Sandra Bertin, 12, and Sadie Godlis, 13, I.S. 89 eighth graders, outside school Tuesday.
Creativity, rigorous academics draw middle school students
By Anindita Dasgupta
This year graduates from P.S. 89 in Battery Park City and P.S. 234 in Tribeca are flocking to all corners of Downtown with the four most popular schools being Manhattan Academy of Technology, I.S. 89, New Explorations into Science Technologies and Math and Clinton School for Writers and Artists.
After looking at numerous schools, most parents interviewed seemed to look for small class sizes, diverse student populations, after school programs with a good variety of activities, and enthusiastic and knowledgeable teachers. All four of the most popular schools share these qualities, leaving each schools specialty qualities as the final deciding factors. Parents agreed that their budding middle schoolers have many fabulous schools to choose from with most of the schools having strong well rounded curriculums. Thus, some parents went for specialized schools like Manhattan Academy of Technology or Clinton School for Writers and Artists where the curriculums leaned more towards specific disciplines.
Parents cited Manhattan Academys administration as a large draw to the school. Toni Coburn and her husband were impressed by the schools math program, as illustrated by the math project wall displays, for their 11-year-old son, Wil. They added that the administrations energy and commitment to the school also contributed to the Coburns decision to send Wil there this fall.
The teachers seemed very excited to be there and to teach the kids, she said. You could see they were proud of the school and what they were achieving.
Debbie Bader, whose son is in 7th grade at M.A.T. added that the principal, Kerry Decker, is very hands on. Shes very personable and willing to listen to parents suggestions, she said. The children really respect her.
Bader added that she liked how open the school guidance counselors are. She said that the counselors make themselves readily available to both parents and students, and that as a parent, this is very reassuring.
The administration and faculty are great, said Laura Cohen, parent of a 7th grader at M.A.T. She said the administration creates a nurturing environment for their students. They do a great job recognizing that the kids are not really teenagers yet.
While the administration was not available for comment, parents agreed that class sizes were kept small, ranging between 25 and 28, allowing for individual attention and an intimate atmosphere. In addition, parents raved about the after school program, again attesting to dedicated teachers and coaches who commit to their students interests.
Overall, its just a great school, Coburn said. You get the sense that its a school that is going somewhere.
Similar to M.A.T., the administration at Clinton School for Writers and Artists also strives to create a nurturing environment for their students. P.T.A. president, Tamara Rowe said she wanted a school with a strong arts program, but also wanted a school that was small enough that parents, teachers and students would build strong relationships.
Kate Shore, whose daughter graduated last year and whose son started at Clinton this fall, said Its the kind of school where you say, Hi, its Sarah Shores mom, and they say, Oh, Hi Kate! She added that her daughter immediately felt comfortable at Clinton. She walked in, sat down and said it felt like home, Shore said of her daughter.
Rowe said that the community feeling fostered in the school led to strong social skills and relationships between students. She said that the school asked students to work together on group projects across the disciplines. Working on projects with other kids, not just your friends, forces them to learn to negotiate and compromise, she said. You learn to be yourself and keep your vision in mind but incorporate the ideas of other people as well.
She added that the schools focus on the fine arts, drama and even ballroom dancing helps students develop a great deal of self confidence and poise.
Despite the size of the school, Rowe said that their population is still diverse. It looks like New York City, she said.
Clinton draws students from all over the district, said parent coordinator, Cindy ONeil. Besides the schools warm environment, the school is known for their heavy arts curriculum, she said.
Most of the kids who come here, really want to come here, she said. They show a real interest in the arts. Clinton, located on the 5th floor of P.S. 11 on W. 21st St., works with a number of organizations in the community such as Center for Arts Education, Young Playwrights, and the Museum of Modern Art to offer a variety of arts opportunities to Clinton students.
The school is also proud of their 8th grade art projects, which students present in a festival in June after five months of hard work. Each student works with a mentor, either a teacher, parent or professional from the community, to identify an area of interest in either visual, performance or writing arts. The finished products amaze the community, said ONeil. In the past, students have compared Chinese and American violin techniques, looked at various cultures through cookbooks of different nations, and presented creative writing pieces and short films. The final projects vary in terms of what people do, Rowe said. But the experience is just as meaningful to every one of the kids.
ONeil said that their curriculum is filled with a great deal of writing as well. We put a lot of emphasis on the publishing process, she said. She explained that students learn to write, edit, and rewrite on a regular basis.
The arts are such a great vehicle for teaching, she said. Every kid has a different spin on how they view things.
