Central Park East II
Manhattan NY 10029
Progressive education with an experienced leader
Space is tight in lower school in shared building
Central Park East II is a cheerful progressive school that values exploration and discovery. Teachers go by their first names and prize democratic relations. They crouch down to meet kids at eye-level, and chat easily with their principal, Naomi Smith. Children are encouraged to speak up, think for themselves and pursue their own interests.
The school has an eclectic approach to lessons and teachers are equal partners with the administration in making decisions. "We have no gurus here," said Smith, who has been in the New York City public school system since 1982 and taught many grades. The staff meets on Monday afternoons for two hours to plan and go over children's work. Teachers work with language and math coaches to deepen their practice.
In grades pre-k to 5, the day begins with "work time," during which children select an area of the room to explore. (It's called "project time" in middle school.) They may construct a house with blocks, try a cooking project or write a play.Teachers find ways to challenge top students while giving struggling kids the support they need. The level of writing varies and some of it is of high quality. Avid readers tackle fiction, nonfiction, comic books and other genres. Children are divided into ability groups for math using a core of Engage NY lessons, "adapted to our needs," said Smith. In one, we watched kids rapidly jot down expressions for the number of the day (i.e., 74 = (40 x 2) - 6) using "mental math." In the next room, children used plastic counters to work through the same process.
Classrooms have a healthy buzz of movement and talk. Science takes place in the classroom with a science teacher up to twice a week. The lesson we saw was happy, verging on boisterous, as kids placed plastic cubes on balance scales, with the assistance of four roaming adults.
Many families opted out of taking state tests in 2015, including the entire 5th-grade class, and test results are not a great concern for Smith: "We do pretty well on tests," she said. "It varies how many take the test each year," she added.
CPE II is creative with its physical education requirements to give kids new experiences and skills: The youngest grades ice skate weekly, 2nd-graders swim and 3rd-graders play tennis. Grades 4, 5 and 6 visit Taconic State Park camp, and everyone has gym at least once a week. Children bundle up and play outside even in cold weather, but a child who prefers to stay inside may be allowed to do so.
The school occupies one floor of PS 171, a larger school with a more traditional bent. Space is tight since CPE II has more than doubled since it opened, and this presents an ongoing problem that the community is wrestling to solve. Some kids eat lunch early; some offices are tucked in closet-size rooms.
CPE II was founded in 1981, modeled after its sister school, CPE I. It expanded to include middle school in 2015. The middle school is located four blocks away and co-located in a building with PS 108. Smith frequently consults her cell phone to keep in touch and visits daily. A few elementary school teachers moved up to 6th grade to provide continuity and exude a can-do spirit that inspires confidence.
There were two 6th-grade classrooms at the time of our visit, each with 21 children, comprising a range of skills, from several children who were previously in a small, 5th-grade "self contained," special education class to independent high-achievers, said Smith. Some children are pulled out for small group math lessons with the likable music teacher who doubles as a math coach and art teacher.
The classrooms have a homey feel with plants and homemade posters. Two teachers combine science and humanities in an environmental study in partnership with Welikia. Students make three trips to Randall's Island to study oysters and monitor a classroom aquarium with oysters.
One downside: The middle school lacks a regular custodian and parents have had to pitch in to help keep bathrooms clean.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: In the lower school about one-fourth of the population has special needs and there are many teaching assistants to help them. At least one class per grade integrates children with special needs and two teachers in the lower and middle schools.
ADMISSIONS: CPE II invites families to visit first to help them understand its progressive stance. Pre-k and kindergarten classes fill up with younger siblings and District 4 families in general, Smith said. If interested, "Be a squeaky wheel but not too squeaky," she said. Middle school priority goes to continuing 5th-grade CPE II students, then CPE I students, then District 4 families. (Lydie Raschka, January 2016)