A scholastic full circle
Becoming principal at Albany school was a homecoming of sorts for Gabe Barbato
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
on the Web Principal Gabe Barbato at Eagle Point Elementary School in Albany.
Principal Gabe Barbato at eagle Point elementary School in Albany.