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Founding Principal Doris Lee holds Village Academy to the same standards she seeks for her own children who attend New York City public schools. "Literacy is key," she says. All students take a double period of Humanities where they explore ancient civilizations. They also take a literacy class for more focused reading practice. Parents are also key, according to Lee, and this accounts for the school's name, based on the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child." Letters go home with tips on how parents can be involved, such as using flashcards to reinforce new math words. Parents are invited to workshops and celebrations.
Lee's enthusiasm is infectious. You believe her when she says: "It's cool to be smart and behave." She knows every child's name, and parents have her personal cell phone number. She previously taught at JHS 57 in Bedford-Stuyvesant where she had success with students with special needs. Referring to her students' achievement on state standardized exams, she said, "[my 6th-graders] came in at a Level 1 and left at Level 3...100 percent made progress." At Village Academy, students from a small special education classroom have moved into classrooms with general education students. English Language Learners also get special attention. On our visit we saw a teacher using a microphone because Lee said research has shown it helps with listening and behavior.
Students said they like the way lessons are tied to "the things going on today," like human rights and animal extinction. Teachers bring newspapers to class. "Newspapers help us see what's going on," said a student. In a Humanities class, children sat at tables in small groups, each learning about different aspects of Egyptian life. The teacher asked them to think about how life in Ancient Egypt impacts life today.
Overall, the staff at Village Academy has less experience than at most schools, because it's hard to lure teachers to the margins of the city. Still, most of the teaching looked quite good, perhaps because school leaders have such a clear vision. And the staff is nicely diverse.
All children participate in a "mastery" program on Friday afternoons. Choices include African drumming, dance and martial arts. Football and basketball are offered after school. Students may apply to an honor's track for faster learners. Twenty-six are in the honors 8th grade Integrated Algebra class.
Security is tight at the front entrance of the building, which unfortunately looks like a prison, but was built to withstand earthquakes. Village Academy is on an upper floor and has cheery yellow walls with blue trim. "It's safe," said a 6th grade parent, "it's like a second home."
A possible downside, depending on your point of view, is the emphasis on rewards and incentives. Staff hand out "VA bucks," (fake money) for good behavior and attendance. Students cash them in for small items or to attend events like ice-skating or a dance. One could argue it is the positive relationships between students and staff that are making the most difference. "Everyone just takes ownership," said Lee. "Our students have the same issues that all middle school children have. Everyone goes above and beyond."
The guidance counselor meets with every 8th grader to discuss high school. "We like small high schools for our kids," she said. "We don't want them to get lost." Thirty students took the test in 2011-12 for one of the eight specialized high schools for very bright kids. Tutoring is available to prepare for this test.
Special education: There are Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classes on every grade, which mix special and general needs students with two teachers.
Admissions: Village Academy shares the MS 53 zone. Students can express a preference between the two schools. (February 2012, Lydie Raschka)