Volume 22, Number 25 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | October 30 - November 6, 2009
Kindergarten students at P.S. 276 in Tweed. The school’s principal, Terri Ruyter, and Nancy Harris, principal of the Spruce Street School, spoke to Downtown Express last week about the beginning of the schools’ first year, their educational philosophies and future plans for the new buildings.
Inside Downtown’s newest schools
By Julie Shapiro
Nearly two months into their inaugural year, the principals of the new schools in Tweed Courthouse are keeping busy. When they’re not watching kindergarteners learn how to read and share and play, Spruce Street School Principal Nancy Harris and P.S./I.S. 276 Principal Terri Ruyter are planning for their K-8 schools’ futures. P.S./I.S. 276 is scheduled to open at Second Pl. and Battery Pl. in Battery Park City in September. Spruce is expected to open in 2011 at Spruce and William Sts.
After Downtown Express toured the schools last week, Harris and Ruyter both sat down to talk about what their students are learning. Some of the responses are condensed for space reasons.
Spruce Street School
Downtown Express: What is your favorite moment of the school year so far?
Nancy Harris: It’s so hard to choose. In the beginning, everyday felt like a highlight reel — our first this, our first that. Now that that has somewhat subsided, it’s like when you’re on vacation and the days start to blend together, but in a good way. Every moment is great, it really is.
DE: Do you think a new school building helps kids learn?
NH: A school is not made by the space, but that being said, the building can definitely enhance a school, and there are unfortunate cases where the space can actually hinder learning. I think it’s what you make of it. Having new walls doesn’t automatically — it’s what you do with it.
DE: What are you most looking forward to about your new building?
NH: Having an auditorium, the communal spaces. The classrooms will have storage. It’ll be huge having space to put things. A larger schoolyard in a more central location, a library, a science lab. All the shared spaces we don’t have now, it’ll be really exciting to have.
DE: The Spruce Street School is slated to move into its new building in the fall of 2011. Would you be concerned if there’s still some construction going on above the school?
NH: It’s not my decision. I get word that we’re moving in, we move; I get word that we’re not, we don’t.
DE: What are the advantages of a school where all the students live very close together, and what are the advantages of a school where kids come from a broader area?
NH: We’ll be a community school no matter what, no matter who’s here and what street they live on. We’re here to serve Lower Manhattan and no matter where those lines are drawn or not drawn, we’ll still stay true to that mission. This is the hub — our school becomes the unifying location. We do have somewhat of a spread this year. We have students who take the school bus because they live more than half a mile away, and then we have students — one student ran up the other day during arrival and her mom said, “We just timed our commute, and it took us 80 seconds to get here.”
DE: Is a certain amount of rote memorization useful in learning math? Does that begin in kindergarten?
NH: I don’t know that there’s ever a place for just rote on its own. You can teach kids concepts and the experiences, but they need skills to plug into that framework. I need to have this idea of numbers, but I also need to know the physical skills and the computational skills to make sense of it. It’s similar to reading: I need to have ideas about how books go, what characters do, but I also need to know how to turn a page, and how to look at an unfamiliar word and tackle it. It’s having the skills to support the understanding of the concepts.
DE: Do you hope that Frank Gehry, who designed your new school’s building, will come visit? What do you think the kids would ask him?
NH: We want to go over to the site and talk to construction workers, see who we can speak to that’s working on the building right now. And if that included some people who are behind the scenes, Mr. Gehry, of course we would welcome that. I think the students’ questions would be tied to what their curiosities are and what we’re learning about. Right now we’re learning about roles in a school, and the kids are developing interview questions: How did you learn to do your job? Who does your job if you’re not there?
DE: Are there any spruce trees near your new building, and if not, would you like to plant one?
NH: [Laughs] I don’t know! If they can survive in New York, if they’re indigenous… I think being on Spruce St. is enough to hold the name up.
DE: Is there anything kids aren’t being taught today that you would like your students to learn?
NH: We talked over the summer about who are these kids in 2018, which is when they finish eighth grade. We talked about what kind of people we hope they are, what kind of learners they are, who they are in the community. We don’t know what challenges will come up, what changes. So the idea is of them being adaptable, flexible, problem solvers.
DE: What five books would you like every graduate of your school to have read?
NH: Everybody should graduate being able to talk about five books they read recently. They should be able to talk about their favorite books, five books that they love. I would love if they could talk about five books they remember from kindergarten. But specific titles? Some have yet to be written, so it’s hard to imagine.
DE: Is there anything else people should know about Spruce Street School?
NH: For kindergarten next fall, there are a lot of unanswerables right now. But we are starting tours and we’re really excited. Now there’s something concrete for them to look at, which there wasn’t last year. So I’m excited to let it speak for itself.
DE: It seems like people are a little less anxious this year, now that the school is open and they can see it.
NH: That’s the hope.