PS 397 Spruce Street School
MANHATTAN NY 10018 Map
PS 397 Spruce Street School
Extended PK hours offered: No
Spruce Street School opened in 2009 to serve East Tribeca’s growing family community. In 2011 it moved to the first five floors of a dazzling skyscraper designed by architect Frank Gehry at 12 Spruce Street, after being housed for two years on the ground floor of Tweed Courthouse. At this location, Spruce Street will add middle school classes and span pre-kindergarten through 8th grade by the 2017-2018 school year.
Principal Nancy Harris, a former assistant principal at MS 345 Collaborative Academy of Science, Technology and Language-Arts Instruction, believes that learning is an “active process,” and that schools are the pillars of strong communities. Spruce Street has, for example, asked the staff at neighboring New York-Presbyterian Hospital to run CPR classes for parents. With area restaurants, it holds a “Taste of the Seaport” fundraising event. It also serves as a training ground for student teachers from Pace University, School of Visual Arts and New York University.
Children were unusually independent and purposeful in the classes we saw, which freed the teachers up to work with individuals and small groups. Social studies is a centerpiece, and some students said it was their favorite subject; a child said his class visited a synagogue in Chinatown as part of a unit on immigration. A couple of 5th-grade girls wrinkled their noses about what they called “confusing” math, but in fact Spruce Street has an excellent record in raising math test scores.
The core math session is 45-60 minutes, but math is taught “across the day,” according to the principal. Morning “tabletop” math games build problem-solving speed or help kids understand concepts that need work. “Number talk,” often after lunch, is geared toward helping children strengthen their ability to do “mental math”—computing in their heads. “From the very beginning we push kids to use accurate language,” in math, said Harris.
Students also are encouraged to do lots of reading and writing; writing notebooks line the windowsills, even in the science lab. Every child visits the lab twice a week to participate in studies of the teachers’ own design, such as a 1st-grade bird study and a 3rd-grade paleontology unit. Reports on classroom walls were refreshing for the fact that they were handwritten, had “voice” and highlighted ideas rather than gimmicky computer fonts.
As a group, the staff seems to place a high priority on generating meaningful discussion. A lower grade teacher sparked dialogue by teaching children to inject phrases like, “I agree …” or “Like Josh said …." During a discussion of the novel The Little Prince, a 5th grade teacher asked, “Can you thirst for things other than water?” A child answered, “You can thirst for invisible things, like friendship or love.” Another said, “You can thirst for power and money.”
Teachers use effective techniques to promote student independence. In a pre-k class, the teacher asked a child to dismiss his classmates to clay, blocks, dress-up and watercolor activities. Older classes take turns leading assemblies, and teach their peers how to stay safe in cold weather, or how to compost, among other topics.
The principal has a knack for tapping into the talents of her teachers, whether its moving a classroom teacher to the science room because of his passion for the subject, or asking a 4th-grade teacher to move up a year with his students to position them for a smoother transition to middle school.
Parents pay for dance lessons from the National Dance Institute and for a full-time librarian. They say that they appreciate the fact that they are invited into classrooms on a regular basis.
As the school grows, it remains to be seen how the middle school grades and pre-kindergarten classes will fit in the space provided.
Special education: Team-taught classes in some grades, mixing general education and special needs children with two teachers, one of whom has a degree in special education.
Admissions: Neighborhood school. There is one full-day pre-k that fills up with siblings of children who already attend the school. (Lydie Raschka, October 2014)