J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington
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J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington
The Booker T. Washington School (MS 54) is a sought-after, academically challenging school that sends many of its graduates to specialized high schools and other competitive schools such as Beacon and Bard. Students who thrive at the school are highly motivated, prepared to work hard, and arrive performing at or above grade level in English and math. The school admits high-achieving students from across District 3.
The school benefits from the longtime leadership of Elana Elster, the school’s principal since 2005. Elster oversaw MS 54’s transition away from being a school divided by programs serving very different student populations: the highly-selective Delta honors track and CORE, which admitted a broader range of students. These days MS 54 admits all students under the same criteria, which screens for strong overall academic performance, though many may arrive strong in one subject and average in another.
All students are taught the same curriculum and choose from the same range of elective and foreign language classes, though some vestiges of the old structure remain. Stronger students are assigned to Delta sections for humanities, math and science classes, while students identified as needing more support are grouped together in “academic” sections for those subjects. Regardless of class placement, any incoming 6th-grader identified as needing extra help in math attends early morning math clinics. “Our goal is to streamline foundation skills for 6th-graders,” said Elster. “The stronger all students start off with this, the faster we can get to higher level math.”
The academics are rigorous, but the overall vibe throughout the school is creative and relaxed. Teachers develop their curriculum in house, injecting a lot of creativity into lessons while doing a nice job of addressing basic skills and more complex work. In humanities classes, which cover both English and social studies, students take a three-year sequence in grammar. There’s a schoolwide spelling bee and the hallways are decorated with vocabulary words, brain teasers and Latin root words worthy of an SAT prep course.
Students also spend a lot of time on lengthy and creative projects. A humanities study on ancient civilizations includes time for students to create their own Spartan and Roman inspired armor and swords. Sixth-grade students demonstrate their understanding of integers by writing a reference guide that 4th-graders would understand, complete with explanations and practice problems. In science, 6th-graders craft three-dimensional replicas of cells out of materials of their choosing, such as cardboard, papier-mâché and household items.
Students in all grades participate in a science fair. “In 6th grade we walk students through each element of research carefully. By 8th grade they are doing it independently and have to write a research paper using secondary data,” said Elster. Students in all grades have at least one double session of science each week to allow time for experiments and lab work that are hard to complete in a traditional 42-minute period. By 8th grade, many students are taking high-school level math and science courses.
Beyond core academics, the school has a strong music program that includes instruction in band, string instruments and chorus. Sixth-graders rotate through instruction in all three areas and then either choose one to concentrate in for 7th and 8th grade or take other arts-related courses.
The school is housed in a three-story brick building a few blocks from the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. The cafeteria is small, which means students eat lunch in three shifts, one for each grade. There’s a library packed with books and staffed by a full-time librarian; the technology lab is filled with Mac Computers. The nurse’s office is a satellite of Ryan Community Health Center. Outdoor facilities include a row of outdoor basketball hoops and an attractive turf-coated athletic field large enough for soccer and softball (a rarity in Manhattan).
Students rotate through instruction in Spanish, French and Latin in 6th grade, and then concentrate in one of those languages or study Mandarin starting in 7th grade.
Harlem Children’s Zone Beacon Program runs a range of on-site afterschool activities.
Special education: Each grade has one self-contained and two integrated co-teaching classes (in the academic and Delta sections) plus SETSS.
Admissions: District 3. Admission information is available on the MS 54 website. (Laura Zingmond, March, 2014).