The Real Women Of Bay Ridge: Gentile’s Aide Has Theatrical Roots
By Paula Katinas
Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, and in response to the firestorm created by the Oxygen Network’s new “reality” series “Brooklyn 11223,” which depicts women cursing, drinking and fighting in Bay Ridge and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the Brooklyn Eagle is proud to present this feature profiling the “real” women of Bay Ridge and their accomplishments.
Bay Ridge — As a teacher at New Utrecht High School, Sara Steinweiss was in charge of the theater program, a role she relished because it gave her the opportunity to encourage misfits to find their place in the school community. Thanks to her leadership, gawky, awkward teenagers came to see that they, too, could have a moment of glory in high school. Performing on stage in a play or a musical, in front of hundreds of their peers, gave them confidence to move forward in their lives.
“I feel like I was born to help teenagers find their path in life,” Steinweiss said.
These days, Steinweiss is following a different path in her own life and she is relishing every minute of it.
Steinweiss resigned from the New York City Department of Education in September 2011 after 12 years of teaching. She is now an aide to Councilman Vincent Gentile, serving the lawmaker as a constituent liaison, event planner and educational liaison. As educational liaison, she is able to tie together her past and current lives.
“I love helping parents who have problems with the Department of Education. I help them navigate the system,” she said.
Her resignation from the Dept. of Education took effect on Sept. 6. She joined Gentile’s staff on Sept. 7.
Steinweiss said she enjoys working for Gentile, a councilman she respects and admires. She also enjoys being around her co-workers.
“There’s a good vibe here,” she said.
Steinweiss, 34, has spent her entire adult life trying to create a good vibe for the people around her.
During her years at New Utrecht High School, where she served as coordinator of student activities as well as theater program director, she made it her mission to reach out to the outcasts.
“I was always reaching out to the kids who cut school, trying to get them involved. I wanted the program to be a place where everyone felt comfortable and everyone felt they were making a contribution. Deep down inside, most teenagers need to feel like they belong. They want to be noticed,” she said.
As the hit television show “Glee” demonstrates, the performing arts can be an avenue through which misfits can fit in and shine.
“I think the performing arts is so important,” Steinweiss said. “It fosters kids with a sense of self they never knew they had. It’s teamwork, putting on a show, and everyone is important, from the lead actors to the kid who deals with the props. Kids find talents within themselves they never knew they had,” she said. “I had kids who, when they were freshmen, were in a shell. But by the time they were seniors, they blossomed.”
Sara Steinweiss was born in Victory Memorial Hospital in Bay Ridge and grew up in Bensonhurst.
“We lived on 62nd Street between Bay Parkway and 21st Avenue,” she recalled.
She is a product of public schools — a graduate of P.S. 186, Seth Low Intermediate School, and New Utrecht High School.
Her mother, Judy Steinweiss, with whom she is close, was a PTA leader in the 1980s in School District 20. Judy Steinweiss was a leader in the District 20 PTA President’s Council, a group composed of all of the PTA presidents of the schools in the district.
“She really fought hard for the kids in the district to make sure they were being served,” Sara Steinweiss recalled.
Steinweiss enjoyed her high school years.
“I was the mayor of New Utrecht, which was like being the class president,” she said.
In her senior year, she approached her principal, Alan Leibowitz, with a bold idea.
“I wanted to start a theater program. He told me if I could start it, he would support me. So, I did,” she said. “I had been a part of the theater program at Saint Athanasius Church. And I had been in the St. Athanasius Choir. I felt it saved me. I wasn’t a kid who fit in. Being in the performing arts made me feel great. I wanted to do the same thing for other kids.”
She remained active in the New Utrecht High School theater program even after she graduated.
“I went back and volunteered,” she said.
Steinweiss earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Brooklyn College. She also holds two Master’s degrees — one in special education from Adelphi University and another in school administration and supervision from Touro College.
She became a teacher immediately after graduating from Brooklyn College in 1999. She taught at Canarsie High School for six months. When a teaching position opened up at her alma mater, New Utrecht High School, she jumped at the chance.
In addition to teaching classes and running the theater program, Steinweiss also taught conflict resolution. She helped volatile teenagers resolve their differences nonviolently.
She stayed at New Utrecht until 2011. Growing increasingly dissatisfied with the Dept. of Education, she decided that her teaching days were coming to an end.
“I loved working with students. But so much has changed in the past eight years. The Dept. of Education does not inspire kids anymore, or teachers,” she said.
Steinweiss charged that the Dept. of Education is so obsessed with results of standardized tests taken by students, that lesson plans are geared toward those exams, rather than the joy of discovery for students.
She has no regrets.
“I loved teaching and I love my life now,” she said.
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