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Not the usual suspects: Our middle school picks

Different learning styles are welcome at MS 223 in the Bronx. Different learning styles are welcome at MS 223 in the Bronx. Photo by Jacquie Wayans

Here's help for 5th-grade parents now in the throes of the hunt for middle school. Insideschools combed the city for good middle schools that are not among the usual favorites—those popular screened and highly competitive programs that everybody applies to. What we found are solid neighborhood and non-selective options in every borough. Overall, we were less concerned with a school’s test scores than with its tone and environment, and the quality of its instruction and leadership. Several on the list serve kids in grades 6–12. These schools seem to do a particularly good job with struggling and average students, and their leaders tend to not fret too much over middle school stats so long as they believe they are laying a foundation for higher achievement in the upper grades. Of course there are topnotch schools that are not on this list, but many of those are the schools that already receive many more applicants than they can accept!

BRONX

MS 127, Castle Hill School (District 11)

Why we picked it: Stable leadership, collaborative staff and students tackling lengthy research projects

MS 127 serves the full range of students from struggling learners to high achievers and lots of English language learners (native Spanish and Bengali speakers). Longtime principal Harry Sherman has hired a mix of young and more experienced teachers. Newer teachers are well-supported and mentored by one of their experienced colleagues. All students complete challenging, end-of-year projects through Participatory Action Research (PAR), a program developed by the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Students are expected to research a community problem, identify solutions and present their findings through a research paper and PowerPoint presentation. Teachers and staff encourage students to develop long-term goals. Students visit local colleges including Sherman’s alma mater, St. Johns University. Students in the bilingual instruction classes visit a local airport to learn about jobs that require knowledge of multiple languages.

MS/HS 223, Laboratory School for Finance and Technology (District 7)

Why we picked it: Schoolwide dual-language program and engaging instruction

Founding principal Ramon Gonzalez has created a cheery, but orderly school with strong and engaging instruction and lots of enrichment and support for all children. Every class has two teachers and serves kids with mixed abilities. Group work and engaging lessons are staples, such as 8th-graders acting out a zombie apocalypse to learn how to calculate the spread rate of an infectious disease. True to its name as a technology school, MS 223 offers computer-programming classes where kids learn Javascript, HTML and design their own apps. Students in all grades receive dual-language instruction with traditional language arts taught in both languages, math taught exclusively in English, and science, social studies and technology taught exclusively in Spanish.

MS/HS 327 Comprehensive Model School Project (District 9)

Why we picked it: A newly-minted Community School with rigorous academics

Even before becoming part of the city’s Community Schools Initiative, CMS provided students with extended-day instruction in the high school, academic help on Saturdays, free healthcare at an onsite clinic and access to activities such as swimming and dance as well as social services. The school is housed in the New Settlement Community Campus, a sleek, modern facility featuring a swimming pool, dance studio and rooftop garden. CMS has strong academics and takes advantage of its 6–12 model by pushing all students in middle school. For instance 6th-graders read Lord of the Flies and all 8th-graders study algebra. Most students stay for high school, where they are grouped together by skill level in select classes—some take advanced placement courses as early as 10th grade.

Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science (District 9)

Why we picked it: Very strong math and science instruction for students of all skill levels

This 6-12 school offers some of the best and engaging math instruction anywhere in the city. Middle school teachers do a good job of serving a broad range of students and take great care to identify stellar students early on in order to give them the support to maintain high achievement through high school. In all subjects teachers spend a week or two of class time on a single project or problem. For instance, in the 6th and 7th grades students hone their fundamental math skills by spending a week charting their dream cross-country trip or planning a party, working out all measurements, calculations and costs involved. Students are expected to write essays explaining their choices and conclusions and wrap up their projects with oral presentations to their class.

BROOKLYN

MS 234, Arthur W. Cunningham (District 22)

Why we picked it: It’s a big, zoned school that works

Cunningham offers something for everyone: high achievers, techies, special needs kids and the 10 percent of the population that is still learning to speak English. It’s old fashioned in some ways: 6th graders learn Latin, and boys and girls sit separately in the cafeteria. The school is particularly strong in math. Students spend 8 to 10 periods a week in math class, three of which are 90 minute periods. Overall, teachers do a good job of connecting math to real world problems and instruction in the accelerated classes is very rigorous.

MS 577 (District 14)

Why we picked it: Stable teaching staff, positive school culture and math and science teachers stay with kids for two years

This school’s strengths stem from its stable teaching staff and its founding principal Maria Masullo. Students come in with a range of abilities and for the first "marking period" of 6th grade, all students are mixed together. In November, children are divided into classes by skill level. The staff uses positive reinforcement to foster a calm learning environment. Students earn “merits” for good behavior that they exchange for fun opportunities such as a trip to Central Park. Teachers hold grade meetings twice a week to discuss how students are doing in different subjects. Science, math and English teachers loop with their classes, keeping the same students for two years.

Brooklyn Prospect Charter (District 15)

Why we picked it: A well-rounded and diverse school offering lots of personal attention 

Brooklyn Prospect attracts students from all over District 15—Park Slope to Red Hook and beyond. It’s a calm and orderly place without a “no excuses” culture. Lengthy projects and hands-on work are staples of instruction. Many classes have two teachers who are adept at serving a broad range of students by providing extra support to struggling learners and assigning more challenging assignments to advanced students. Many middle school students stay on for high school where they can tackle the challenging International Baccalaureate curriculum. The school will eventually serve grades k–12, but for the next few years the main entry points are kindergarten, 6th and 9th grades.

