P.S. 197 John B. Russwurm
Energetic, well-liked principal who brings in lots of enrichment programs
Academics and attendance could improve, no schoolyard, friction with charter school
When Principal Natasha Spann agreed to head PS 197 in 2012, she may have taken on more than she bargained for: a failing school with few resources, declining enrollment, a high special needs population and a high rate of chronically absent students. Friendly and well-liked by her staff, Spann has worked hard to revive the school by championing a popular pre-kindergarten program and providing her students with a myriad of enrichment opportunities from tennis and swimming to painting and opera.
The school certainly has a long way to go. Academic scores and attendance are low. There is only a very small outdoor space and resources in many of the classrooms seemed wanting, with areas that were cramped and dark. We also heard a couple of raised voices from staff in the lunchroom. For independent play in a pre-k class, children playing with some older puzzles tired of them quickly. Certainly, new books, supplies and a facilities update are needed.
These issues have been complicated by a tense relationship with Democracy Prep Charter which shares the building and has taken over several classrooms. This means that all counselors and speech, occupational and physical therapists are now cramped into one room. As the charter continues to grow, PS 197's enrollment has shrunk while the proportion of special needs children has has risen.
Spann, a former math coach at PS 175, seems to be doing the best with what she has. The pre-k class is supported by an energetic head teacher, who brings in professors from Touro College to work on targeted activities founded in child development theory. Students seemed happy and engaged mapping out and recognizing 3-D shapes and using stencils to draw them into a building plan on paper. Each pre-k classroom has its own bathroom, and pre-k students have a large indoor play area near the gymnasium.
Although her budget has been decimated, Spann has tried to be creative by getting as many programs as possible for little or no money. A grant enabled the school to upgrade its 10 old PCs with 36 newer Macs. For purchase of other technology, the principal has been known to purchase used or to repair items donated from closing schools.
A healthier school is also paramount to Spanns vision. With a doctor on site, the school caters to students with no dental or medical coverage. A school garden is in the works, and a nutritionist visits the 3rd- and 5th-grade classes once a week to talk about healthy eating and provides a snack. Kids have to interview for selective positions on the schools Green Team, a group responsible for recycling lunch trays, making sure each student drinks at least one glass of water, and composting leftover food in the cafeteria. Members wear a special PS 197 Green Team T-shirt.
Students receive physical education two times a week (three for the 5th-graders) for 45 minutes in addition to daily recess after lunch at a nearby playground. The school has co-ed basketball and track and a tennis team. Students in grades 2-5 use the PS 125 swimming pool.
Parent involvement is increasing, Spann said, noting that more than 200 people attended a recent family dinner night. In order to promote the gardening project, the meal was entirely vegan. Spann hopes that heightened interest in extracurriculars will have a positive impact on academics. She is also hopeful that system wide changes in testing and promotion policies will ease some of the tension.
Special education: The school offers team-teaching classes, self-contained classes, SETSS and related services. Twenty-six percent of the children at PS 197 receive special education services.
Admission: Neighborhood school. (Mahalia Watson, May 2014)
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Manhattan NY 10037