Gina Battista: Resilient Leader

This profile is part of a series celebrating Women's History Month.

Principal Gina Battista has lived through three major crises in New York City: the September 11th attacks, Superstorm Sandy and the COVID-19 pandemic. It was clear to her that during stressful times, when she had to take care of so many kids, she never had to neglect her own. She was always able to come home to her children in the evening.

On 9/11, she had just returned to teaching following an appendectomy. On her first day back at Port Richmond High School, an SSA agent came into her biology class and told her a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Then the agent came into her next class and told her about the second plane, "She said I should keep kids with me who had relatives at the World Trade Center. There were two.” The school was a sanctuary.

Eleven years later, when she was an assistant principal at Tottenville High School, Superstorm Sandy struck Staten Island with devastating force. The building became an evacuation site, where people came to live because they had lost their homes.

“Eight years later, we get the COVID pandemic,” she says. She was the brand new principal of Tottenville High School and was required to close the school. “We were lucky because we’d been getting everyone used to tech anyway,” she says, “But many of our 210 teachers had to learn how to transition from in-person to remote learning via Zoom or Google Meet. I had to be sure the learning management system was up and running. It was a large system.

“Meanwhile, I had to become a third grade teacher at home and figure out how to teach my daughter," she said. "My son Michael was in middle school, more mature and up to it. I told Gianna, ‘This is the year you have to learn how to read and write.' And she did."

The COVID-19 pandemic was about to become the biggest challenge of her career, and many families were destined to flee New York City, most never to return, but she says, “I love this city. I’ll never leave.”

Gina was born in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, but raised on Staten Island. Her husband, Michael Communiello, was raised in downtown Manhattan, but the couple now lives on Staten Island. “This island is 19 miles long and seven miles wide and we practically all know each other,” she says.  She remembers when “a lot of people rode horses and cows crossed the road.”  She loved attending P.S. 22 and Port Richmond HS and remembers the Port Richmond principals calling it “a school with a heart.”  

Her original goal was to teach home economics, although she was also keen on science and math. “I loved to cook and teach healthy eating,” she says. “But my home ec teacher told me, 'In a budget crunch, you’d be the first one to be fired.'"

To this day, gardening and cooking are passions. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, she cooks for nearly 20 people. “On Christmas Eve, I do all the fishes.” Her passion for cooking comes from her grandmother and mother, whose roots hearken to Naples, Italy.

But biology and math also were passions. The problem was a glass ceiling for women in the profession. Most of her high school teachers were men, especially in science and math. Eventually, she would break through that ceiling herself—and she’s happy to say that in her view, the ceiling is pretty much shattered today.

When she graduated from Wagner with a B.S. in biology, her mother Rose urged her to go over to Port Richmond and ask for a job as a substitute. It turned out the school was just about to lose a teacher. Within a few years, she became dean. Later, she went on to become assistant principal of science and health careers, and then assistant principal of mathematics at Tottenville High School.

And there she was, the neophyte principal in March 2020, responsible for following the city’s mandate and closing down one of the biggest high schools in New York City, with almost 4,000 students, 450 staff members and 250 teachers. In addition to teaching, they had to provide one-on-one tutoring, deliver electronic devices to homes, check on students who weren’t logging in, and provide breakfasts and lunches daily.

Then, come September, there was an order to reopen, but she says, “When the DOE allowed people to go out on medical leave, we went down teachers.” The school needed 115 teachers to carry out the mayor’s plan of providing blended and remote learning, but extra teachers were nowhere to be had. The most they could do was provide virtual learning classrooms with in-person supervision.

“We were unhappy and the parents were unhappy.” Gina thought the city’s demand that they reopen had nothing to do with the reality, and she was disappointed in the system.

Now, with the pandemic waning, she says “I don’t even bring it up anymore. Nobody wants to hear about it.” She herself was so sick with COVID-19 she had to run her school from her couch for three weeks. “It was so debilitating, I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing.”  

Now, she says, “The biggest achievement of my life was bringing Tottenville back to life.”

Even before the pandemic, she recalls, social media was causing kids to disappear from each other and retreat into themselves. She says, “They just go from Instagram to Snapchat to TikTok. They want to be influencers and celebrities. They may get criticized and attacked, but they try to deal with that. They read 400 messages a day. They need to get off the phone and get outside and do things. I tell them to say yes to everything.”

Sports, she thinks, is one of the things that “keeps them human.” She was into sports in high school and was named coach of the year on Staten Island in the late '90s. She does everything possible to promote sports participation, and this month she is especially thankful to her superintendent, Dr. Marion Wilson, for bringing in  ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith to talk to the kids.  This was a real morale booster after so many hard times.

She’s proud to say that 130 girls tried out for the volleyball team. Sports change the dynamic, and that is particularly useful after a pandemic.  She says, “You have to learn how to manage time, how to belong to something, and how to have each other’s backs.

“At this size school, a principal has to be very visible. You feel bad if you don’t know their names. I try to go to their games, do 'Breakfast with the Principal,' things like that.” Gina believes that an advantage to being a woman in this leadership profession is that you can “bring them a kind of motherly care.”

Gina sees this post-pandemic period as a possible turning point in teaching and learning. The students need a reason to be in school. More than before, students need to find real-world applications to whatever they’re learning, “We have to really start looking at education and we have to go deeper." She is absorbed by the thinking of Michael McDowell, a former principal and author of "Teaching for Transfer," who believes in making learning more thoughtful, collaborative and relevant.

“We have to focus on teacher practices to make learning more student-based and get them beyond the surface of learning.”

Teaching is what she most cares about. She says, “I love teaching. I want to teach a college class in education, not in science or math. I want to grow that feeling of love and passion for this field.”