P.S. 18 John Peter Zenger
BRONX NY 10451 Map
P.S. 18 John Peter Zenger
The windows could use a good washing and the lights could be brighter, but PS 18 has plenty of books and many attentive teachers, and the children mostly seem engaged in their work, particularly in the lower grades. The day of my visit, one class discussed the difference between free verse and poems that rhyme; in another, children wrote their own fairy tales; in a third, students read silently from books by award-winning authors such as Kevin Henkes, Patricia Polacco, and Leo Lionni.
Still struggling with its state designation as a "school in need of improvement," PS 18 has made slow but steady gains in recent years. In 2001, only 23 percent of the students met state standards in reading and 19 percent in math. By 2003, that figure had increased to 32 percent meeting standards in reading and 41 percent in math. Principal Donald Conyers says much of the credit for the improvement goes to the person he calls his "vice principal," Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, an assistant principal.
Worrell-Breeden, a Penn State graduate who worked as an assistant portfolio manager on Wall Street and came to teaching as a second career, worked as a classroom teacher and staff developer at PS 18 before becoming assistant principal in 2001. She has aggressively sought out money to provide extra training for teachers, including a major federal grant under the Comprehensive School Reform program of the U.S. Department of Education. She has recruited high-quality teachers (particularly from Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY) and offered them the professional support they need to perfect their craft. And, even though teacher turnover has long plagued schools in the South Bronx, "the people who I brought in are still here," Worrell-Breeden said. The administration has also taken steps to provide continuity in education. Kindergarten teachers move up with their children to 1st grade, so kids have the same teacher for two years. While many schools have a revolving door of substitutes when teachers are out sick, PS 18 has recruited as subs two regular teachers whom the children know well and who are always available.
The school still faces enormous challenges. About 60 kids transferred out under provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind act that allow children to leave schools designated as failing. PS 18 lost $70,000 in funding as a result. About 25 percent of the children live in homeless shelters. Nearly 40 percent of the 5th grade class has been held back at least once, and some children have been held back two or three times. Many students have chaotic home lives, and at least one girl was asleep at her desk the day I visited. (The assistant principal said the child stayed up very late at night and was "raising herself" in a household with 10 cousins and an inattentive aunt.)
Michele Nelson, a reading coach, suggested that children would benefit from more time spent reading with a teacher in a small group -- a sentiment echoed by others in the school. Following the city's mandated curriculum, PS 18 teachers offer this "guided reading" for 40 minutes a day. If each group has five children and each lesson takes 20 minutes, however, "not every child will get it every day," Nelson said. The rest of the instruction in reading is offered as a "mini-lesson" to the whole class, and independent "sustained silent" reading.
The gains at PS 18 are most apparent in the lower grades. In the upper grades, neither the teachers nor the children seemed to be as focused and engaged. But Worrell-Breeden is confident that the school's improvements will soon take root throughout PS 18. "We've only had these teachers for two years," said Worrell-Breeden. "Come see us in a couple more years."
Special education: PS 18 has "self-contained" classes just for children receiving special education services in kindergarten, 1st grade, 4th grade and 5th grade. However, 2nd and 3rd graders are assigned to another school because these classes were too small for PS 18 to sustain.
After school: Children receive academic help and sports instruction. (Clara Hemphill, April 2004)