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Creative curriculum and imaginative teaching
Absenteeism is higher than city average
Once a month, children, parents and teachers start the day at The Neighborhood School with a sing-along. Several fathers strum guitars while the children sing songs like "This Little Light of Mine" or "Down by the Riverside." The event is a reminder of the school's progressive approach to learning and its passionately committed, multiracial parent body. Parents are welcome in the classroom and many volunteer in the library.
The Neighborhood School is serious about play. Children make towering structures of wooden blocks not only in pre-kindergarten, but all the way up through 2nd grade. They paint life-size self-portraits on brown paper, and decorate the classroom with them. Recess lasts for a full 50 minutes (not counting lunch) in pre-k though 2nd grade.
The school, which shares a building with PS 63, has embraced the "opt-out movement," as the parent-led rebellion against standardized testing is known. About 80 percent of children sit out the state tests in reading and math. Children receive "evaluations" or narratives written by their teachers rather than report cards with grades.
Classes mix children of different ages: pre-k and kindergarten in one, 1st and 2nd grades in another and 4th and 5th grades in another. (Two kindergartens and 3rd grade are the only stand-alone classes.) Teachers get to know children well because they have the same pupils for two years. Each year, half the children in the class are old hands; because fewer children need to learn new routines, less time is wasted in settling in.
Dyanthe Spielberg, who became principal in 2013, has worked with teachers to forge a thoughtful, interdisciplinary curriculum that's influenced by Bank Street College of Education, where she received her master's degree.
The curriculum changes each year, depending on current events and on children's interests. Every year, 3rd-graders study immigration to New York City, but when refugees from the war in Syria flooded Europe, children learned about that crisis as well. In one homework assignment, they were asked to imagine they had to leave home taking only the belongings that would fit in a brown paper grocery bag.
Fourth- and 5th-graders study the Civil Rights movement, as they do in many schools. But at the Neighborhood School, they also learned about the Black Lives Matter protests and compared them to the protests of the 1960s.Children learn to write from different points of view: They write essays imagining they are the Civil Rights hero Rosa Parks, or the man who drove the bus when she refused to give up her seat, or a White person, or a child, on the bus.|
Science is not taught only as a once a week "special" but integrated into regular classroom lessons. In a unit on the human body, for example, children made a skeleton out of cardboard (using torn egg cartons as a spine). One child asked, "Is there blood in a bone?" and the teacher brought in a beef bone so children could see the marrow first hand. Young children learn about simple machines on a trip to a playground with a merry-go-round and an old-fashioned teeter-totter. Older children learn how penguins protect themselves from the cold.
Reading is taught with fun-to-read picture books, novels and science discovery books. There is plenty of emphasis on phonics and spelling as well.
Children are separated by their grade for math lessonsa recognition that in math, more than other subjects, it's difficult for teachers to reach children of different ages and abilities in one class. Here, too, children learn through projects. For example, 5th-graders measure the exterior of the school building in meters several times, and learn that they come up with a slightly different measurement each time. Through this lesson, they learn in concrete terms the difference between average, mean and median.
Middle school choices include Tompkins Square Middle School, East Side Community, and University Neighborhood Middle School.
A possible downside: The school has a higher than average rate of absenteeism. Spielberg said some new immigrants take their children out of school for extended vacations to their home countries.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: Children with special needs may be assigned to ICT team-teaching classes with two teachers, one of whom is certified in special education.
ADMISSIONS: District 1 choice. Priority for pre-kindergarten goes to siblings. The school has long prided itself on serving children from different racial and ethnic groups as well as different income levels. As part of a pilot project to maintain socio-economic diversity, priority for up to 45 percent of kindergarten seats goes to children who qualify for free or reduced lunch or who have limited proficiency in English. (Clara Hemphill, February 2016)