West End Secondary School
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New 6-12 school in District 3 with a focus on interdisciplinary learning
Too soon to tell
West End Secondary School (WESS) opened in 2015 to much local excitement: At last, District 3 would have a combined middle-high school that gives priority in admission to children who live in the district. In short order, Principal Jessica Jenkins and her staff have built a well-run, nurturing school with happy chatter in the hallways and substantive discussion in the classrooms. Students are on a first-name basis with their teachers and the young staff is eager to engage them.
When Beacon High School moved to a new building in Hells Kitchen, West End Secondary took over the space. It will add a grade each year until it serves 700 to 800 children in grades 6-12.
The school is built on the philosophy of expeditionary learning, the idea that "children develop critical thinking skills and perseverance when they study topics deeply," says Jenkins, who founded the successful Marsh Avenue Expeditionary School on Staten Island. Students participate in several 12-week-long projects or expeditions each year, as interdisciplinary projects are known.
A study of the pollution of the Hudson River, for example, led to the dissection of oysters in science, the creation of documentary films with help from Take2 Film Academy, graphs of water quality data in math and a study of how major waterways (like the Nile in Egypt) have shaped ancient civilizations in social studies. Students took their work further, creating a Change.org petition to ask Governor Cuomo to renovate the city's outdated sewer system. Children created shadowbox landscapes of the Hudson River in art class and read Flush by Carl Hyacinth, a novel about kids who discover illegal dumping in their town.
"We promote collaboration, but we want students to have choice in how they learn," Jenkins says of the focus on group projects, noting that some students naturally like to lead and brainstorm while others might prefer research. All 8th-graders must make a presentation to a group of parents, peers and teachers based on their portfolio of work.
Students have gym four times a week, and recess takes place in a park around the corner from the school (because there is no yard). Electives include coding, art, film-making, modern dance and music (keyboarding or drums); while after-school choices include meditation, crochet, drama, scrapbooking, and creative writing.
There is also a traveling basketball team, a math team, speech & debate, and a seasonal musical. We spoke to a 7th-grader who had just nabbed the part of Adelaide in the schools production of Guys & Dolls, a feat she said was made easier because of the friendly environment of auditions. "Teachers who teach us in after-school are the same teachers we have in class," she said, noting that everyone gets a part.
The school only had grades 6 and 7 at the time of our visit, but plans for the high school include AP courses and plenty of Regents prep, a comprehensive sports program and courses such as "Geometry: Loci, Symmetry and Through the Looking Glass" and "Existential Literature: The Stranger, the Self and the Setting."
There are plans for a hydroponic science lab, a green wall, a renovated black box theater and a STEM media lab. The building is sparkling but has some quirks: pillars in the gym make team play difficult.
Special education: The school has two sections of ICT (integrated co-teaching) per grade that combine students with special needs and their peers in one class with two teachers. The ICT model will continue into high school, Jenkins said.
Admissions: Screened, priority District 3. In addition to a tour, students are asked to come in for a one-on-one meeting with a staffer to discuss their most recent work. Jenkins says she is looking for a range of learners. Most students hail from the southern end of the district but administration hopes to continue reaching other schools outside its immediate neighborhood. Busing is available for 6th-graders. (Aimee Sabo, February, 2017)Read more