P.S. 53 Bay Terrace
STATEN ISLAND NY 10308 Map
P.S. 53 Bay Terrace
With its well-kept homes -- basketball hoops in driveways, plaster bunnies in front gardens -- and wide streets, Bay Terrace feels like suburban New Jersey. Its school, built in 1966, has the same vibe: Bright murals decorate its walls, and the main office, painted pink and purple, showcases a display of shoebox dioramas, lovingly constructed replicas of kindergartners' favorite places: the zoo, the mall, the museum, and Dunkin' Donuts.
Annette Esposito, who taught in the school for 14 years and served as assistant principal for five, became principal in 2003, the year Mayor Bloomberg dismantled the Board of Education, as part of his broad educational overhaul efforts. During our visit, she praised certain of the mayor's innovations, like allowing principals greater control of their budgets and introducing "fabulous" math and literacy coaches, who help teachers carry out the new math and reading curriculums. Although PS 53 is one of 209 high-performing schools exempt from curriculum mandates, Esposito is adopting its key features, namely a progressive-leaning approach to teaching reading, writing, and math.
Directing the school's finances allowed Esposito to decrease class size dramatically -- from a high of 38 in years past to 15 to 18 in the lower grades and 24 to 26 in grades 4 and 5, she said. After years of tracking students by academic ability, the school now mixes students in "heterogeneous" class groupings. Some teachers say that teaching mixed-ability classes makes it harder to identify and address kids' problems, but most have now adapted to the new model.
A sense of community is strong at the school. Some teachers have been on staff for decades, among them the pre-K instructor, who is now teaching some of her former students' children. The school strives to build a child's sense of responsibility and maturity. For example, with three lunch periods in the school's small but clean cafeteria, 5th graders eat with kindergartners. "The big kids look out for the little ones," said Assistant Principal Dean Razzore, underscoring the sense of family and community that characterizes this school.
While teachers raved about smaller classes, some said the rigors of near-constant test prep and the "balanced literacy" approach to teaching reading (it combines aspects of "whole language" -- sight-reading -- and phonics, or sounding out words) could limit their creativity. "I like to take off with my own ideas," said one teacher. Test preparation is a major focus -- fourth-graders work on math prep with their cluster teacher weekly, and turn to social studies in spring, after the math exam. The effort invested pays out in the school's high scores.
Collaboration is key, said Razzore. Every week, teachers on a common grade share a prep period to plan lessons and discuss curriculum with the school's literacy and math coaches. Mentoring is ongoing and informal. "We're like one family, we all work together," said Razzore. "We're in each other's homes as much as we're at our houses." Students come to the school from the local neighborhood as well as from Coast Guard, Army, and National Park Service families stationed at Fort Wadsworth.
Teaching at the school is lively, warm, and hands-on, from owl-pellet dissections to "how do I prove it?" math lessons. Hallways and classrooms burst with student-made art. The music teacher coordinates two school choruses (for 2nd/3rd and 4th/5th graders) and teaches recorder to 3rd graders, while the school librarian oversees the production of a student literary magazine. Art and other specialty teachers roll their overhead projectors or portable keyboards from classroom to classroom to meet with students.
One of nine schools chosen to pilot Staten Island's new "gifted and talented" schoolwide enrichment programs, PS 53 will offer one hour a week of enrichment to students in grades K, 2, and 5 -- the low-testing-pressure years. Some privately expressed disappointment that the program doesn't focus on acceleration and academic challenge, but acknowledged the benefits of school-wide enrichment.
Special education: Administrators and teachers said that the school's "Plus" program, which integrates 115 special-needs kids with general education students in mainstream classrooms, is one of its strongest assets. This "inclusion" learning is "the wave of the future, especially in early education," said one teacher. There's a Plus class on every grade, with two teachers and aides. Competing special education demands now threaten the program's early grades and could isolate or marginalize these bright, special-needs kids. "They have a right to be in a mainstream classroom all day," said Esposito. She and two lead teachers have allied to ask the region to preserve the program. After school: Programs include once-a-week workshops run by the teachers in dance, art, sports, and music, and a fee-for-service latchkey program. (Helen Zelon, March 2005)