MANHATTAN NY 10009 Map
The Earth School is a community-minded place where students garden and compost and explore the natural world. Parents gather in the lobby for coffee and treats on Fridays and are invited to the weekly Town Meeting, a showcase of student work and talent. When teachers discuss a child, they begin with the child’s strengths and brainstorm ways to use those strengths to boost the weaker areas. In recent years, the staff has made some minor adjustments to help students better prepare for standardized tests, but they have not compromised their commitment to progressive, child-centered education.
Community Open Work is a weekly period where children play, learn and explore during a less-structured time staffed by teachers or parent volunteers. They might build a solar oven with the science teacher or play soccer with a couple of dads. Science and art classes are held twice a week, but it can be hard to distinguish between the two: the walls are filled with lovely and detailed watercolors of pillbugs, snails and plants because the science teacher studied art. Kids get weekly dance and cooking classes. In warmer months, children tend fig trees and harvest beets, carrots, blueberries and herbs growing in big tubs outside the science room window. A rooftop garden will open in September 2012.
Classrooms are not grouped in a traditional way at the Earth School: grades 1 and 2 are mixed, as are grades 4 and 5. The school has one pre-K and three kindergartens. Third grade stands alone. General and special needs children are mixed with two teachers in grades 3 and 4/5 (one class per grade), and there are two small classrooms with only special needs kids in the upper grades. Children are not labeled or tracked into gifted classrooms, but sometimes they work in small groups according to ability in certain subjects. In every classroom, we saw more than one adult in the room (often three or four) to help manage small group instruction.
A full-time math teacher challenges top math students and helps those in need of extra support. A part-time technology teacher works with classroom teachers to develop assignments using the school’s many technology resources. Kids showed off websites they made during a unit on “Native Peoples and Lands.”
Three times a year teachers write in-depth narrative reports instead of giving grades. Struggling students get positive attention from a “support team,” comprised of all the adults that child will come into contact with – science, cooking, technology and classroom teachers, the principal, and a special educator. A group of children who need to boost writing skills, and who love cooking, might create a cookbook – and do lots of writing in the process. A girl who needs to memorize math facts might be asked to play math games with a younger child, which benefits both.
On our visit, we saw a self-contained class work with the 4th/5th grade class on a history project about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. The task was to compile a list of workers’ rights in small groups. Some children quickly filled a page while others labored over one sentence. These students come together for art and science too. The special educator said there have been social challenges in mixing the kids but mostly benefits. They ask about each other when they’re not together and want to know why they must sometimes learn apart.
A disappointing Progress Report in 2009-2010 from the Department of Education in forced staff to re-think the role of test prep, according to Principal Alison Hazut. Some exposure to testing is now sprinkled throughout the year instead of left to six or eight weeks before. Children learn to read and interpret short passages in addition to whole books because short passages are on standardized tests. “Words Their Way” helps build vocabulary and the youngest children combine movements and letter sounds in a program called “Sounds and Motion.” This has led to a “huge jump in writing,” according to staff developer Dyanthe Spielberg.
Students spend time in the gym once a week with their classroom teacher (there is no gym teacher). The school does not offer foreign language instruction.
Admissions: District 1 choice school, admission by lottery. Interested families must tour the school. (Lydie Raschka, January 2012)