M.S. 324 Patria Mirabal
MANHATTAN NY 10032 Map
M.S. 324 Patria Mirabal
JANUARY 2006 REVIEW: Located in the colorful and modern building that formerly housed IS 90 in Washington Heights, MS 324 benefits from the leadership of an experienced principal. Principal Janet Heller, who was the principal of IS 90 for three years before it was divided into the three schools, is a friendly and dynamic leader whose sense of humor tempers her no-nonsense approach toward fulfilling the school's mission: to prepare students for "college, work and citizenship." When a student walks into school late, Heller requires him (or her) to hold a plastic plant that sings a child's song, an embarrassing ordeal that she says cuts down on problems. "It gets my point across without yelling," she said, underscoring her leadership style.
Heller requires serious commitment from students and parents. Students are in the building from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., teachers often stay until 8 p.m., and students "dress for success" in white shirts and blue pants. Heller takes a hard line against parents taking their children out of school for extended vacations, a problem that plagues many schools in the area because of their high population of students from the Dominican Republic. (She tells parents they must withdraw their children when they leave and re-enroll them when they return holding out the implied threat that there may not be a spot for them when they come back.) The result is an attendance rate that is the highest of the three schools in the building and an obvious energy in the school's halls.
Heller demands a lot of her teachers as well. Although many teachers come to the school through programs such as Teach for America that require them to commit to only two years in the classroom, Heller hires only those who promise to stay at least one additional year, allowing them to teach the same students for all three years of middle school. This practice builds community and cuts down on wasted time at the beginning of each year because students and teachers already know each other, Heller said.
Teachers' commitment comes through in the classrooms. In a 6th grade math class, a "word wall" not only had new terms posted on it, but also their definitions, arranged in a way that required students to make the connections on their own. In a 7th grade literacy class, the teacher talked about her recent favorite book, Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation, and read aloud a few pages from a Toni Morrison picture book about desegregation, to give examples of how nonfiction can be inspiring. The school's art teacher brings topics from academic classes into her projects, for example by having 6th graders work on art projects about mummification when they studied ancient Egypt in social studies. For the most part, we saw students who were alert and engaged.
Despite its strong efforts, the school grapples with the challenges of having a large population of students for whom English is not their first language. In a 7th grade literacy class, students filled out a worksheet comparing the similar-sounding words "our" and "are." Some students flew through the assignment, but others seemed genuinely stumped. For struggling students, "immediate intervention is built into all the teachers' programs," Heller said, adding that the school is best at moving its large number of students with low test scores up to the next performance level. In addition, the school offers bilingual classes with the goal of giving students "true fluency in both languages," she said.
The school is much more than all work and no play. Some of the classrooms have an elementary-school feel, with colorful rugs and comfortable chairs creating a cozy space for reading and socializing. Book baskets in extensive classroom libraries are labeled with whimsical themes, such as "kids who write," "confident girls," and "bright boys." The school also boasts an extensive after school program, in which students can act in a Shakespeare play or learn to build bicycles.
Parent involvement is important to accomplishing the school's goal for high school admission: to "move kids out of zoned schools" and into specialized high schools and high-quality small schools, Heller said. The school begins preparing students for high school admission in 6th grade with a well attended parent workshop. All students are given computers for their homes, and parents are taught how to use and maintain them. Parents are "in the school all the time," Heller said, and indeed, we saw a parent stop by to express concern about a book students were reading in which a main character is a drug addict. Every Friday night the school holds some kind of function, from "Family Fling" nights when parents and students play games and dance, to academic workshops that draw as many as 50 parents. For a health and fitness workshop, the school brought in a boxer from the Dominican Republic to offer a demonstration.
After school: The school's extended-day program meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Students are divided by interest and skill level into small groups that focus on activities ranging from chess and music to robotics and model car construction.
Admission: Neighborhood school. Students come from three feeder schools: PS 8, 153 and 173. Other students from District 6 may apply through the region. (Philissa Cramer, January 2006)