J.H.S. 166 George Gershwin

Phone: (718) 649-0765
Admissions: No new admits
Neighborhood: East New York
District: 19
Grade range: 07 and 08
Parent coordinator: REGINA POWELL

What's special:

New no-nonsense principal; health clinic

The downside:

Closing because of poor performance

The InsideStats



Our review

JUNE 2013 UPDATE: IS 166 is being phased out and replaced after years of poor performance. No new students were admitted in September 2013, and the phase-out will be completed in June 2015. The DOE has proposed to open and co-locate a new district middle school in the building.

MAY 2011 UPDATE: IS 166 School is one of twenty-two schools that will receive Small Improvement Grant funding of up to $2 million to implement the “Restart” intervention model.  Each “Restart” school will be matched to a non-profit educational partner organization that will work closely with the principal and school community to implement a targeted improvement plan aimed at strengthening the curriculum, developing academic supports for students, and helping teachers improve practice.  These schools will remain open and a new class of students will be admitted next year.

APRIL 2005 REVIEW: Bordered by housing projects, busy streets, and a large park, IS 166 is housed in a large, piano-shaped building. Despite this configuration and its school namesake, composer George Gershwin, the school does not offer any music courses. It's just one shortcoming that Principal Maria Ortega, who arrived in 2004, hopes to address as she works quickly to revitalize the school. After all, she notes, there are already keyboards, clarinets, drums, and horns in the building.

Raised in Bushwick, a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, Ortega is a firm, no-nonsense administrator. She is determined to give her students in what has been a very low-performing and violent school an education equivalent to students living in middle class neighborhoods, if not better. During our visit, she stopped every child she passed, inspected the student's hall pass, and asked a few questions. While conversing in one room, the principal noticed a child walking down the hallway. "Get that kid," she told another adult. Firmly looking in the boy's eyes, the principal said, "One, you're on the wrong floor. Two, you have a hat on." The boy immediately removed his cap and explained why he was where he was. There are few excuses Ortega will accept from a student for not being in class.

Although Ortega is strict, students praise her efforts to make the rules clear and enforce them consistently. "The new principal changed everything. There are no more fights," said one student. "It's much better now." However, students also lamented that there are no warnings or detention for misbehavior, only parent phone calls. "I've been warning them since September," said Ortega. "There are no more warnings!"

The previous principal left in 2004, and Ortega quickly brought aboard a number of new staffers, including assistant principals, a new parent coordinator, guidance counselors, and truancy officers who make home visits if a child is absent. She also increased the size of the security guard force. In addition, Ortega introduced a number of activities for the students, including a program to help girls boost their self-esteem, a mentoring program for boys, and an early morning gym class to encourage children to come to school and do so on time. The results are positive. In just a few months the attendance rate went from 88 percent to more than 90 percent, according to Ortega.

Despite improvements, the school still faces significant problems. We saw children running in hallways and frequently heard doors slamming as well as loud arguments between students and faculty members. One irritated teacher slammed a door in a young girl's face, because she was standing in the hallway talking to a student in the classroom. The teacher apologized to an adult standing at the door saying, "that wasn't meant for you."

While classes were in session, an assistant principal yelled at students standing at the end of the hallway, and at another time yelled at students for using the pencil sharpener. "I'm sick of you guys coming down here all the time to sharpen a pencil," said the assistant principal. "Tell your teacher to invest in a pencil sharpener!"

A pencil sharpener, however, was not the only item in short supply at the school. Few classrooms had class libraries, and although there were computers in every classroom, keyboards were scarce. The art teacher purchased graphics software, keyboards, and paint with his own money.

A number of teachers had difficulty engaging their classes, so instead of listening, students we saw often read, chatted with friends, daydreamed, or slept. Ortega hopes to solve this problem with more training for teachers, including three, six-hour training sessions. She is also working with Medgar Evers College to provide courses for teachers.

Students take art once a week. The school also offers an on-site medical clinic, which provide free health services, including lab work, counseling, and dental care. The parent coordinator is working to create a parent community at the school. She has launched a PTA, which had 25 active members at the time of our visit, and more than 75 families attended a school movie night that she organized.

The school also plans to embark on a $5 million building renovation, while the park next door, which is used by the school, is slated to receive a $3 million upgrade.

English as a Second Language: About 30 English Language Learners leave their regular class for English instruction in a different room with an ESL teacher.

Special education: There are three "self-contained" classes for children who are emotionally disturbed or mentally retarded or have learning disabilities.

After school: The school offers tutoring and a snack Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday until 5:00 p.m., and on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m. A Beacon after-school program Monday - Friday until 9:00 p.m. provides additional tutoring as well as recreational activities. Children receive a snack and dinner. (Vanessa Witenko, April 2005)

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