P.S. 81 Robert J. Christen
BRONX NY 10471 Map
P.S. 81 Robert J. Christen
Riverdale's PS 81 is often called "a suburban school in an urban area," a complimentary nod to the institution's lovely campus, dedicated teachers, nurturing atmosphere and involved parents. Here, a diverse population of kids from the leafy northwest corner of the Bronx coexists within a neighborhood elementary where educators seek to challenge all students, from the academically gifted to those needing remedial help.
"It's a school that is driven by the needs of the child," said Principal Anne Kirrane, a veteran educator. Kirrane was assistant principal at PS 81 for nine years before taking over in October 2012 after longtime principal Melodie Mashel was promoted to district superintendent.
Kirrane has kept in place most of the same programs as her predecessor and she works to make parents feel welcome. "We feel they are our first teachers," she said. "If we don't have that home-school connection, there's a piece missing." Kirrane arrives at 6:30 a.m. each day to be available to anyone with concerns, and "Coffee With the Principal" workshops held twice a month help parents learn how to incorporate classroom lessons into daily family life.
PS 81, the Robert J. Christen School (although few call it that), is housed in a stately 1925 Georgian structure made from fieldstone and red brick. Brightly decorated classrooms have high ceilings and tall windows that let in ample natural light, and the gym, auditorium, library, lunchroom and outdoor play areas are all large and enviable. The original structure has been enlarged, yet the school is so full of students that the building lacks separate music, art or science rooms (although it preserved a small planetarium in the basement where students can study the cosmos).
The school's population includes students from a wide variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds. PS 81's zone include the posh Fieldston neighborhood, which as some of the most expensive homes in the Bronx, although families living there often send their children to private schools. Some PS 81 students are new immigrants, although the number of students who need help learning English is relatively small. Test scores indicate about two-thirds of students meet or exceed state academic standards -- a respectable showing, especially compared to other Bronx schools. Still, DOE evaluations of the school cite merely average student progress.
Kindergartners are taught in large classrooms, each with a sink and nearby bathroom. After a year of assessment, teachers select 25 to 30 of the brightest kindergartners for the school's accelerated program, which begins in 1st grade. Assignments in the accelerated program often require students to do more in-depth work, and lessons move at a faster pace. If any student at the school needs extra help, the school offers tutoring both before and after class.
The study of art is woven throughout all grades' curriculums, often in innovated ways. Geometry lessons have included studies of the angles and lines in Pablo Picasso's cubism, or the mosaic patterns of M.C. Escher's complex mosaics. "Research has shown that if children are kept engaged and have art, they will move in leaps and bounds in all areas," Kirrane said. Several arts organizations regularly visit the school to provide instruction in dance and theater.
Spanish is taught in all grades. All kids get a daily snack break, and all grades visit the gym and library at least once a week. Writing assignments often emphasize diligent research, rough drafts, self-assessment and constant revisions. When we visited in spring 2013, the math curriculum was being revamped to better fit the Common Core standards.
Faculty often have at least ten years of teaching experience, and staff turnover is low. Most classes have at least one student teacher, many from nearby College of Mount St. Vincent.
Special education: Each grade features at least one Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classroom, where students with special needs are taught alongside general-education students in rooms featuring at least two teachers, one of whom is certified to teach special education. The school also has three self-contained classrooms for students with more severe special needs. Students in these classes might spend all day in a self-contained setting, or may rotate in for help with specific areas in which they are struggling academically.
Admissions: PS 81 is open only to students living in its zone. (Skip Card, May 2013)