STAR Academy-P.S. 63
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Exciting math curriculum, strong leadership
Some schools face setbacks and see only hardship ahead; others see opportunity. STAR Academy-PS 63 is a shining example of the latter, a school where tireless teachers and administrators have found a meaningful new way to connect with a high needs population of kids and families without sacrificing academic rigor. The result? Test scores are rising, kids are being nurtured and classes feel alive.
Former special education teacher Darlene Cameron became principal in 2007 and has worked hard to make the school more inclusive, converting almost every classroom to ICT (integrated co-teaching) rooms that mix special needs and general education students with two teachers, one with a degree in special ed. Assistant Principal Jodi Friedman, who gave us our tour, previously taught at the school for seven years, and continues to teach 4th-grade science. She serves as the school's math coach and together with Cameron spearheaded an ambitious revamping of the school's academics in anticipation of the implementation of Common Core academic standards.
Over the course of two summers, teachers re-educated themselves in the new math, eventually creating in-house assessments, a data-tracking system for student growth and even writing their own math curriculum. "When you know your content well enough to plan it," Friedman said, "you really look at student work and see their strengths, misconceptions, how to move them."
After a citywide plummet in Common Core-aligned standardized test scores in 2013, STAR was one of a handful of schools that saw their numbers rebound in 2014. Word problems, a previous deficit, now form the core of the school's math approach. In a kindergarten class, children glued goldfish crackers to grids to add together the correct number of snacks, while 1st-graders tackled doubles facts in groups using beads after reading the story Grandma's Necklace.
Each day, children have one 45- to 60-minute period of teacher instruction and group work in math plus a second 20-minute period of math games and skills. Two days a week, kids of mixed grade levels work together in math stations. Star Academy is a "showcase school" for math instruction; educators from all over the city visit to see the math program in action.
For English language arts, teachers use the Teachers College Reading and Writing programs, supplemented with phonics and shared texts. In social studies the focus is on big concepts, Friedman said, noting that older students are encouraged to write about weighty topics such as immigration and the Holocaust. During our visit, a lively class of 5th-graders divided into two groups, scouring through articles to prepare for a debate on Pets in Schools.
As in math, ELA scores have jumped, an improvement that Friedman credits in part to a schoolwide literacy program that takes place during the first half hour of each day. Advanced students may also use that morning time to learn the ukulele with the school's music teacher, engage in extra arts enrichment or learn gaming and coding in technology club.
All students take art, gym and science several times a week, and learn to play the keyboard. First- through 5th-graders also dance once a week through a partnership with Notes in Motion. STAR offers full-time, free after-school for k-5, and pre-kindergartners may participate in a fee-based after-school program through Notes in Motion until 6pm each day. Like the rest of the school, the pre-k program is small, with two classes of 13 students each at the time of our visit.
Nurturing students emotionally as well as academically is an overarching theme at STAR, which stands for self-managed, team-player, accountable and respectful; the makings of an ideal student. Schoolwide jobs like recess buddy and newscaster are a very real way of giving kids responsibility and helping them work on important social skills. Instead of a time-out room, the school has a Responsibility Room, where students are encouraged to work through emotions and recognize the difference between a big problem and a small one. The school works with New York University to be culturally reponsive in their teaching practices.
At the time of our visit, much of the 100-year-old building's facade was under restoration, which caused some water damage and necessitated the playground equipment being covered, although kids still play in the yard, Friedman said. The school shares the building amicably with The Neighborhood School, using the fourth floor, while Neighborhood is on the third. Both schools share the second floor, cafeteria, gym, library and auditorium.
Like many District 1 schools, STAR Academy has long struggled with enrollment and attendance. Students travel from all five boroughs to attend, and many families are in temporary living situations, creating an ever-shifting student population. In addition to an attendance team comprising teachers and counselors, outside caseworkers help STAR families find real solutions to getting kids to school and on time, like arranging busing when possible—or even giving them alarm clocks.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: Nearly all classes are ICT (integrated co-teaching). Self-contained classes have been phased out. An effort is made to support all students—and not to let learning differences hold them back; for example, someone with writing difficulties might have a designated "scribe" to help them express ideas. "You may have a kid who can only write at a kindergarten level, but who can think at a very high level," Friedman said. STAR has a guidance counselor, psychologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, speech therapist and social worker for students and families.
ADMISSIONS: District 1 choice. (Aimee Sabo, February 2015; updated, November 2018)Read more