When Madeleine Brennan became principal of Dyker Heights Intermediate School 201 in 1963, John F. Kennedy was president, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, and gas cost 29 cents per gallon.
At the time of her appointment, not many other women held administrative roles in the New York City school system — particularly not in District 20, where Intermediate School 201 is located.
“When she came in, there may have been one other woman who was a principal of a middle school in the district,” said Joseph LaCascia, who worked with Brennan at I.S. 201 from 1969 to 2013. “She was a trailblazer.”
For 50 years, Brennan would lead the school with a steady hand, winning over students and staff for generations.
“She was one of a kind,” said Elaine Safran, who headed the parent-teacher association for six years under Brennan. “She always showed off like she was very stern and strict, but she had a heart of gold.”
Brennan passed away on April 9 at the age of 93 from non-coronavirus-related causes.
During her decades at the helm, Brennan steered the school through a series of transitions — first as I.S. 201 switched from being a K-8 school to a middle school, and later, when budget cuts threatened to slash art programs in the 1970s.
“After the 1970s, when many schools had cut their band programs, she insisted on keeping the music and arts programs going,” said LaCascia. “[Other schools] would often cut music programs, gym programs in favor of math or science or reading. She managed to cover it all.”
Brennan instilled in her students and staff a love for discipline. She would arrive to her office between 5:30 and 6 am every morning, and would dedicate much of her free time to connecting with other educators, serving as the president of The New York Academy of Public Education and of the NYC Middle School Principals’ Association, and as the chairwoman of the NYC Friends of Music.
Brennan, who never had any children of her own, was so devoted to the school that she viewed the students as her children, educators said.
“She was extremely dedicated to that school,” said Laurie Windsor, the former president of the District 20 Community Education Council. “That school was her baby. She looked out for that school.”
Brennan was also a fun-loving spirit who spearheaded beloved traditions, such as the annual Shakespeare Festival in June, where classes presented projects related to the playwright and invited friends and family. Brennan, who loved the event, would sit in a throne wearing a traditional dress.
“She would dress up in all the gowns and everything,” Windsor said. “She would sit in the chair in the schoolyard.”
The fun activities and community events made the school into a family, parents said.
“I’ve had three children go through the building while she was there, and I can only think of great things in that building,” said Safran. “My kids loved it. It’s a big family.”
LaCascia said he thinks the school should be named in Brennan’s honor because of her tremendous impact.
“It would be appropriate for NYC to recognize her extraordinary career by naming I.S. 201 after her,” he said.