P.S. 63 William McKinley
MANHATTAN NY 10009 Map
P.S. 63 William McKinley
P.S. 63 The William McKinley School, known also as S.T.A.R. Academy (Students Taking Active Roles), is a tiny, welcoming school in the East Village, that serves families who come from all over the world. A districtwide school of choice, it recognizes children for their talents, effort, and potential.
Building and location: P.S. 63 shares facilities, such as a nicely-designed library, with The Neighborhood School in a century-old, H-shaped building. Blue doors distinguish P.S. 63's classrooms, while the other school's are painted peach-pink. All classrooms have windows that let in plenty of natural light. The parent room was renovated to become a dance studio where students get weekly lessons.
School environment and culture: Unlike many elementary schools, in P.S. 63's main office, no long counter separates children or parents from school staff. Children seem comfortable approaching the parent coordinator, whose desk is in front of one of the office's entryways.
Right outside the main office, photographs of students hang alongside their "job" titles: "EMTs," who escort sick classmates to the school nurse; "recess buddies," kids assigned to be friendly faces to those without playmates; and "reporters," who make school announcements in classrooms; among others. One second-grade reporter spotted us gazing at this display, and promptly gave us a brief summary of the day's news.
Students interview for jobs, according to Principal Darlene Despeignes, who arrived in September 2007, because she believes it is "important to get children invested in the community." One of her goals is to build on the "welcoming environment" established by the former principal, Hibren Salazar, who helped Despeignes get acquainted with the school before retiring in October 2007., she said. As a result of the encouragement they receive, students are beginning to feel safe talking to adults and expressing themselves through their work.
Class sizes are small, and in almost every classroom, teachers were assisted by parent volunteers, student teachers, para-professionals and Academic Intervention Services teachers, making the adult-child ratio even more enviable. While the small size of the school is a positive, under-enrollment is also a problem: so few children attend that the administration sometimes needs to combine classes, such as kindergarten and first grade, and the school has a limited budget.
Teaching and curriculum: Because each grade has only 30 students on average, a couple of students with low test scores are enough to skew the school's performance data. As a result, P.S. 63 has struggled to push enough of their lowest-achieving students to meet state standards, particularly in English Language Arts, according to data reported by the Department of Education. To help with the problem, Despeignes has set up two teams of teachers to research strategies to help students at risk of not meeting the reading and math standards. The teams then give promising methods a six-week tryout, testing to see whether the approach was successful. Strategies that work are incorporated into the general curriculum. A staff developer from Teachers College also provides support.
Structured lessons and very clear instructions help students know exactly what is expected of them. For example, a kindergarten teacher asked her students to clearly repeat her request to bring their folders to the rug before allowing them to do so.
In a 5th grade class, 15 budding writers shared their descriptions of images projected on a screen. Many made references to slavery in reaction to an illustration of a small boat carrying a group of dark-skinned people; others described the scene in such vivid detail the actual image seemed unnecessary. "Anthropomorphism," "verbatim," and "hindrance" were some of the vocabulary words tacked on the class word wall.
Two boys sitting together showed us their work from another writing assignment. One had written eight pages of a fictional account of the American Revolution: "Eventually all the soldiers were dead. Their bodies laying down without movement...But then one soldier from each side got up. At first, she didn't recognize the British soldier but then she stopped cold..." His classmate, clearly impressed, eagerly flipped through the pages and voiced his intent to write a long story of his own. Despeignes explained that pairing the two boys effectively motivates one, who had struggled academically, to try and keep pace with the other.
By our visit in 2012, the school had redesigned the curricullum, particularly in math, offering more hands-on lessons and helping kids work towards conceptual understanding "We want them understanding it, not just solving it," the principal said.
Family participation: Parent Coordinator Alice Saavedra, whose own child graduated from P.S. 63, said that although most parents work long hours, they are willing to volunteer and participate in community-building events.
After school: A program run by The After-School Corporation (TASC), a nonprofit organization, offers cooking, dancing, gardening, community service and other activities. A hot meal is served at 3:00 p.m. daily. There is an enrichment club for grades 3,4,5 once a week for faster learners.
Admissions: Priority to District 1 residents.
Special education: As of our visit, P.S. 63 had one self-contained class and several collaborative team teaching (CTT) classes. In a CTT class, we observed kindergartners, including an autistic child born in Ukraine, playing math games in small groups. Speech, occupational, and physical therapies are provided in the building. The Hudson Guild runs an onsite mental health clinic.
English Language Learners: There is one ESL teacher. (Catherine Man, February 2009; updated Lydie Raschka, February 2012)