Park Slope Collegiate (District 15)

Why we picked it: A 6–12 school offering kids lots of support 

A 6–12 school in the John Jay Educational Complex, Park Slope Collegiate is a progressive school with a laid back atmosphere. Students in all grades get lots of support. Classes run 55 minutes, longer than the typical 42-minute period, and tend to be smaller than the citywide average. Middle school students also benefit from having high school teachers on staff. For instance, 6th-graders learn the periodic table of elements because the high school chemistry teacher felt that kids are more prepared to handle the high school level course if they arrive with some prior knowledge of the subject. Recently, longtime principal Jill Bloomberg and a group of District 15 families worked together to increase diversity at the school. Their effort was chronicled in a New York Magazine article.

Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies (District 15)

Why we picked it: Progressive school with lots of hands-on projects

At Brooklyn School of Collaborative Studies, a 6–12 school, teachers encourage children to explore their own interests, to do lots of independent research and to write the kind of long papers they'll need to master in college. The school has a good track record helping kids who may have weak academic skills persevere in middle school to prepare for high school and higher education.

MANHATTAN

IS 52 (District 6)

Why we picked it: A nurturing school

This warm and friendly school serves many recent immigrants. Nearly one-third of its students are English language learners. Many teachers give up their breaks to help students outside of class time. Teachers also collaborate to write their own curriculum rather than relying on textbooks with scripted lessons. In 6th grade, reading and writing are taught separately to boost skills; and in 7th grade, classes are split in half to provide more individualized attention. The school takes great pride in its marching band, a rarity for middle schools, and does of good job of engaging parents through community activities.

The Equity Project Charter School (TEP) (District 6)

Why we picked it: Strong social-emotional support, daily gym and music, top-notch guidance for high school admissions

TEP is a sweet school that serves grades 5–8. It is a welcoming place for English language learners and students with special needs. Students get gym and music instruction every day and lots of social-emotional support. Each incoming class of 5th-graders has a dedicated, full-time social worker that sticks with the cohort for all four years. The school is orderly, but discipline is gentle. Also noteworthy is the school’s effort to guide its students through high school admissions. The counselor researches and compiles a customized list schools for each student to pursue.

QUEENS

Bell Academy (District 25)

Why we picked it: Strong instruction offered in a caring and close-knit community

Everyone knows everyone else at Bell Academy. Students praise the school for being a friendly community. Teachers are skilled at serving a range of students and encouraging class discussions that hold students’ interest; they place lots of emphasis on current events. Students debate issues, such as whether to ban carriage horses and the impact of natural gas fracking on people’s lives. Overall, the school does a very good job of preparing its students, including those with special needs, for the rigors of high school.

Hunter’s Point Community Middle School (District 30)

Why we picked: Students harvest oysters, become skilled debaters and meditate daily

Children are gentle and kind to one another at this diverse, small school that opened in 2013. "If you want to find kids who represent the whole city, you'll find them here," said founding principal Sarah Goodman. To help students manage stress and stay focused, there are four brief periods of daily meditation. Schoolwide, students tackle a big question each week such as: Should handguns be illegal? Kids read articles, complete assignments and debate topics related to the question in every class, including math and science. Goodman credits this practice with helping her students excel in debate competitions: 6th-graders have won many trophies, even in competition with older students. The school’s location along the water’s edge allows for interesting, hands-on projects. Students gather data on oysters they planted in the East River and share it with the Harbor School for further analysis.

Village Academy (District 27)

Why we picked it: A cheery and nurturing school with an energetic and diverse teaching staff

This small middle school in Far Rockaway is bursting with energy and ambition. Its diverse teaching staff puts a lot of energy into creating a cheery and relaxed learning environment. All students take a double period of humanities where they explore topics such as ancient civilizations. They also take a literacy class for more focused reading practice. Children participate in a "mastery" program on Friday afternoons that offers options such as African drumming, dance and martial arts. There's an honors track for faster learners.

STATEN ISLAND

IS 75 (District 31)

Why we picked it: Extra math instruction for all students, strong special education programs, low teacher turn-over

At this large, neighborhood school people are friendly and principal Kenneth Zapata knows the students well. It serves a broad range of students including many with special needs. Students in all grades have eight periods of weekly math instruction, more than typically offered in city schools. Eighth-graders who struggle with math or reading are assigned to small classes of 15 students. IS 75 was the first middle school on Staten Island to offer an ASD NEST program for high-functioning students on the autism spectrum. It offers a variety of learning settings for special needs kids and is pioneering a program where children in a self-contained class spend the day in a large well-equipped room with one teacher and learn life skills as well as academic subjects. The Scholars Program for high achievers has roughly 30 spots open to students boroughwide.

Marsh Avenue School for Expeditionary Learning (District 31)

Why we picked it: A friendly, vibrant school with lots of hands-on, interesting projects that tie in all subjects

This school is already a popular choice among Staten Islanders, but still worth a mention (and the long commute for many students) because it’s a friendly place that provides creative and sophisticated instruction to students of all skill levels. Delivering on its name, the school uses the Expeditionary Learning curriculum where students study topics deeply and across multiple academic subjects. Students in all grades participate in several, 12-week–long projects or “expeditions” each year that may start in one subject, such as science or social studies, and then carry over into other classes.  Research and writing are emphasized in all subjects and students are taught to organize their thoughts and write multiple drafts to achieve a polished final piece. To keep tabs on students’ needs, each teacher serves as an advisor to a small group of students called a “crew” and stays with the same crew for their three years at that school.

What hidden gems did we miss? Please share your finds in the comments below!

Last modified on Wednesday, 13 May 2015 08:00

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