Sojourner Truth School, 03M149
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Dynamic new principal; kids grow vegetables in hydroponics lab
Many challenges remain
New furniture, fresh paint, brightly lit halls and a can-do principal are signs that long-beleaguered PS/IS 149 is on the upswing. Kids grow vegetables in a hydroponics lab, study ancient Egypt on trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and learn to dance with Alvin Ailey dancers.
PS/IS 149 shares a building with Harlem Success Academy 1, the flagship school of the Success Academy charter network. For years the stark contrast between the well-equipped charter school and the shabby district school has made children at PS 149 feel like second-class citizens. Now, that's beginning to change. "PS 149 has gone through a very big transformation," said Ilene Altschul. superintendent of District 3.
Claudia Aguirre, principal since 2015, has moved quickly to improve both the physical plant and the quality of teaching. She decided her school--with an enrollment of fewer than 300 children--needed just one, not two, assistant principals; with the $150,000 annual savings she bought new rugs, blond wood tables, matching chairs, and other equipment and supplies.
She sought out volunteers from New York Cares to help with painting; a new custodian cleaned the light fixtures and replaced long burned-out bulbs. The school librarian weeded out old booksone third of the collection--and circulation jumped from 280 books a month to more than 1,000. "When you get the old books off the shelves, children gravitate to the newer books," the librarian said on our visit. Aguirre built partnerships with arts and community organizations to offer fun activities like roller blading lessons and jazz concerts.
She replaced the scripted reading program with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which encourages children to read books they choose themselves and to write multiple drafts of their essays. She recruited teacher trainers from TC work regularly with staff. She eased out staff who didn't share her vision and hired some energetic new teachers. "We're moving toward a progressive model of instruction," she said; teachers who were unhappy with the changes were encouraged to find jobs elsewhere.
Teachers specialize; beginning in 2nd grade, children learn reading and social studies from one teacher and math and science from another. Children grow kale, chard, basil, and bell peppers in an indoor hydroponic garden.
This tiny school has long had just one class on each grade (except for pre-k, which has two), but Aguirre, former principal of the Dual Language Middle School on the Upper West Side, hope to expand the middle school to two classes on each grade. An imaginative social studies curriculum includes trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art study ancient civilization in 6th grade, to Boston to study the American Revolution in 7th grade, and to Washington to study U.S. government in 8th grade. On our visit, children seemed happy and engaged and the tone of the school was calm.
The Harlem Children's Zone, a community organization, offers free after school until 6 pm, including lacrosse lessons. Other services include a mental health clinic, a dental clinic, tutoring and a washer-dryer for children who might not have one at home to wash their clothes. The school is one of 94 Renewal Schools, low-performing schools that get extra funds designed to boost achievement.
Many challenges remain. There is friction between the principal and staff and between staffers. More than half the teachers mistrust each other, according to school surveys, and nearly half say they don't trust the principal and they don't feel the principal respects them. Aguirre acknowledges that there has been push-back against the changes she has instituted, but points to an increase in teachers' attendance as a sign of progress.
Attendance rates for the children, while significantly improved, are below the citywide average. It will take time for the changes in instruction to be reflected in test scores, which are well below average. It will also take time for the community to embrace the school: The majority of children who live in the school attendance zone have long opted for charters, gifted programs or other specialized programs. Aguirre hopes to lure them back and make the school a true neighborhood school.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: PS 149 shares a building with a District 75 program for children with severe disabilities, some of whom take classes with PS 149. Aguirre believes special needs children should be included in regular classes whenever possible, and has worked to reduce the number of children in self-contained classes.
ADMISSIONS: Neighborhood school. (Clara Hemphill, March 2017)