I.S. 239 Mark Twain School for the Gifted & Talented
High academic achievement, strong talent program
Increasingly crowded with large class size
Long one of the city's most sought after middle schools, IS 239 Mark Twain offers demanding academics and a range of talent programs. The work showcased in halls and classrooms is consistently impressive, and many students clearly thrive at the school. But, even though Twain tries to nurture its students, some children may find the atmosphere too competitive and stressful.
While it has a reputation as a school for top students, Twain admits 5th-graders not on the basis of their standardized test scores but on their performance on a test or try-out in any one of 11 talent areas. These include vocal music, instrumental music winds, instrumental music strings, computers/math, creative writing, dance, drama, fine arts, media, physical education and science. The talent areas set the bar fairly high; many of those wanting to study an instrument, for example, come in knowing how to read music, although they may begin a new instrument at Twain.
Most students also have high tests scores, but not all do. Twain tries to support those struggling academically with an extra period of math or reading, tutoring and an after school test-prep program. Classes are heterogeneously grouped in 6th grade, then divide more in the higher grades, as some children do honors and more advanced work. The school offers the algebra, Earth science and living environment Regents exams, and all students take a proficiency test in Spanish or Italian.
Karen Ditolla, who became principal in 2011, says her goal has been to maintain the school's quality, "bring it to the next level" and modernize the building, a utilitarian structure dating back to the 1930s. Twain's library and auditorium have been renovated, and it is updating its science labs. She also has increased the use of technology in the school on a number of fronts, including an initiative to use iPads in 8th grade, modeled on a program at Staten Island Tech. All teachers have been given iPads.
The school is revamping its science program, partly in response to the Common Core learning standards, moving away from simple recall to more investigation and requiring students to write science essays. In English and math, Twain has adapted curriculums produced by textbook publishing giant Pearson to meet its needs. In English, teachers choose their own readings, and in math students do projects. Sixth-graders studying ratios design a park.
While academic classes generally are well-run and interesting, much of the energy at Twain comes from the talent areas. The classes we saw featured musical performances at a high level and teachers energetically engaging with students over robots and computers to teach them programming. Eighth-graders in the science talent take two science Regents exams but also spend time studying genetic DNA using actual samples. In the creative writing class, students prepared to write a work of historical fiction, having recently written a children's book and a young adult story.
Since losing some federal funding, Twain has increased enrollment, and classes tend to be large 36 to 38 students. Still, the school is orderly and clean. A cluster system breaks the population into groups of about 150 students.
Ditolla readily admits there is "a high level of competitiveness, stress and anxiety" at Twain, not only among students but among many of their families as well. She said school staff try to dial that down as much as they can and that telling parents their children will be ok has become her "mantra." There have been accounts of bullying, though the Learning Environment Survey indicates it remains less of a problem at Twain than at many other schools.
A parent told us 6th-graders get about a half an hour of homework a night. While the program is demanding, she said, teachers try not to overload the students.
Twain has an active PTA. On the day of our visit, three parents were sending out invitations to a fund-raising event marking the creation of a Twain Hall of Fame featuring prominent alumni. A large number of Twain students get admitted to specialized high schools, particularly La Guardia High School, Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant and Staten Island Tech. Many also go on to other screened schools, such as Midwood Medical Science Institute, Leon M Goldstein High School for the Sciences Edward R. Murrow and Bard High School Early College.
Admissions: Students from anywhere in New York City may apply by listing Mark Twain on their middle school application form and submitting a Request for Testing Form. All students try out for two of the 11 Talents. (Gail Robinson, March 2014)