J.H.S. 226 Virgil I. Grissom
QUEENS NY 11420 Map
J.H.S. 226 Virgil I. Grissom
MS 226, the Virgil L. Grissom School, is so large that it has two principals, and, with a population that has topped 2,800 in recent years, it is bigger than most high schools. Alarmed that overcrowding had contributed in the 2002-03 school year to a few instances of students assaulting teachers and kids getting knocked down in the hallway crush between classes, some teachers threatened to walk off the job. In response, regional superintendent Kathleen Cashin assigned a second principal and six assistants to establish a calmer tone in the building and to introduce the new citywide curriculum. The administrators appear to work well together and we noted a congenial tone between adults in the building.
We visited on parent-teacher conference day, when the school was in session only until about noon and most teachers were using the time to help students prepare for upcoming citywide standardized tests. We could not, therefore, see typical classrooms in action, but we were able to tour the sprawling building and the newer annex for the 6th graders.
Assistant principals and deans monitor the floors and classrooms with the help of surveillance cameras and added guards. Enrollment is down from its record high and schoolyard trailers that once were classrooms now serve as in-house suspension centers.
Teachers told us about a "phenomenal chorus" that regularly performs at music festivals, including one at Disney World in Florida, a successful band and drama programs as well as a "stepping" team that took first place among 10,000 competitors in a tri-state competition. About 40 students - two-thirds of them girls - participate in a budding military cadet squadron affiliated with the US Air Force Auxiliary, the first program of its kind in a New York City public middle school. The squadron meets on Friday afternoons for drills and marches in the hallway. The head of the program, a longtime teacher at the school, says it "gives the kids some discipline and focus" and provides "moral leadership." Some students go on to participate in a similar program at August Martin High School.
But the main focus at the school, classified by the state as "in need of improvement," is "getting scores up," said Assistant Principal Nancy O'Dwyer, who showed us around. This task has become more difficult with recent rezoning, because, according to Principal Sonia Nieves, "all the lower functioning schools" now feed into MS 226. The result is that the number of entering students whose skills fall seriously short of what they should be has quadrupled. Still, staff members express confidence that Nieves, who grew up in the neighborhood and her co-principal, Robert Anastario, are up to the task. "She's the best thing that has happened to the school in years," one administrator told us.
The new citywide curriculum requires teachers to oversee cooperative classroom projects, and many teachers used to more structured lessons have found this method a challenge. However, after what Nieves called a "mass exodus" of teachers in 2003, 35 new teachers were hired and trained in the new curriculum, and "kids seem enthusiastic and excited" about it, she said.
We saw examples of the kind of reading and writing lessons given. Among other things, kids had created envelopes on which they described books they had read, paying careful attention to select the appropriate adjectives. An organizing technique called "4 square writing," shows kids how to collect ideas and turn them into stories. The technique is also used in math class. The entire school incorporates a "skill of the week" into lessons - the week of our visit it was "inferences."
Sixth graders, who stay with the same teacher for most of the day, benefit from a strong group of new teachers in the bright, colorful annex. An honors program called ARP, short for Advanced Regents Program, enables top students to get high school credit in math and science.
Because of the school's lagging academic performance, students were eligible to transfer out under the regulations of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Some 200 students left for the 2003-'04 school year, but many came back because of problems in traveling to far-away schools, Nieves said.
After-school: There is tutoring in math and English, and a recreational program called Beacon, which keeps the building open to the community six days a week, on weekends, during school holidays and during the summer. (Pamela Wheaton, February 2004)
NOTE: Robert Anastasio retired as principal in July 2005, according to the Department of Education.