Techs + Scholars: Melissa Silberman '94

By Bronwen Pardes '95

Each morning, the principal of Automotive High School in Brooklyn, New York, stands at the entrance of the old building, greeting students as they arrive. Above their heads is a sign that reads “Manhood, Service, Citizenship, Labor.” For a good 20 years, the sign was covered by a large piece of rusty metal. If you ask some of the more seasoned technical faculty at Automotive why, they’ll explain it was the doing of the principal at the time. “She was a feminist” they’ll say, perhaps with a little disdain. But the current principal, upon learning about the sign, immediately had it uncovered. “I’m a different kind of feminist,” she explains.

When Melissa Silberman ’94 became principal, at first glance she may have seemed an odd choice for the job—she was young (“33 and a half,” she said, “a baby!”), white and female in a school that served mostly black and Latino boys, and had never owned a car or possessed a driver’s license. For all these reasons—and because of the sweeping changes Silberman has made in the two years since she became principal—Automotive High has been getting a lot of press lately.

Articles in The New York Times and Village Voice take pleasure in pointing out that she wears dresses, likes Hello Kitty, and, best of all, is a Vassar girl; gleefully, they marvel at the seeming contradictions. But scratch beneath the surface: she was raised in Brooklyn by a single mom who waited tables and sent Silberman her tip money at Vassar. “I think that’s why I’m a likely candidate to be principal of this school,” she says. “I don’t think my students look at me and see that. But I don’t need to prove constantly I’m the right person for it. I need to model empathy, warmth, compassion, and outrage for what they’ve not had.”

A double major in English and education at Vassar, Silberman started her career as an English teacher right after graduation. She became the assistant principal of Automotive at the age of 31, when she learned that the principal was looking for someone dedicated to working with inner-city kids. After two years, her principal was promoted, and to her surprise she was chosen to replace him. “I don’t know that I chose it,” she says. “It was more like the challenge came to me.”

On a drizzly December day, a handful of students streamed into Silberman’s office. “I don’t have any favorites,” she insists, “but if I did have favorites, you would be looking at them.” Almost all are sporting Automotive’s unofficial uniform—jeans and dark hoodies—and, oddly for students traipsing into the principal’s office, huge grins. She greets each of them cheerfully by name. “All these kids are at the top of their game in the technical field,” she says. “They could fix your car right now. And they’re taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes. You have to be able to do both.” They nod solemnly in agreement

Not that this idea went over well from the start. The first AP class, explained Katrina Green, a senior, “was at 7:15 in the morning. It was so early, and double the work. So we started out with 38 students, and by the end we had 17.” Silberman adds, “They felt like I was punishing them.” So she taught a class in which she had students read the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision together. “I explained that from my perspective it was their civil right to have really tough classes,” she says. It worked. Silberman will proudly tell you that no one got AP credit that year, but what they gained was much more valuable. “Now that we want it,” says Juan Gonzalez, a senior, “it’s our responsibility. I have to get up early. This is my future. If I don’t do it, no one will.”

This same sentiment seems echoed in Silberman’s determination to reinvent Automotive as a school that produces both techs and scholars. When she started as principal, with 80 percent of her entering freshmen below reading level, she could fit only 20 students in the library at once. Finding this unacceptable, Silberman applied for grants, sought loans, and even wrote to Oprah. When no one offered support for a new library, she started it anyway—it now resides in a much larger classroom. “We don’t have a lot of books and resources,” she says, “but we’re open now. One of my mottos is you have to give a community what they need before they know they need it. And I’m not going to accept that just because no one complained, that means it’s okay.”


