By: Sarabeth Weszely, Senior Writer
May 25, 2021
After tirelessly serving Inwood Academy students, families and staff for eleven years, Valerie Hoekstra will be passing off her role as Middle School Principal to Bianca Mercedes, a fellow founding member of IAL with a rich background in education and community leadership. We share this news with a bittersweet joy, appreciating all Mrs. Hoekstra has brought to our school since its inception while looking forward to the many gifts Mrs. Mercedes will bring as we continue in our mission of providing a quality, equitable educational option in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Here are some highlights from a conversation we enjoyed with both leaders this month; we hope their words encourage you as much as they do us as we look toward the future of our school together.
What excites you about this change?
VH: “Mrs. Mercedes has a unique ability to take systems we want to implement, like collaborative problem-solving or the Marzano group, and really make them work for us in our pursuit of success as a school. She also has a commanding personality that I think is going to be a lot of fun for kids to see. I don’t think kids always get my dry sense of humor, only sometimes, and so I think they will really appreciate hers. We often talk about the importance of educators exhibiting both firmness and warmth – we call it firmth – and that’s Bianca all the way. Our students will know she takes them seriously, and they will also know she loves them.”
BM: “Mrs. Hoekstra is leaving us in a great place. There are a lot of exciting initiatives I will get to see through over the next months and years, like our partnership with The Writing Revolutionand Just Words-Wilson to inform our reading curriculum. I feel equipped to make sure those initiatives are carried through to completion, supporting our commitment to be a highly reliable school for students in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.”
What will you miss about leading IAL as principal?
VH: “Many things. In the main office, we joke around about having an open-door policy, and nothing makes me happier then when someone just walks in the door. Like Jeremiah at 3:30 because he has to wait for his aunt to be done with school – he’ll peek in so you can see his head around the corner, and if there’s nobody in my office, he’ll come in and play a game while he waits. Or back before COVID when our staff would pick up their kids from school but they still had to finish their work day, we’d have them come in and play while we worked. I’m also going to miss our great relationships with parents, seeing families come to trust our school when they may not have had a great school experience before, and them coming to see us as partners. And then even small things like looking at data, because I love seeing the story of our students’ growth, even on a small scale.
What do you hope to emulate from Mrs. Hoekstra as you take on this role?
BM: “Mrs. Hoekstra is a pillar of our school and she always will be. I greatly admire the way she fights and advocates for kids; they’re always in the center of every conversation for her. She knows them all by name, knows their story and she knows what they need, and she sincerely wants what’s best for them. And then also the way she leads our staff. She believes in her team with all her heart (I know because I’ve been a part of that team) and she personally invests in our ability to meet the high expectations she sets for the sake of our students. I hope to maintain the trust she has earned from her team as I transition to leading them this fall.”
What hopes do you have for Inwood Academy in the years to come?
VH: “Tatiana Mahoney has done a great job of connecting our school with partner organizations, and we are strengthened by each one of our partnerships. The more involved Inwood Academy is in our community, the more we reach out and become a part of what’s happening around us, the better it will be for everybody involved. I also have been thinking a lot about three ‘C’ words that define our mission well, in addition to college-preparedness, character development and community-engaged leadership. As educators, we expand our student’s capacity to grow by investing in their capabilities and encouraging them to be curious about their own growth. So capacity, capability, and curiosity – I hope to see those attributes grow in our school community for many years to come.”
BM: “As you can see in our name, we are a school that focuses heavily on leadership. There is a constant investment in the leadership of not only our students but our staff and families as well, and our vision for what excellent leadership looks like revolves around service. It’s an upside-down model where you have a leader who’s constantly pouring out of themselves into others, encouraging everyone they lead to do even greater things than themself. That is the kind of leader we watch our students become at Inwood Academy, and that is the kind of leader I have the honor of being for our school.”