Volume 20 Issue 22 | October 12 - 18 2007

I.S. 89 earns national award, leaving other middle schools behind

By Annie Lok

Battery Park City’s I.S. 89 is the only middle school in the city to earn national honors for its high reading and math scores.

The U.S. Dept. of Education named I.S. 89 a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon school Oct. 2. Three city elementary schools outside of Manhattan were also lauded. A small school with a little more than 290 students enrolled, I.S. 89’s achievement is all the more noteworthy since it does not have a minimum state test score requirement for applicants.

“We’re pleased,” said Ellen Foote, I.S. 89’s principal, who received a telephone call last week notifying her of the award. “I’m not happy about high stakes testing by any stretch, but it’s a great thing for the students to be recognized and for the whole school community.”

The awards are given to elementary, middle and high schools based on two major criteria. Schools must be in their state’s top 10 percent in state tests, or show significant test score improvements and draw at least 40 percent of its students from “disadvantaged backgrounds.” Children who qualify for free or reduced priced school meals, speak limited English, have a learning disability or recently immigrated fall into this category.

I.S. 89 met both criteria by scoring above the 90th percentile statewide and having 41 percent of its students qualify for school lunch subsidies, according to the New York State Education Department. The state nominated 18 schools to the national education department last fall. Of those, 16 successfully completed their applications for the award.

To apply for the award, Foote and her staff reported three school years’ worth of test score data by grade, subject, and ethnic group from 2003 to 2006. The most recent numbers show that more than 80 percent of eighth graders at I. S. 89 met or exceeded state standards in reading and math.

Foote and the 286 other principals across the country that earned the award have been invited to a ceremony in Washington D.C. in mid-November when they will be presented with a plaque and a flag. Each principal can bring along one teacher, but Foote has not yet decided who will accompany her to Washington.

“I just think it’s the coolest thing,” said Michele Herman, whose son is an eighth-grader at I.S. 89. She attributes the school’s success in the state tests not to drilling for multiple-choice tests, but simply to good teaching.

“I praise Ellen for not pandering to the test prep craziness,” she said of the principal.

The No Child Left Behind Act has had many critics since its inception. It holds schools accountable to achievement measured by standardized tests, and can cut federal funding to schools that fail to show improvement. Critics say that too much time and energy in the classroom is devoted to test prep as a result.

The principal, teachers and parents say that although I.S. 89 is being recognized for its high test scores, it does not focus specifically on preparing for the annual state tests. Teachers only spend a couple of weeks a year familiarizing students to the format and language of the state tests, Foote said.

While I.S. 89’s staff develops the curriculum according to statewide standards for skills and content, students are more likely to hold a weather expo to explain climate change, build a math museum, or attend art class than take a practice test.

“A lot of schools gave up advisory programs and arts programs in order to make time for English Language Arts and math,” Foote said. “We made a decision that music, visual arts and drama were equally important. It’s a nice affirmation to our commitment to addressing the needs of the whole child.”

“It’s just a reflection of our preparedness,” Brent Wyso, a sixth grade math teacher at the school, said about the award. He says he emphasizes group work, strategy forming and problem solving in his curriculum, not test preparation. He said his students “should be able to show up to take the tests that day and move on. Math is not just paper and pencils.”

While some parents are also skeptical of standardized testing, they are proud of the school’s achievement.

“A lot of parents have mixed feelings about No Child Left Behind,” said Tim Johnson, co-president of the school’s P.T.A. “But it’s still good to see a good school get recognized.

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