Students at Automotive High School
Students at Automotive High School

The size of the new library is more than just practical—yes, she can fit more books and students in the spacious sunny room on the third floor, but she also knows that a bigger library sends a clear message about priorities at Automotive. The same could be said for the new college center, which Silberman moved from a tiny room at the back of the school to a larger and more central space. Last year every student at Automotive was accepted to a post-secondary school, and as part of the graduation ceremony, each student’s name was announced along with the colleges that had accepted him or her. “It’s become a tradition for all seniors to apply to colleges,” explains Saul Hinden, college counselor. The walls of the center are covered with pennants from every school an Automotive student has contacted or visited, and there are many. One pennant is conspicuously missing, but Silberman has high hopes. “My goal, my dream, is to get someone to Vassar,” she says. “For the right kid, it will change his or her life and potentially, because of the power of that degree, change other people’s lives.”

Even if there’s no pennant yet, Silberman’s commitment to Vassar is already in evidence. By sheer coincidence she has stumbled across, and subsequently hired, three Vassar teachers—Justin Soderholm, Lauren Sczudlo, and Judson Winton, all from the class of 2005. “There’s a kind of unspoken understanding,” between herself and her fellow alumnae/i, she said. That said, she hired them because of the values she feels their education instilled in them. “No matter what field you wind up in,” she said, “there’s a level of social responsibility that is awakened in a Vassar student.” She recognized it immediately in her Vassar-educated teachers.

“I could have tried to be at a school with easier issues,” says Sczudlo, “but I’d rather be here. That makes the outcome more amazing. And that’s something that Vassar instilled in me—helping the community… and doing something that I’m really passionate about.” That sense of passion for community has clearly trickled down to the students. “I really like to be active at Automotive,” says Tyrone Portes, who is involved in student government and sings in the choir, “because when I graduate and I have Automotive on my diploma, I want it to really mean something. I’m going to try to be a role model for other students.” Portes plans to come back after graduation as part of a program through the Department of Education where vocational students can teach immediately after high school. “I recruit them,” says Silberman, “because these are the kinds of guys who are going to be legacies. And a good strong place has a legacy.”

It’s this sense of legacy that was on her mind when she uncovered that controversial sign. “It said manhood, citizenship, service, labor!” she exclaims. “Those are such beautiful ideals.” To her, every word on that sign spoke to Automotive’s history, a history she wanted to recognize. “Our country was built on labor. There’s honor in labor. Why are we moving away from that?” she asks. “Emphasizing citizenship and labor is essential. I want people to understand that our kids can contribute to our society, that they don’t just drain our resources.”

Obviously, though, it isn’t “citizenship” that people ask about. “Manhood is an issue in this community,” said Silberman. “And I felt having that sign covered didn’t really serve [male students] well.” Of all the changes she made when she became principal, this one was followed most quickly. “The shop teachers came in and [said], ‘Thank you, you’re bringing back the history of the building.’ We are our history.”

Girls do on occasion ask about the sign, and “it’s a fair question,” Silberman says. “I tell them, ‘This building primarily [served boys] in the past, and it doesn’t mean we don’t believe in you.’ This school’s history is in the automotive industry, which has traditionally appealed to male students. It’s okay to hearken back to some traditions; it doesn’t mean you’re not accepting gender equity.”

In fact since Silberman has been principal, the number of female students has gone from 3 to 66. They’re still in the minority (Automotive has about 1,000 male students) but they are clearly holding their own. “I want to prove that I can do the work, too,” says Katrina Green. “I broke so many nails I didn’t care; I busted up my knuckles and all that just like the guys did. I got hit in the mouth by one of the standing suspensions.” (At this, Silberman’s maternal instinct came out. “When was that?!” she cries, horrified, to the amusement of her students.)

The press has painted Silberman’s mentoring programs for girls as a way of favoring them, but one only needs to watch a male student kiss her goodbye before leaving her office to know that her commitment to boys is unquestionable. “To me,” she says, “the job of a really strong woman is to raise strong men, good men.”

