PS/IS 89 Cypress Hills
Unzoned dual language program
Low test scores
PS/IS 89 has the only school-wide dual language program in District 19 and it accepts students from all five boroughs beginning in pre-kindergarten. Almost all students stay through the 8th grade. The school moved into a brand new building in 2010, allowing for some much-needed space but not enough to expand the popular pre-kindergarten program, which has a long waitlist. The building includes a greenhouse where students learn about hydroponics, aquaponics and composting with worms.
Students are instructed for five days in one language, switching to the other for the next five days. Textbooks come in both English and Spanish, as do the many fun-to-read books in classrooms and in the well-stocked library. Most teachers have more than ten years' experience and almost all speak Spanish.
The tone of the school is supportive, respectful and caring, and we were impressed that both children and staffers laughed a lot, while staying focused on their work. Class sizes are small, between 18 and 20, ensuring individual attention.
The students at PS 89 boast a terrific attendance record, perhaps because of the school's unusually high level of parent involvement. A group of activist parents founded the school in 1997 in collaboration with Cypress Hills Local Development Corp, a community housing program, and with the help of the Manhattan education group, New Visions for Public Schools, which is led by a parent and an educator.
Parents accompany children on field trips to the Bronx Zoo, the New York Hall of Science and join them for family arts nights and other events. "It's really important for our parents to experience what the students experience firsthand," said longtime principal Irene Leon, a former teacher at the school and a lead designer of its dual language program.
When parents and other groups founded the school, they hoped it would be an alternative to the other low-performing district schools. Unfortunately, so far the school's reading and math scores have been disappointing. One contributing factor to the low scores may be the school's primarily English Language Learner population.
The principal said it takes 6-10 years to master another language and that the Common Core tests don't reflect their understanding and thinking as a whole. To add to the challenge, the middle school absorbs some new immigrants who have had interrupted education, she said.
She prefers to mark progress on the New York State Language Aptitude Test (NYSLAT), and has been pleased to see that many students jump a level as they move from 7th to 8th grade.
The school uses Expeditionary Learning, which immerses children in learning new words, and an ESL (English as a second language) teacher is paired with a humanities teacher to address special language needs. Students learn through class discussions and activities, not lectures. We saw engaging teachers act things out and use expressive voices to help children understand. Kindergartners vocalized words as they formed letters: "I am in the park," said a boy, quietly, as he put down letters that sounded right.
In a middle school class, teachers expertly moved their students from a short whole class lesson into a small group mix-it-up activity on Vietnam, where they had to sequence a series of statements about the war and draw inferences from historic photos.
The few children whose first language is English seem to do fine here; we saw strong Spanish writing samples by a 3rd-grader who spoke only English when she entered in kindergarten. Unfortunately, rising rents have resulted in some families moving further out to areas like Howard Beach.
One downside: The tiny outdoor play yard is reserved for the youngest children. The older ones must play in the gymnasium.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: For students with special needs, the school provides both self-contained classes and co-taught classes, in which one of two teachers is certified in special education.
ADMISSIONS: Unzoned with preference for families from district 19. Students living outside the neighborhood must provide their own transportation. About 15 spots open in 6th grade because of larger class size in middle school and roughly three spots open in other grades each year. (Lydie Raschka, October 2015)