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French dual language program; caring principal
Test scores and attendance have a ways to go
A French dual language program, and a kindhearted leader with fresh ideas, has brought more students, increased diversity, and a fresh start to MS 256, now known as the Lafayette Academy. Despite its tiny size, it had long been considered the unruliest sibling in a building shared with the hugely popular Manhattan School for Children and the Community Action School. Now, the atmosphere is safe and calm. The principal is committed to his position and students are eager for new academic challenges.
MS 256 is one of very few middle schools in the city offering a French dual language program and it enrolls students who are already fluent in the language. There is one dual language class per grade, with a mix of children from West Africa, Canada, Belgium, France and elsewhere. Lessons are taught in French in language arts and social studies; children study math in both languages starting in 8th grade.
Principal Brian Zager worked as assistant principal of the now-closed CASTLE middle school on the Lower East Side. A history and sports buff, he does not speak French himself but promised his first French language graduating class of 2017 that he would learn enough to speak a few words at their graduation.
Students and families have responded favorably to Zager, who has fostered community with "spirit days" on themes like "wacky tacky," "business dress-up" and "twin day." He led teachers in revamping the curriculum, with the inclusion of a daily 30-minute independent reading time, during which teachers split classes into small groups by gender, based on research he read that showed children perform better in reading when they are grouped that way.
English language arts teachers tackle meaty, relevant content in all classes, such as a discussion of gun violence we saw, that took place in a formal debate called a Socratic circle, and reading news articles on current events related to immigration. For high-achievers, there is a small and growing algebra class for students who meet certain criteria in math.
MS 256 is part of the Middle School Quality Initiative, a citywide effort to boost achievement in low-performing schools, with a focus on improving reading. Teachers plan together to reinforce vocabulary, reading, debate and writing skills across all subjects in a cohesive way.
Efforts have yet to pay off completely. On school surveys, more than half the students reported that teachers do not challenge them. And too many children are frequently absent. The school is tiny so even a few absences affect attendance, the principal said. He provides incentives and has a program in place to improve attendance. Student-led parent-teacher conferences resulted in "the best participation we've ever had," Zager said, and incidents of unruly behavior are at an all-time low.
With the dual language addition, the school is becoming increasingly diverse in every wayethnically, economically and academically. It is "a model for the integration that the [Department of Education] is striving to achieve," a parent wrote on our website. Test scores are inching up but still have a ways to go. It's a school worth watching.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: The school has ICT (integrated co-teaching) classes, which mix children with disabilities and their general ed peers in one classroom, with two teachers.
ADMISSIONS: While most students come from District 3, the French dual language program is open to students across Manhattan with priority to those who attend elementary school French dual language or bilingual programs, are learning English or who are proficient in both French and English. All students will be screened based on an review of students records of behavior and attendance as well as grades. (Lydie Raschka, December 2016; admissions information updated October 2018)