A scholas­tic full cir­cle

Be­com­ing prin­ci­pal at Al­bany school was a home­com­ing of sorts for Gabe Bar­bato

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - UNWIND - By Leigh Horn­beck

Gabe Bar­bato was not a model stu­dent. At PS27, his first ex­pe­ri­ence in pub­lic school, he talked a lit­tle too much and didn’t take it well when he lost at a game. He was the beloved baby of a big Ital­ian fam­ily, used to get­ting his way. At PS27, he spent a lot of time in the prin­ci­pal’s of­fice. Three decades later, he spends al­most all his time there. Only now, he’s the prin­ci­pal. Bar­bato, 41, is wrap­ping up his first year as the leader of PS27 — now known as Ea­gle Point El­e­men­tary, a hand­some ex­am­ple of neo­clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture on Western Av­enue that still has “boys en­trance” and “girls en­trance” etched in stone on ei­ther side. Ev­ery­one uses the front door now.

Bar­bato’s story is not just a nice piece of sym­me­try about a neigh­bor­hood kid who grows up to be the prin­ci­pal of the school he at­tended. It’s also a deeply Al­bany story. Bar­bato never left the city — un­less you count classes at Hud­son Val­ley Com­mu­nity Col­lege, teach­ing jobs in Sch­enec­tady and a home in Guilder­land as leav­ing.

“It al­ways hurts me a lit­tle when you say you work at a city school and some­one makes that face, like ‘Oh, city schools,’” Bar­bato said. “I loved grow­ing up in Al­bany and go­ing through the schools here. I got a good ed­u­ca­tion.”

It’s why, in the back of his mind, Bar­bato was al­ways hop­ing for a chance to run his own build­ing in Al­bany. He just never ex­pected it to be his old school. His wife, Tina, was sur­prised when he made the leap to join the city district af­ter 16 years in Sch­enec­tady schools. There was some­thing

Watch Gabe Bar­bato in his el­e­ment in a video on time­sunion.com

that pulled him back home.

Bar­bato grew up on Bea­con Av­enue, where his par­ents still live, within walk­ing dis­tance from the school. He is the youngest of three; his par­ents, As­sunto (Dino) and Rose Bar­bato im­mi­grated from Italy. Sev­eral of Bar­bato’s aunts and cousins lived nearby. It was, and re­mains, a closeknit fam­ily, Bar­bato says — and deeply Ital­ian. There’s pasta on the ta­ble at 1 p.m. ev­ery Sun­day. His par­ents still speak Neapoli­tan at home, the lan­guage of their child­hood in south­ern Italy. Bar­bato can un­der­stand it, but doesn’t speak it.

He went to parochial school at first, with other Ital­ian kids in the neigh­bor­hood, then trans­ferred to PS27 at the end of sec­ond grade.

“It was the first time I re­al­ized not ev­ery­body was Ital­ian,” he says, grin­ning.

His fa­vorite teacher was Richard Leblanc, who taught fourth grade. A plaque memo­ri­al­izes Leblanc out­side the school li­brary.

“I didn’t re­ally like read­ing, go­ing into his class, and he changed that,” Bar­bato said. “He also ran lunchtime gym and he taught me about win­ning and los­ing.”

Bar­bato didn’t leave PS27 or Hack­ett Mid­dle School or Al­bany High dream­ing of be­ing a teacher. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, other than play soc­cer. He was a good ath­lete and was of­fered a schol­ar­ship as a kicker on a foot­ball team out of state. He passed. It didn’t feel like home. He en­rolled at HVCC in­stead.

It was there, while shad­ow­ing a Troy teacher, that he had the ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing a light go on in a child’s eyes when he learned some­thing. From then on, Bar­bato was hooked. Teach­ing be­came his pas­sion. Af­ter HVCC, he at­tended The Col­lege of Saint Rose, where, in ad­di­tion to his teach­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and master’s de­gree in el­e­men­tary ed­u­ca­tion, he coached Di­vi­sion II soc­cer. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, he taught a GED course. His first full-time job was in the Sch­enec­tady school district and he stayed there for 16 years — first as a teacher in grades 4 and 6, then as an as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal and an in­struc­tional su­per­vi­sor. He had the ex­pe­ri­ence at Sch­enec­tady High of guid­ing the Class of 2016 from fresh­man year to grad­u­a­tion, an emo­tional ride that stayed with him.

Kids come to school with all kinds of is­sues; They might be hun­gry, abused, bullied or ne­glected. They might have trou­ble learn­ing for any num­ber of rea­sons. It can be over­whelm­ing. Early in his teach­ing ca­reer, Bar­bato heard the story of the starfish, by an­thro­pol­o­gist Loren Eise­ley. It’s about an old man who sees a beach cov­ered in dy­ing starfish, and a boy throw­ing starfish back into the ocean one by one to save their lives. The old man tells the boy it doesn’t mat­ter what he does, be­cause he can­not save them all. In re­sponse, the boy picks up a starfish, throws it in the ocean and says, “It mat­tered to that one.”

The para­ble be­came Bar­bato’s mantra, and when he was hired at Ea­gle Point, the PTA made key chains for fac­ulty and staff of a starfish along­side a piece of metal stamped with the school’s global co­or­di­nates.

In 2015, while as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal at Sch­enec­tady High School, Bar­bato wrote an open let­ter to the state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, slam­ming new state tests. He and his wife, Tina, were among the par­ents whose chil­dren opted out of the tests. Bar­bato is pleased by the changes he’s seen in the tests since then — con­tent that is more grade-level ap­pro­pri­ate; two days of test­ing, not three; and no time limit for test tak­ers. Test­ing is un­avoid­able, Bar­bato said, be­cause ev­ery­one needs to pass Re­gents tests to grad­u­ate.

“It’s our job to pre­pare kids for what they’re go­ing to face in the fu­ture,” he said. “And par­tic­i­pa­tion rate mat­ters. If your kid sits out the test, it can hurt their school.”

In the of­fice where he used to sit with Jim Canty — the prin­ci­pal when he was a kid — hangs art­work cre­ated by his daugh­ter, Jenna, that reads “one starfish at a time.” He has sev­eral pictures of his fam­ily and Pitts­burgh Steel­ers dec­o­ra­tions; he spends a lot of time at the school. Tina a makeup artist and Al­bany na­tive who grew up in the neigh­bor­hood, but didn’t go to PS27 - man­ages their home life. In ad­di­tion to Jenna, 12, they have Gabriela, 10, and Nico, 7.

Bar­bato starts his day greet­ing Ea­gle Point’s 327 stu­dents as they come through the door. He has a big, toothy smile, and he uses it of­ten. His back­ground as a “not so great stu­dent” helps him con­nect with kids who get in trou­ble, like he did.

“Ev­ery kid here, I want them to see an adult who smiles at them, who speaks to them, so they know they mat­ter to us,” he says.

lhorn­beck@time­sunion. com 518-454-5352 @ leigh­horn­beck

Skip Dick­stein / Times Union

on the Web Prin­ci­pal Gabe Bar­bato at Ea­gle Point El­e­men­tary School in Al­bany.

Skip dick­stein / times union

Prin­ci­pal Gabe Bar­bato at ea­gle Point el­e­men­tary School in Al­bany.

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