The school's finance-and-technology theme came out of research Gonzalez did on urban gangs when he was in college. Gang members, he concluded, had an entrepreneurial bent. "They had marketable skills, but they couldn't go to a job interview because they had prison records," he says. So they became illicit retailers, selling CDs, protection, drugs, "a whole underground economy." He noticed, too, that when he polled middle schoolers, they knew what they wanted to learn: how to make money and use computers.
His school would focus on those interests, he decided. His graduates could eventually work in financial services or tech support—"careers kids could raise a family on." Accordingly, each MS 223 student has daily technology classes. "Our kids can do PowerPoint, Web design; they know every piece of Microsoft Office," he boasts. His after-school "Mouse Squad" repairs classroom computers. Underlying this specialization, however, is a heavy emphasis on literacy.
"He's changed the whole environment there," says Mary Ehrenworth of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, which works with MS 223. "He's shown that all kids can read, all kids can write."
Gonzalez's initial goal—to have half his students perform at grade level within five years—was daunting, given that 40 percent of them are in special education classes or aren't native English speakers. The first year, 9 percent of his sixth graders met or exceeded standards in language arts, and 12 percent did so in math. By 2007, 28 percent were proficient in language, and 44 percent in math. Older students' scores have also risen, but not as much.
Gonzalez bridles at questions about test scores. "That's the first thing people ask," he says. "They don't ask, how many kids attempted suicide in your school and you had to get them counseling, or how many kids are you serving from homeless shelters?" But he promises improvement.
Noon: The principal looks in on a new teacher who's talking with her sixth graders about Greek mythology. "Why do you think there were so many gods?" Gonzalez interjects, launching a discussion about the ancients' limited grasp of science and their search for explanations.
Down the hall, in a math class, a graphing lesson seems to be causing confusion. Gonzalez, wading in to help kids plot coordinates, will talk with the teacher later. "He's not holding the kids accountable," the principal says. And to do that, he says, the teacher must give clearer instructions.
Gonzalez's standards for his staff are high, he says, but so is his admiration for them. "Every day they walk into this building," he says, "they're taking a stand against poverty."
2:20 p.m.: Dismissal. At times, life at MS 223 can seem pretty ordinary. A girl complains about a boy pulling her hair; two boys are warned about chatting in class. But then Gonzalez sits down with his assistant principal to discuss a 13-year-old showing cognitive deficits after getting shot in the head. They're trying to get a neurosurgeon to evaluate her. "This kid is lost," he sighs.
Some of Gonzalez's colleagues see him headed for top-tier education administration; others hope he'll enter politics. Not likely, he says. He and his wife, a fourth-grade teacher in another city school, have two sons, including a newborn, and have bought a brownstone on the street where he grew up. He's digging in.