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.
Downtown Express: What is your favorite moment of the school year so far?
Terri Ruyter: I don’t know if I can say a favorite moment. There are a lot of very lovely moments — when the students are really kind to each other. The other day a little girl was upset, and her classmates just totally kicked in, and they were just there to comfort her right away.
DE: Do you think a new school building helps kids learn?
TR: Tweed Courthouse is exceptional — we are exceptionally lucky. But it’s what you do with the space. It’s not the fact that it’s all fancy-schmancy; it’s what happens on the inside. It’s how you treat each other and the tone that’s set. And the kids, I don’t know how much they really pay attention.
DE: Next fall, you’ll definitely be in your new building in Battery Park City?
TR: [Knocks on the table] I never say definitely — it’s New York City.
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?
TR: The neighborhood school is a lovely thing — you go to each other’s house to play. The advantage of having kids from outside your neighborhood is you get outside your neighborhood. My daughter’s public elementary school took kids from a broad area. And we got into different parts of the city on play dates that we never would have gotten into. It just broadens your horizons of what’s out in the city.
DE: With kids growing up texting and instant messaging, are spelling, grammar and punctuation a lost cause? When is it appropriate to start correcting them?
TR: Language is a code, and you need to know what is the appropriate code to use when. If you sent a cover letter for a job with IM language, “U R,” you are not going to get the job. It’s part of reading that you know that the beginning of a sentence begins with a capital letter, names begin with capital letters, you end with a period. When I’m reading and it ends with a period, it tells me something. When it ends with a question mark, it tells me something. How do I use those conventions in my own writing? They’re starting that already.
DE: Given your school’s focus on the environment, what would you expect your students to learn that their peers might not know?
TR: We’re trying to do a lot of hands-on science stuff. It’s not just looking at, “how can I be green?” It’s being more cognizant of how my actions impact other people and the environment. I’m hoping we frame this in a way that makes children more aware of how they’re using resources and how other people have access to resources, and the equities and inequities of that, and thinking about that also on a more global scale.
DE: When did you first become interested in environmental issues? What is the biggest threat to the environment right now?
TR: I was in junior high school in the ’70s when that Indian commercial was on and the Indian cried. This was that iconic TV commercial, and that’s when Earth Day started, I think. In seventh grade we studied land pollution, air pollution and water pollution, and our teacher let us produce a play about it. The big thing is awareness. Citizen apathy is probably the biggest threat to the environment these days.
DE: What five books would you like every graduate of your school to have read?
TR: The five-book list could change by the time our students graduate. Remarkable books are being published every year. That said, Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” is on the list, as is Natalie Babbitt’s “The Search for Delicious.” The teachers are already reading Ruth Stiles Gannet’s “My Father’s Dragon” to the kids. It may stretch the students, but Marc Aronson’s book, “Race: A history of Black and White,” is really an incredible story of the history of humanity and how people are set apart by random features and the consequences of those actions. I am quite fond of Steve Jenkins as an author of remarkable picture books about scientific concepts.
DE: Is there anything kids aren’t being taught today that you would like your students to learn?
TR: I am planning to have teachers focus on reading and writing in the content areas. I have been reading a lot of more scholarly history books recently. The discipline has very specific structures that I am just getting used to — a lot of context is built up and then the author gets to the main part of the story. Science texts also have specific structures. I would like our students to be aware of the specific styles of the disciplines so that they can actively and critically read these texts and create similar texts of their own. So it isn’t really a topic, it is more of a focus within the disciplines.