However, she maintained that the schools math and science programs are still strong. While students receive three full art periods a week alternating in visual, performing and writing arts, they also receive two 60-minute periods of math instruction per week. ONeil described their science curriculum as project based as well. For example, she recalled a project where students designed their own amusement rides, while learning about the science and math required to make the rides function.
A high percentage of Clinton students are accepted to their first choice high school, said ONeil. Rowe said that she feels her daughter is well prepared for high school. She loves learning and feels capable of challenges, meeting teachers expectations, she said. Shell be ready.
Another popular choice this year for Downtown parents was New Explorations into Science Technologies and Math, or NEST. Located on the Lower East Side, NEST goes from K-12. While their lower, middle and upper schools are popular, this year their middle school seemed to attract a lot of Downtowners.
I like NEST a lot, said Erica Weldon, whose son started 6th grade at NEST this fall. Specifically, Weldon liked three of the schools specialties: uniforms, small class sizes, and single sex instruction for math and science.
I love that for that age group, she said of the uniforms. They dont have to worry about that issue at a time when they have so much else to worry about. She added that the small class sizes, which usually fall between 20 and 25 students, adds to a close environment for the school.
Since NEST is classified Gifted and Talented by the city, the school can offer advanced curriculums to its students. She said that in other middle schools, teachers often teach to the middle tier of students learning abilities. But at a talented and gifted school, everyone is at that level, she said. They expect everyone to function at that level, which she says is great for students who can handle it.
She said that the separation between sexes for math and science was a huge draw to the school. I think boys learn differently than girls do, she said. I think in general girls get overlooked sometimes. Especially at that age, girls tend to be more quiet and reserved.
NEST parents made headlines this summer as they fought to keep the Ross Global Academy Charter School out of the 111 Columbia St. building where NEST resides, to protect, among other things, the schools small class sizes. The battle between R.G.A., the Department of Education and a set of driven NEST parents ended with the Departments decision to place R.G.A. under their watch on one floor at the Tweed Courthouse. They slapped longtime NEST principal, Celenia Chevere with papers of insubordination and misconduct, which they quickly dropped after hearing of her preexisting retirement plans. Now that the fight is over, NEST parents agree that the integrity of their school is safe, including their small classroom sizes.
However, with Cheveres retirement, NEST is in store for a year of changes. Olga Livanis, former assistant principal of physics and chemistry at Stuyvesant High School will take Cheveres place, and as Livanis entered NEST she brought with her rumors of even further changes to the school.
Word quickly spread among the tight NEST community that the new principal came in with plans to change some aspects of the school that parents said made the school special.
I am a little concerned, Weldon said. She came in wanting to make some pretty hefty changes.
Some parents say Livanis wanted to increase class size and get rid of the single sex instruction of math and science, but that after talking to concerned parents, she reconsidered.
Its a good sign that she listened to parents, said Weldon. We have a lot of high hopes for her.
Livanis did not return calls for comment.
More and more Downtown parents are keeping their children close to home as they send them to I.S. 89 on Warren St., but this year, more parents seem to have picked 89 because of academics and not just location. I.S. 89 shares its Battery Park City building with P.S. 89.
I think in the past parents have chosen other options, like Lab or Salk, but I think that I.S. 89 has proven to be a good school, said parent Angela Benfield, who has two children in 7th and 8th grade at I.S. 89. The students who graduate from I.S. 89 go onto good high schools.
As P.T.A. president for the last three years, Max McCalman has seen 89 go through a lot of changes, including residual effects from 9/11 that were still haunting the school. Alan Flet was one of the best student principals for this age group, he said. McCalman said he was impressed with Flets patience and calm manner.
Today, parents praise 89s teachers. Benfield said her daughter loved her 7th grade teacher. She was excited to go to school, she said.
Parents also lauded the schools airy facilities. McCalman said the professional environment gives students a sense of empowerment.
In addition, parents are impressed with the schools various after school activities. While Pam Chmiel wishes the academics could be a little more rigorous, she agrees that the facility and after school activities are fantastic. She said 89s theater program presents unique and intelligent shows and that a lot of students who enter the program in 6th grade continue in it through 8th. A few other after school activities include jazz band, cooking in Spanish, wood working and robotics.
Chmiel also likes that 89 offers separate English and social studies classes, instead of combining the subjects into a humanities class as many other middle schools are doing. It just astounds me! she said, adding that she and her husband believe in teaching fundamentals first.
As always, location is a big draw for local 89 parents. Chmiel said that she has three children and wanted to stay in the neighborhood for their middle school education. We didnt feel it was appropriate for a 6th grader to ride alone on the subway, she said.
I think this is the safest neighborhood in New York City, and I wanted her to be in a safe environment, said Benfield. Its a good school. Why would I send her out of the neighborhood, when we have a really good school right here?