Manhattan NY 10009
Rooftop garden, great arts and science, committed parents
Small school means small budget and little administrative support
At the Earth School, children grow vegetables for the cafeteria on a rooftop garden and farm, tend to a fig tree in the yard, and learn to compost scraps and recycle. Through hands-on arts and science projects, they learn to be good citizens and stewards of the planet.
Parents bring their children to the classroom each morning and are welcome throughout the day. On our visit, the Parents Association room was buzzing: three dads and several moms put together folders for a prospective parent tour, planned the school auction and carried in risers for a graduation ceremony. Parents may attend weekly Town Hall meetings and chat with one another at coffee Fridays.
Abbe Futterman, a science teacher who has been at the school since its founding in 1992, became principal in 2014. On our visit, we were impressed by the quality of teaching and the high level of engagement of the students. The school devised its own discipline code, taking into account social-emotional needs, and was given a Respect for All award from the city in 2016 for offering a safe and supportive environment.
Most classes mix children of different ages: Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten are grouped together, as are 1st-2nd and 4th-5th grades. Only 3rd grade is a stand-alone year. Teachers say they get to know children well because they have them for two years. And students feel comfortable in the room, making for a smooth transition. The grouping also means older children get the chance to be elders and may help younger ones, the principal said. Many of the classrooms have at least two teachers. Older children are separated by grade for math.
Social studies projects may last an entire year, such as the 4th-5th grade study of immigration. Children visited Ellis Island, the Tenement Museum and Museo del Barrio to learn about immigration movements in the past as well as todays migrants from war-torn countries such as Syria. Children were asked to zero in on individual immigrant stories, and to tell a persons story with a drawing, poem or map.
Many art projects incorporate science, social studies and even math. A detailed mural and timeline about the lead in the water in Flint, Michigan took up much of a corridor. In another project, 1st- and 2nd-graders took field trips around the city, interviewed community workers and made models of landmarks from cardboard and papier mch.
Classrooms are large, full of light and plants. Theres a full-time cooking teacher and a room dedicated to cookinga great hands-on way to learn math. The smell of gingerbread baking filled the corridors on our visit.
The huge gymnasium is shared with the other two schools in the building; parents pay for the coaches because there isnt a budget for a physical education teacher. The coaches focus on gender inclusion and body image as well as sports. Pre-k students go regularly to nearby Tomkins Square Park for recess and play.
The Earth School has long had a mix of children of different income levels and races, and the school community is determined to maintain that even as the neighborhood gentrifies, Futterman said. A school down the block shouldnt be all black and brown kids while were a pretty good mix, she said. Were trying to make sure that there is access for all. In 2015, the city allowed the Earth School to set aside 45 percent of its seats to students learning to speak English and those who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The Earth School staff and parents have been in the forefront of the movement to opt out of state tests for 3rd- to 5th-graders. In 2015, more than half of the students did not take the state exams. Most people opt out because they are against what standardized tests do for education as a whole, said Futterman. There is minimal prep for the exams. We feel kids are well-prepared because we teach the material that is being tested, she said.
The schools small size is an asset, because everyone knows everyone, but also a drawback, because fewer pupils means a smaller budget. The principal is the only administrator and there are no staff developers or coaches. Both classroom teachers and the principal said they would welcome more support.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: There is at least one ICT classroom on most grades with two teachers. Small group support is offered to all students.
ADMISSIONS: Lottery, District 1. Preference to siblings. There is sometimes space for out-of-district students in the upper grades, although not in pre-k or kindergarten. Forty percent of kindergarten seats are set aside for children with limited English proficiency or those who qualify for free or reduced lunch. (Pamela Wheaton, March 2016)