Snow White and Jack and the Beanstalk and gives them an African twist. Past performances included Cinda-Afrikella, Ebony Snow and Andweleh and the Magical Baobab Tree.
“Each and every year takes some new flavor,” Warnock said. “Each and every year she outdoes the year before.”
Before she writes, Ridley surveys students to see what talents she should highlight. Every year, the characters in her shows are animals.
“I find that some children, unfortunately, are not children,” she said, adding that acting like ducks allows students to express their creative sides. “Their experiences have hardened them.”
Perched near her desk is a photo of Ridley with Imani Spicer, an 8th-grade student who describes her as a second mom. Spicer, who wants to be a fashion designer, went to Ridley for advice on the day of the gala last year.
“‘Show them that you can do this, that you have enough courage,’” she said Ridley told her. “It clicked in my head. It was like, ‘She really cares about me.’”
Seventh grader Chyla Joiner said Ridley encouraged her when she was worried about fitting in as a new student.
“I felt so sad,” she said. “Ms. Ridley, she was like, ‘Well, show your creativity.’”
Ridley encouraged Joiner to write a poem and yell the words with passion when she performed it. Now, every time she visits Ridley’s office, she is reminded how good it felt when the class cheered.
“She’s such a wonderful woman. She’s so beautiful inside and out,” Joiner said. “She’s like an angel.”
— Kerri MacDonald
Donna Ridley, Assistant Principal
I.S. 181 Pablo Casals
800 Baychester Ave.
Bronx, N.Y. 10475
Above: Assistant Principal Donna Ridley founded the school’s annual African American Gala and spearheads an African American Cultural Museum. Photo by Andrew Schwartz