If you want to see some schools that work—maybe to get some ideas for your own child's school—you might want to take a look at some of the showcase schools that the Department of Education is promoting. The idea of the showcase schools is for teachers to share best practices, but it's also a chance for parents to see how schools solve tricky problems such as integrating special needs kids in regular classrooms, fostering kids' independence or making the best use of technology.
Last week the DOE the spotlight was on PS 32, which in 2004 became the first school in Brooklyn to open an inclusive program for students with autism. Instead of segregating children in separate classrooms—or even in a separate school—PS 32 started an ASD NEST program, 'nesting' autistic children within larger classrooms.
Insideschools featured the school's noteworthy special education program in a video: "PS 32's NEST program." And, this month PS 32 opened its doors to teachers from around the city, as one of 23 showcase schools, a program started by city schools chancellor Carmen Fariña in 2014.
"This is a benefit, and a gift to the whole school system, to be able to learn from each other," Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, told educators from around the city who gathered at PS 32 on Feb. 4. "We need to make sure that we're learning together." Businesses talk about getting a "competitive advantage," he said, but schools should foster their "collaborative advantage.
Showcase schools invite fellow educators in three times a year to see practices that are working well in their schools, but parents can can also check out the school's promising methods during school tours. At PS 32, it is the NEST program that is highlight, where high-functioning children with autism attend classes with general education students, either in larger Integrated Co-Teaching classrooms, or in smaller rooms.
"One of the things that is very beneficial is that you get feedback and commentary that helps you to inform your practice better," said PS 32 Principal Denise Watson who hosted the gathering. "The visiting teachers get to see another way of working with children who have special needs. They get some real practical advice and practice strategies about what to do."
Teachers who toured the building remarked about the many visual elements in classrooms, such as signs, pictures and graphs, that reinforce lessons to all children. They observed the small "break" areas in each classroom, where a child may take a brief break from the lesson to gather himself on a beanbag chair in a quiet corner, rather than being sent out in the hall for a more punitive timeout.
"There were many opportunities to observe school wide practices," said Tamika Coleman, a special education teacher at PS 309 in Brooklyn who was on her second showcase school visit. "Students were able to follow classroom routines with visual supports that benefit the ASD and General Education population. I will definitely take what I learned back to my school."
Different practices are showcased at other schools. At PS 69 in Bensonhurst, which has a large immigrant population, visiting teachers saw how the arts projects are integral to academics and can boost student success. AtPS 376 in Brooklyn, schools use technology to an unusual degree, as we saw firsthand on a visit in January. At Central Park East II in East Harlem, choice and independence are valued. Children in all grades are able to choose what they would like to do for about an hour each day: whether it be block-building, or writing, or cooking with the teacher.
For families and teachers, showcase schools are one way to see what other schools are doing well. For schools looking to share what they do best, it is an opportunity to collaborate with peers around the city.
February 29 is the deadline to apply to be a showcase school for the 2016-2017 school year. Two other similar programs are also open to schools: Learning Partnersand the Middle School Quality Initiative.