Innovate Manhattan Charter School
UPDATE JULY 2015: Innovate Manhattan Charter School closed its doors in June 2015, unable to recruit enough students to make it financially viable to continue, according to its board of directors. The school's enrollment fell to just 145 students in 2015, with only 29 in 6th grade, Chalkbeat NewYork reported.
2014 REVIEW: If Innovate Manhattan can get its act together it might be just the ticket for adventurous families who love the Lower East Side's progressive elementary schools. Under new leadership, and with input from hard-working young teachers, this Swedish-based model is blossoming into an interesting New York-Swedish hybrid.
Opened in 2011, Innovate sets out to help teens gain "tools for learning about learning," according to Principal David Penberg. This means students set goals and "plug in at their pace," while always being encouraged to stretch themselves. In addition to leading typical classes, teachers serve as "coaches" for about 14 students, helping them plan their schedules and set personal goals daily. Students reflect on their progress during individual weekly meetings with mentors.
It is this attention to the social and emotional lives of middle school teens that appeals to young teachers here, some of whom have left more rigid "no excuses" charter schools that they felt pushed too hard on academic achievement alone.
Unfortunately, Innovate Manhattan had a disastrous start, including a revolving door of principals in the first two years, and the loss of many teachers. Students said fighting was common and they performed very poorly on state reading and math tests in the spring of 2012.
In late December 2013, educational consultant Dr. David Penberg stepped in as principal, joined by Peter Katcher as assistant head. Together they have worked to earn the trust of an understandably wary community. Changes include an overhaul of the master schedule, more training and support for staff, and no more hoodies, hats, junk food or sassy language.
On our visit we spoke with teachers and students who said the atmosphere is safer and more orderly since the arrival of the new administration. What impressed us was the way teachers are infusing more rigor into the academic work. The 8th-grade math teacher, for example, meets with a small group of teens she felt were ready for Regents-level algebra, assuring them they are ready for it, even though some did not think they were.
The 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. school day includes typical subjects—English language arts, math and social studies—in small classes (labs) and about an hour and half of unstructured time to complete projects at their own pace (workshops), along with a weekly rotation of art, music and physical activity.
During an afternoon science workshop, we saw a group of four teens creating egg drops out of cups and coffee filters. A smattering of other children worked at tables by themselves to catch up on other work, while the teacher moved around to assist as needed. Students have about a 50/50 split of labs and workshops each week.
The only downside to the pretty modern space is that it lacks a gymnasium or outdoor playground. Students have physical education a few times a week in a room that doubles as a cafeteria at lunchtime. They also use an athletic field across the street and will soon participate in a community garden adjacent to the field.
The school's parent organization is the Swedish for-profit company Kunskapsskolan. Innovate is the first American school based on the KED program developed by Kunskapsskolan (roughly translated as "knowledge schools") that operates schools in Sweden, the UK and India. The program promotes a personalized approach to student achievement. Partnerships going forward also include Henry Street, Grant Street and Pace University, which will help to expand the school's science program.
Special education: Innovate had two certified special education teachers at the time of our visit. One quarter of the students receive special education services. It is wheelchair accessible. We saw some power point lessons the math teacher had created with input from the special education teacher, which had minimal text and clear bold graphics.
Admissions: Lottery. District 1 priority. Enrollment for 6th grade has a waiting list but there are spots in the upper grades (Anna Schneider, September 2012; updated by Lydie Raschka, April 2014).