As if on cue, one of her good men rapped on the door. “Hello, Mr. Kevin,” she greets him. “Come visit me,” she adds, as he started to make himself comfortable. Kevin, who was scowling, wanted to talk to her about participating in a rally to protest a recent incident in Queens, in which a black man was shot to death by three cops. She listened patiently, putting her hand on his. He seemed comforted, not embarrassed, by the show of affection. “I want you to be politically active,” she tells him softly. “If you want to go I support you, but I also want you to know how to resist politely and not get hurt. There are certain things you should know before you attend that kind of rally, and I’ll print those out for you. Maybe we need to have a meeting about it with the school? Thank you for bringing that up.” He listens quietly, never moving his hand from hers, and somewhat less scornful, he left.

Melissa Silberman '94
Melissa Silberman '94
“The [previous] principal would say to them, ‘Stay out of trouble boys,’” she recalls. “Stay out of trouble?! Get into trouble, get into the right trouble!”

In Automotive’s 70-year history, Silberman is only the second female principal—or, according to Silberman’s imitation of the shop teachers when she first arrived, “‘girl principal.’ A girl principal!” she repeats, exasperated. “I felt like I had to get out my Gender 101 workbook from my women’s studies classes.” At first she struggled with how to present herself. “I’m so feminine,” she says. “Incredibly girly. The staff had to change their perceptions of what they would get from a girl like me.” She experimented with toning down her femininity — dyeing her blonde hair, even gaining weight her first year, but ultimately she didn’t feel like herself. “I don’t want to be unsexed,” she says. “I don’t want to have to be fat and unattractive to make you listen to me. I want to be me.” Now she wears chic dresses, and on the table in her office sits a pink feathered pen in a mug that reads “It’s good to be queen.” “Melissa is so good at striking that balance of funny and caring and strict and tough,” says teacher Sczudlo. “It’s kind of amazing to watch when she walks into my classroom and takes the energy and turns it into what she wants.”

Lately, Silberman is less concerned with how she’s perceived at Automotive and more focused on how Automotive is perceived in the world at large. Because the school prepares students for a hands-on technical career, it’s viewed as a good place to send students who are struggling academically. “Ironically enough,” she says, “the industry has changed, and now a technical career requires a high dose of literacy, math, and computer skills.” Students need to learn how to diagnose cars online, communicate with dealers across the country, and address the need for alternative fuel. Meanwhile, students with low reading scores continue to get shifted to Automotive. “I’m absolutely comfortable taking 100 percent boys who are low readers,” she says, she just needs the interventions and support to match.

This is especially important now, when No Child Left Behind legislation means that the school is being held to new academic standards. “Our cohort is probably one of the hardest cohorts to achieve success with,” says Silberman, yet they manage to meet the required standards. “My staff and I answer to a higher authority than the chancellor or the state,” says Silberman. “It’s the feeling of what we believe we’re going to turn out to our society.” Silberman wants her students, by their very accomplishments, to challenge perceptions of what a vocational education means. “I expect them to achieve, I expect them to compete nationally, and I expect them to go to college. One thing I’ve learned, not just in college but in life, is that fighting for these notions of what box they’ll put you in is a good thing to do. I want them to be techs, but I don’t want them to feel like it’s the only thing they can do.”

With a new major in automotive business, French classes, drama productions, a school newspaper, and a varsity football team, it’s hard to imagine students feel their options are limited. “There are choices here,” says Sczudlo, “and it’s really empowering.” Adds Anthony Azucy Torres, a senior who wants to pursue a degree in computer animation, “We don’t have a space program, but other than that we have everything.”

If Silberman has her way, within the next five years Automotive will be ready to let her go. “I can have a pocket of excellence here with this core group of kids, and do my best to defend them from injustice, but really, I need to be in a national role. I want to find a really good replacement for this job and do national reform work around education.” It’s impossible to imagine anyone replacing her. But it’s also clear that our educational system needs a leader with her sense of consciousness and urgency. “And,” she says, “why not a Vassar grad?”

Pardes is a writer, sexual health educator, and HIV counselor in New York City. Her first book is Doing It Right, a book about sexuality for teens.