P.S. 770 New American Academy
BROOKLYN NY 11212 Map
P.S. 770 New American Academy
Every weekday morning, teachers at the New American Academy huddle in small groups for 90 minutes before they face their students. Lessons are reviewed, critiqued, tweaked or rejected. A particular student's recent progress is discussed, and her assignments are adjusted. Teachers listen, debate, argue. At 9:30 a.m., when the 90 minutes are up, 60 kids (all of whom just ate breakfast in the cafeteria) walk into each large, open classroom. Four teachers split the 60 kids into smaller groups, and the task of educating young minds begins.
The core elements at New American Academy — large classes with multiple teachers given ample planning time and allowed to adjust lessons to fit student needs — comes from Shimon Waronker, the school's Harvard-educated headmaster. Waronker was an Army captain before he left the military, went into education and found himself principal of a troubled middle school in the South Bronx. His work turning around that school caught the attention of Joel Klein, and in 2010 Waronker opened New American Academy under special provisions that allow flexibility in setting teachers' salaries and work rules. (Although not a charter school, the school has many charter qualities, including uniforms and admission by lottery.)
New American Academy rejects the established educational model, which Waronker is quick to explain originated in industrial Prussia as a way to prepare children for factory work. (He calls it a "top-down system" based on "isolation, fear and control.") Money has poured into education yet student achievement remains flat, proof that a new approach is needed, Waronker said — particularly in neighborhoods such as Crown Heights, where many children enter kindergarten already behind grade level. "If we continue doing the same thing, we're going to get the same results," he said.
At New American, "master teachers" mentor younger faculty with varying levels of experience. The school doesn't assign homework, which Waronker said "becomes an unpleasant experience for both parent and child." He stresses "transparency," and he often allows parents to visit and observe classrooms. (He is also open about teacher salaries, which top out at $120,000 a year for master teachers.) New hires get a five-week training session in summer that includes a Myers-Briggs test to identify personality styles. Teachers stay with students as kids move from grade to grade, a process known as "looping." "Every September, we hit the ground running," Waronker said. "We know the kids, we know the families."
New American Academy is housed in a modern building that once exclusively belonged to P.S. 398. (The relationship is a bit contentious, largely because of New American's plans to expand annually. Officially slated to be a K-5 school, Waronker hopes to ultimately become a K-8.) Originally a senior center, the building has 2,000-square-foot rooms suitable for Waronker's 60-kids-per-class philosophy. Each room has bathrooms, a sink, ample natural light, computerized SmartBoard projectors, multiple learning areas and (in a nod to teacher empowerment) its own copy machine. Wide hallways lead to a cafeteria, auditorium, music room and outdoor play area — all decent by New York standards.
Students wear white shirts, red ties and blue sweaters. On the day we visited, most students seemed interested in their studies, and hands flew up in response to teacher questions. In one room, three teachers were addressing separate clusters of up to 20 students, yet the noise level was manageable (despite wide-open rooms that let sound travel easily). Smaller groups of four or five students were receiving special attention in reading or speech. Most teachers seemed to maintain order, although the more experienced teachers were better at keeping control or regaining the attention of a fidgety 1st-grader.
Waronker admits mistakes have been since New American opened in 2010. The first year, he hired too many brand-new teachers who couldn't control a class full of 5- and 6-year-olds. Plans to teach both Spanish and French in a "trilingual" setting were scaled back when he couldn't find a French teacher with early childhood experience. (Spanish is still being taught, and the school hopes to add French in the future.) The school originally accepted all students, but now does not accept certain special-needs children who require a high degree of individual attention the school can't provide. Waronker also regrets inviting a New York Times reporter to visit after the school was open just one month; her article led to criticism that the noisy school was merely retrying the "open classroom" experiment tried and rejected in the 1970s.
Waronker points out that the old "open classroom" didn't include teaching teams and other innovations. Master teacher Beth DeAngelis said she appreciates the ability to make immediate adjustments without first obtaining the consent of a busy assistant principal. "You take care of things pretty quickly," DeAngelis said.
Special education: Students with special needs are taught alongside other students. Each large classroom is technically an ICT class because of the presence of multiple teachers. Traditional ICT classes feature at least two teachers, one of whom is certified to teach special education.
Admissions: New American Academy accepts students by lottery, with preference given to children in District 17. (Skip Card, March, 2012)