The Center School (M.S. 243)
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Dedicated and experienced staff, mixed-level classes
Demand far outweighs available seats
Center School is a tiny, offbeat gem where children can step off the hamster wheel of standardized testing during the middle school years. The tone inside is relaxed, happy and discordant at times, mirroring the frolicsome feel of adolescence. Children call out greetings to favorite teachers, cluster around red lockers or sit absorbed in a book. Like its founding principal, Elaine Schwartz, who is fiercely protective of teens being teens, the school has a clear progressive identity.
Children attend Center School four years beginning at the odd entry point of 5th grade. All ages are mixed together for science and social studies periods. We saw small groups comprised of 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders huddled around experiments in astronomy and anatomy classes. "The only place where people are artificially separated by age is the school system," Schwartz said, adding that we can learn from each other at any age. Math is divided into traditional age groupings, as is Latin, which children study for three years.
Democratic principles are modeled from the top. The principal's desk is in the computer room so she can be in frequent contact with students. Teachers mix and remix kids to guarantee they all get to know each other. Students help out in the main office, which is not off-limits to them. The year is divided into trimesters, and at the end of each, teachers write comments and children add their own notes, increasing their input throughout the year. Schwartz said, "We work towards independence all the time."
Students have special classes like theater and Latin for 2 1/2 hours per week for at least one trimester and there is a daily one-hour period for silent reading or academic help, such as one we saw in which kids worked on a self-paced computer math program with teachers checking in. The theater program is "not like anything you've ever seen," said an 8th grader, citing monologues, skits, songs and speeches.
Student achievement is high and teachers have flexibility in how they teach. Some teachers give tests and quizzes; some do not. Papers are corrected for grammar but grammar is not taught formally except in Latin. All 8th graders take Regents Algebra. In addition to typical middle school subjects, children rotate through "mini units," on debate, law, filmmaking, African dance, the constitution and more.
Two students said entering in 5th grade was an adjustment but they felt supported. One said it was tough getting used to the heavier workload; another said she had "to learn to put myself out there." Eighth grade assigned "buddies" check in before school begins. Every teacher is an advisor to 10 to 12 students. Students keep a journal that their advisor responds to regularly.
The school is increasingly serving a prosperous population; in the past decade, the proportion of children who qualify for free lunch has declined from 40 percent to 12 percent. At least one parent complained that a fund-raising event excluded parents who could not afford to attend.
Schwartz sees fundraising as a necessary evil to pay for things like the annual school trip. Fundraising "goes on and on," she said. "It's painful." About 60 children stay for a free after school program until 5 pm.
About half the students take the specialized high school test and teachers do prepare children for interviews and the test. "You're in good hands with that," said an 8th grader. LaGuardia, Bard, Beacon and Lehman are popular choices.
Schwartz helped found the school in 1982 and it is hard to imagine Center School surviving without her impassioned defense of its unique approach. Luckily, she vows never to retire, "until I die or can't walk," she said. "We like being here, all of us, the staff, the students, everyone."
SPECIAL EDUCATION: There is a small class for students with special needs only. Most students receiving special education services are included in regular classes and get one-on-one help during enrichment periods.
ADMISSIONS: Prospective students and parents visit the school for a half-day; their student escort and a teacher write an evaluation following the visit. Applicants are discussed in a faculty meeting, and qualified applicants are selected with an emphasis on balancing ability level, gender, race and ethnicity. Priority is given to siblings of current and former students. Approximately 350 students apply for 55 spots in 5th grade each year. (Lydie Raschka, January 2017)Read more