PS/IS 124 Osmond A Church
Children learn about the world through the Core Knowledge curriculum
A building meant to house 650 kids has more than 1,300 and is still growing
A Jamaican parent learns about United States presidents from her 1st-grader and feels better prepared for her citizenship test. Another is in awe as her 6-year-old ponders the tiny arms of the Tyrannosaurus rex. Within walking distance of JFK Airport, PS 124 is not only an oasis for children most qualify for free lunch, many are new immigrants, some live in homeless shelters it is also a place where kids are exposed to history, geography, civics, the arts and science from the start.
Principal Valarie Lewis won a three-year grant from the Core Knowledge Foundation in 1999 that established the K-8 school's curriculum. Based on the work of E.D. Hirsch (who wrote Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know), this curriculum is in all grades and the school has become a national model. [Lewis retired in 2014. Her successor is Martiza Williams-Jones, formerly assistant principal at PS 104 in Far Rockaway.]
Teachers are flexible and creative in their delivery of Core Knowledge lessons, adding studies of Sikh culture due to a growing population of Sikh students, and developing science units on current topics like renewable energy. One challenge PS 124 faces is the mobility of the children; over 200 move to and from the area in one year. Because teachers extend topics through multiple years, some children who enter later are at a disadvantage, as they may lack the foundational knowledge. School doors are open every weekday until 6 pm, and 40 staff members work on Saturday to offer extra help and enrichment.
Teachers do not make assumptions about their students' knowledge, an advantage with this diverse population from all over the world: kindergartners learn American symbols like the Statue of Liberty and the U.S. flag; in 1st grade, it's Aesop's Fables and Westward Expansion. Young students learn about prairie dogs and colorful figures like Daniel Boone to whet their appetite for more on U.S. history in the upper grades.
In the principal's view, the school's rich lessons open the world to low-income students too often tied to skills and drills. "I don't believe in test prep," she said. "If they have knowledge, they'll be able to apply it."
Alumni say they felt well prepared for college, especially in terms of writing. "We do a lot of reading and writing to help kids process the content area," said an administrator. Writing assignments begin with a "thinking map" to help students organize information and include a list of skills to be met for self-evaluation.
Teachers weave together science, art, math, geography, history and more in their lessons. Science classes include engineering and favor hands-on activities combined with writing. Children examine fish scales through microscopes, make comics outlining the scientific method, learn math symbols used in Maya civilization. Cultural differences are celebrated on graphs showing children's countries of origin posted next to family recipes. "Everything is connected, and you have to see those connections to make sense of things," said Khalid, a 7th-grader.
To serve such a wide range of abilities, the school offers accelerated classes in every grade; 8th-graders may take Regents algebra and living environments classes.
Lewis has managed this burgeoning, diverse population with aplomb for many years. The big question is who will replace her in August 2014 when she retires, and what that change will mean for the direction of the school.
Parents volunteer daily, and sometimes 500 show up for special theme nights like the Thanksgiving mini-feast. After-school programs include dance, art, homework, reading and sports. Six social workers plan daily parent workshops, host a bereavement group and make home visits among other activities.
Special Education: A growing number of Integrated Co-Teaching classes are team-taught and mix children with special needs with general education students. These teachers stay with students for two years. Special education teachers work in classrooms or pull children out as needed. "We mainstream and tailor instruction," said Lewis.
Admissions: Only neighborhood children may attend. There is a gifted class in each grade. There is also a "1 class" for top students in each grade. Children are tested in the spring of their pre-k year. Some children are placed in smaller classes of 17 and provided with extra help. (Lydie Raschka, March 2014; new principal update December 2014)