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North Shore High School welcomes new principal

Contreras brings a wealth of experience and passion

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With roughly 23 years of success in the New York City educational system on his résumé, Eric Contreras will become North Shore High School’s new principal on Aug. 3.

Principal Albert Cousins will leave the district to become superintendent of the Rhinebeck Central School District upstate.

North Shore Superintendent Dr. Peter Giarrizzo said the district received 72 applications for the NSHS principal’s job. He screened 12 of them, with a team of administrators and teachers. Contreras’s wealth of experience as a teacher, department level coordinator, assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent, Giarrizzo said, set him apart from the other candidates.

“He understands achievement, he understands good instruction, he knows how to manage a complicated and complex organization,” Giarrizzo said. “He’s incredibly bright, articulate and very focused on issues of equity.”

Contreras, 47, most recently served as principal of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. In 2019-20, U.S. News & World Report ranked Stuyvesant the second-best public high school in the state and 25th in the country. “His experiences providing leadership to a school of 3,400 kids and over 200 staff members really resonates with me as someone who can go in there and get the job done,” Giarrizzo said.

Contreras was born in Jamaica, Queens, the eldest of five children, to Gloria and Herlindo Contreras, immigrants from Guatemala. Although he has lived in Queens for most of his life, now in Bayside, he said he has always been drawn to Long Island, having spent countless days on its beaches, fishing in its coastal waters and enjoying its hot spots with friends and family.

Education was not always his intended career. After graduating from Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village in 1990, he studied American history at SUNY Binghamton. He worked as a research assistant, spending summers at the National Archives at New York City and in former mining areas of Pennsylvania, collecting census data and research. His passion for history, he said, stems from his admiration of the United States, where his parents came to pursue their dreams.

“I have a firm belief that this country is still the greatest experiment in democracy in the history of humankind,” Contreras said, “and that in order to preserve it, students really have to be well versed in both the events that led to the formation of this country and what sustains the civic and democratic principles of our country.”

In Binghamton he met Julie Rodriguez, a fellow student. They were married in 1997 and now have three children — Hannah, 21, Aaron, 15, and Isaac, 10.

Education was not on Contreras’s radar when he graduated from Binghamton in 1995, he said, and he went to work as a court advocate in Bronx Supreme Court. But things changed when he was invited to give a presentation on the Cold War at Taft High School in the Bronx. After the presentation, he recalled, students applauded. He realized that teaching might be his calling, and that he could make a bigger difference in the classroom than in any other setting.

He began teaching American history at Taft in 1996, and stayed there for six years before moving to Robert F. Kennedy High School in Kew Gardens Hills to teach AP history and economics. He also coached the golf and fencing teams there, and came to appreciate the connection between athletics and education. Sports, he said, enhance relationships outside the classroom.

In 2003, he accepted a position as assistant principal of the newly formed Queens High School of Teaching. Four years later he became the school’s principal.

Contreras earned a master’s in secondary education from Mercy College in 2003 and a master’s in education leadership from LIU-C.W. Post in 2005.

In 2011, Contreras became an assistant superintendent for instruction and curriculum in the city’s Department of Education. He spent three years updating all five boroughs’ history, civics and social studies curriculums, influencing the education of over 1.2 million students with what he described as the most comprehensive revision of K-through-12 social studies education in over 25 years.

Finally, he became principal of Stuyvesant High in 2016. He helped create new courses in computer science, artificial intelligence and robotics while also leading the district as it undertook infrastructure improvements. He said he was proud of the relationships he developed with students and staff.

As proud as he is of his accomplishments in the city schools, Contreras said he wanted to work in a district in a tight-knit community — which, he said, North Shore represents perfectly. He also said he shares the district’s values, because he, too, believes that school is more than just academics.

“One of the things I do appreciate about North Shore is that I think that sense of values is around relationships and experiences and the whole child, not some sort of state exam,” he said. “I’m not saying that that’s not important, but I’m saying that more important is the relationships we build with children in classrooms.”

Contreras said he wants to spend the first year at NSHS listening to the community, learning what families value in educational programming and extracurricular activities. He also said he has developed relationships with colleges over the years, and has the expertise to show their recruiters why North Shore graduates would be great fits for their programs.

He recognizes the challenge, he said, of helping the school rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. He said he would make a concerted effort to bring students back to school if at all possible, as long as health experts say it is safe. He also said he would work closely with the counseling program to ensure that students can make an emotionally sound re-entry to a school environment.

Giarrizzo and other district officials said they were eager to see Contreras succeed, and that they were confident in his ability to help NSHS become an even greater academic institution.

“In addition to looking at the academic program and helping us to continue on a path of really strong trajectory,” Giarrizzo said, “I’m really interested in him leading work around our diversity and equity.”

“We could not be more thrilled to welcome Mr. Contreras to North Shore,” said Board of Education President Sara Jones, “and are looking forward to having his experience and student-centered thoughtfulness at our high school.”