P.S. 344 AmPark Neighborhood School
Small, vibrant school with emphasis on long-term projects and social consciousness
No auditorium and a small yard, older children play at Van Courtlandt Park for more space
On a quiet residential street in Kingsbridge, Bronx, AmPark Neighborhood School is a lively, nurturing place known for its commitment to the environment, social consciousness and the arts. The school wears its progressive label proudly and believes children learn best by doing and engaging in issues that matter to themlike hatching and raising trout to release into the Hudson River Watershed or even advocating for a classroom democracy.
The school was started in 2006 as a joint effort between local parents and the Amalgamated Park Reservoir Cooperative Housing Project. AmPark is unzoned and kids hail from all over the Bronx. The student body is racially integrated and includes children from middle class families as well as those who qualify for free lunch.
Principal Christine McCourt Milton took over in 2012 from founding principal Elizabeth Lopez Towey (also founder of the Ella Baker School). Before coming to AmPark, Milton worked for 20 years in District 10 as a teacher, administrator and academic coach. Like her predecessor, Milton believes firmly in a whole child approach to education, nurturing a students mind, body and spirit. Children practice mindfulness every morning at breakfast and yoga every Monday, and teachers and students are on a first name basis. We wanted to create a feeling of family, but it never impacts respect, Milton said.
The lessons we saw were creative, and teachers seemed eager to think outside the box. In science, 4th-graders worked on comic strips about solids, liquids and gasses and had just finished an animal science unit. After studying ecosystems, students chose to focus on either desert or Arctic habitats and then created their own animals with particular features to help them thrive in that environment.
A 5th-grade class studying fantasy fiction watched a short animated film called The Girl and the Fox. Students listened spellbound as their teacher paused the film to discuss different symbols that are common in fantasy stories. One girl noted that the gray color of the villain reminded her of a cloudy day and gave the character a gloomy feeling.
The level of writing and conversation we saw was high. A 3rd-grade essay assignment focusing on social issues sparked a flurry of conversation and activity during our visit. One girl proudly shared her essay about advocating for free college. Meanwhile two boys collaborated on a topic close to home: putting an end to littering in residential sections of the Bronx.
In the younger grades, play is key and teachers take great pains to protect childrens ability to explore sand tables, build with blocks and act out storieseven in the testing age. There are ways to meet [Common Core] expectations without making everyone sit and do the same thing all day long, Milton said.
While most families are satisfied with the school, in learning surveys, a handful of teachers and parents called for more academic rigor. In response, Milton says the school has adopted Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for English language arts and has shifted its math curriculum from the more conceptually based Investigations program to skills-based Engage NY, which teachers supplement with math games and small group center work. The school has also hired a math coach. Fourth and 5th grades have departmentalized, meaning that teachers specialize in literacy/social studies or math/science, while students travel between classrooms for subjects.
The building, opened in 2011, is attached to neighborhood school PS/MS 95. It has brightly colored walls, large classrooms, a science lab, an art room, a music room and a library. There are full-time music and arts teachers and designated rooms for each. A small side yard has a rock climbing wall, a brand-new jungle gym and cushioned flooring. Older kids do need more space to play, however, so teachers and kids walk one block to the spacious Van Cortlandt Park playground every day, weather permitting. A multipurpose room serves as the gymnasium.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: The school offers ICT (integrated co-teaching) classes as needed and mixed-grade self-contained classes. The self-contained classes we saw were lively and warm, made up of a range of children with different needs, including many who were preparing to transition to ICT classes. There are two full-time SETSS teachers as well as speech, OT, PT and counseling.
ADMISSIONS: Families apply through the normal Department of Education kindergarten application process, but priority for AmPark is as follows: children living in Van Cortlandt Village/Kingsbridge Community Heights area, others in District 10, then to others outside the district. About 250 families applied for 50 general education kindergarten spots. (Aimee Sabo, May 2016)