The Mott Hall School
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Dynamic principal and imaginative classes
Cramped, worn facilities
Founded in 1985 as a magnet school for gifted children, Mott Hall has long been a source of pride in the Dominican communities of Washington Heights and Inwood where most its pupils live. This school provides a network of support that sustains students up to high school and beyond.
Mott Hall is thriving under the leadership of Judith De Los Santos-Pena, who became principal in 2015. Teachers design lessons that allow kids to move, debate and collaborate, and the school has re-established its lost connection to City College nearby.
We saw engaging instruction in every class. In science, children used different tools to simulate bird beaks to try to get beans out of a cup in an exercise on adaptation. Sixth graders formed a human number line for a game of "Simon Says" to reinforce the concept of absolute value. Choices during and after school include instrumental music, coding, Latin, French, Spanish, poetry and more. Mott Hall now requires all children to take Regents-level courses in science and math.
Class size is small and teachers know every child by name. Children are welcome to eat with teachers in their classrooms at lunchtime. Alumni gather with staff for an annual picnic in Inwood Park. "Children really make a connection to the professionals here," said a teacher.
A personable psychology major, fluent in English and Spanish, De Los Santos had been a Mott Hall teacher herself in the 1990s and quickly earned the respect of staff. She has "a lot of trust in teachers," said a veteran teacher.
The school has had ups and downs over the years. Founded by Mirian Acosta Sing, Mott Hall originally served children in grades 4 to 8, a configuration designed to give gifted low-income children five years to prepare for rigorous high schools. It was one of the first schools in the city to use laptops. In its early days, children studied the effect of light on coral reefs in labs at City College, and explored ratio and proportion by designing kites and building kites out of balsa wood and paper. Unfortunately, over the years, some of these special features fell away. (The school lost its 4th and 5th grades in 2008.)
To inspire the staff, De Los Santos-Peña pulled up videos of classroom instruction in Mott Hall's heyday. She and assistant principal Natasha Bracey-Ferguson added chorus, drama and orchestra, and arranged for Mott Hall students to use City College science labs again to supplement Living Environment coursework. Children visit Aaron Davis Hall on campus to watch films there on topics they are studying in class, such as Under the Same Moon, about immigration. Two City College math teachers walk over to coach teens and staff on Fridays. Architecture students are helping Mott Hall children design a garden.
Eighth graders are dismissed early on Fridays for community service. A "green team" visited a Brooklyn recycling plant to learn more about the science of recycling and then raise awareness in the neighborhood. A drama team works with a theater group for the disabled, preparing shows for people living in senior homes.
The space is cramped, and the school lacks a gymnasium, elevator and auditorium. However, when an opportunity arose to move to a more modern space, alumni wrote passionate letters opposing the plan, saying its proximity to City College is part of its identity.
The dean walks children to the M100 and M101 bus stop on Amsterdam Avenue after school to make sure they get there safely. There is yellow bus service for 6th graders.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: In a small "self-contained" class for children with special needs, the adults were encouraging and funny. There are team-teaching classrooms on every grade, in which about six children with disabilities are mixed in with their general education peers.
ADMISSIONS: Open to students living in District 6. Students must submit an application by early December, and some are invited to take an admissions test in January. The school considers grades, attendance, teacher recommendations and behavior. "Motivation and work" are the most important thing, said De Los Santos-Peña. About two-thirds of admitted students scored level 3 and 4 on standardized tests; one third scored 1 or 2. For more information call (212) 281-5028. (Lydie Raschka, February 2017)Read more