J.H.S. 234 Arthur W. Cunningham
Large neighborhood school serves a diverse population well
Building interior needs an upgrade, budgetary woes since school lost Title 1 money
Located in a fenced off cul de sac across the street from an elementary school, IS 234 Cunningham is one of the largest middle schools in the city. It has resisted the trend to break up into themed academies, instead positioning itself as a school that has something for everybody: high achievers, techies, special needs kids and the 10 percent of the population that is still learning to speak English.
"We take pride in the fact that we are an all-purpose school," said Susan Shaeffer, the longtime principal. "We serve all children and we're still able to maintain a high level."
Consistency in staff and administration helps set the tone at this community school where Shaeffer has been since 1988 as a teacher, assistant principal and principal. "It's all about the staff working together, having good routines and structure in the school," she said. "The more engaged kids are, the less conflict."
In some ways, it's an old-fashioned place where 6th graders learn Latin, boys and girls sit separately in the cafeteria, and kids go out for recess, and there's an annual Halloween dance. It's also forward thinking with an emphasis on technology. Children learn to program and build robots. An after school MOUSE squad repairs the school's computers. There are no uniforms and students run the gamut in attire from purple hair and ripped jeans to head scarves, and modest dress from Jewish students who transfer in from nearby Yeshivas.
In addition to the zoned program, there are two gifted programs: the district's Center for Intellectually Gifted (CIG) and the school's Vanguard program, plus Cyber Academy a program with a focus on technology.
Particular strengths are math and science. About 60 percent of 8th graders take high school Regents classes in algebra, Earth Science and Living Environment and passing rates are high, said the principal. There is a math teacher leader on each grade who helps peers with instruction, and an internal website where math teachers share best practices. The emphasis is on connecting math to real world math and problem-solving. Students spend 8 to 10 periods a week in math class, three of which are 90 minute periods. That's far more than the state mandates.
In 6th and 7th grade science there are no textbooks. Instead, teachers use the FOSS kits teachers say are more engaging. "Since we moved away from textbooks, kids are doing much better," says Shaeffer. "Textbooks are boring." Students also benefit from the Urban Advantage program where they visit botanical gardens and science museums, culminating in a big exposition at the Museum of Natural History. An after-school engineering program teaches kids how to expand the connection between technology and science.
In this huge middle school, things can get noisy but seemingly not out of control. Hallways are jam packed, as is recess time, especially when the yard was taken up by construction. Kids of different ethnicities seem to work and play well together for the most part, although some children complain of fights and bullying, according to the annual survey. The school puts special emphasis in combating bullying, including cyber-bullying, which the principal says is a problem as it is at many middle schools. A IS 234.com Facebook page was created as a social site for students to talk to one another, monitored by a teacher. Students and parents sign a Student Behavioral Contract.
Teachers, many of whom have sent their own children to the school, give up their lunch hours for professional development, or volunteer for lunch duty, making it possible for as many as 300 kids at a time to be out on the playground. "They like it," said the principal. "It helps them get to know the kids better."
There's an active dance and music program, with a jazz band in addition to the regular band. Sixth graders try out different arts such as dance, guitar, band or choir. With stepped up arts, more kids are accepted into arts programs at Murrow and LaGuardia for high school. Every year some 70 students get accepted into Brooklyn Tech, a specialized exam school. Other popular choices are Midwood, Leon Goldstein and Madison.
There is a robust after school program with lots of clubs run by teachers including science, engineering, math team, jazz band, Model UN, Kids Rock Guitar, robotics, band and chorus. An outside organization, Millennium Development, also runs an after school program at the school.
English language learners: One class on each grade is reserved for new immigrants who predominantly come from Russian-speaking countries, China and, increasingly, Yemen and Syria. They go into language labs three or four times a week using programs such as Rosetta Stone, allowing them to quickly mainstream into regular classes. "We move them as soon as we can," said the principal.
Special education: There are team-teaching classes on every grade and self-contained classes in 6th and 7th grade. By 8th grade, the kids are moved into general education or Integrated Co-teaching classes, Shaeffer said.
Admissions: Cunningham accepts children from the zone (mostly from PS 255, PS 153, PS 206 and PS 197). The city places kids in the CIG gifted program based on a "composite score" that is determined by a number of factorsthe final 4th grade report card counts for 40 percent, state tests 40 percent, attendance ten percent and student performance measures ten percent.There is an application process for Vanguard and Cyber Academy. There are 4 CIG classes and five Vanguard classes on each grade and 17 Cyber classes across three grades that accept kids from outside the zone. (Pamela Wheaton, October 2013; admissions updated January 2015)
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Brooklyn NY 11229