Washington Heights Academy
Cohesion and collaboration lead to a strong school culture
Very limited openings for kindergarten, DOE Quality Review says more stimulation needed for top achievers
Washington Heights Academy is a small, child-centered school dedicated to the notion that active parent involvement is a key to success. Founded by parents in 2004, it is open to children from across District 6. Demand for seats is high, especially for kindergarten. Sibling preference and a full-day pre-kindergarten program filled to the brim with 54 children means that competition for kindergarten seats is fierce.
Following a period of transition after it first opened, Washington Heights Academy has stabilized and thrived under the leadership of Principal Renzo Martinez, who joined the school in 2011. Lynne Herndon, a founding parent and the schools ELL coordinator, credits the schools success to one of its sustaining principles: A successful learning environment places relationships among teachers, students, families and other community members at its center. There is a long-standing dedicated staff with limited turnover. Assistant Principal Mercedes Diaz, has been at the school from the very beginning, as have a number of teachers.
The school is expanding to include a middle school, beginning with two 6th-grade classes in September 2014. Also that same fall, the pre-k program is set to undergo changes in tandem with the citywide expanded pre-k program. The school's 72 half-day seats will be converted to three full-day classes for a total of 54 seats.
The building is spacious and well-equipped for the changes. There are designated technology and science labs, a large library, an art and music room and a gym that can be converted to an auditorium. Classrooms are all bright and well-organized, and each has a SMART board and two computers. All classrooms, even in the upper grade, have a rug area for class meetings and a classroom library. Class size ranges from 25 to 30 students.
On the day of our visit, teachers, administrators and staff were friendly and upbeat with each other and with students. Students were engaged in productive and interactive learning in each classroom we visited; and we saw teachers across grade levels working together in common planning periods. Students receiving pull-out support services and ELL follow the same curricular track as their general education peers. The Department of Educations Quality Review, while praising the school overall, suggested that staff could find more ways to stimulate top achievers. Herndon said this is something the school tries to address.
All students receive visual arts, music, and physical education and movement classes during the school day. Younger students have access to a small playground and there is a play yard for older classes. When we visited, the weather-precluded students from outside recess, but children were happily engaged in well-run, adult-led physical activities in the gym.
Parent and family involvement remains active and strong and is central to the mission of Washington Heights Academy. Parent Teacher Association members on campus were eager to share with us the efforts they have undertaken to welcome all parents. This year children wrote letters to their parents explaining the importance of family participation in their school activities, an idea conceived by PTA Co-President Sorelys Irizarry. As WHA expands to include middle school, the school administration hopes to maintain its strong level of parent involvement throughout those formative years.
In addition to a focus on strong academics and social-emotional growth, the school cultivates community partnerships for added enrichment. The New York Cares School Success Initiative provides two full-time Americacorp liaisons who help develop in-school programming including Saturday Academy tutoring services and a recreation program including cooking, arts and sports. They also offer an adult ESL program, math games and robotics.
A partnership with the YMHA provides literacy volunteers that work with 1st and 2nd grade. Yeshiva University students provide science enrichment during the day in nine-week sessions. After school offerings also include a playwriting program, an adult and child cooking program, track and field through the NY Roadrunners club and a 60-kid community chorus through Young People's Chorus. Inwood Community Services runs an after school, summer and school break program with between 20 and 30 free spaces available per grade (about 130 total spaces) for students.
Special education: Twenty percent of the student population is classified as ELL students and five percent of students have an IEP. Speech, occupational therapy and physical therapy are available as pull-out services. The school has two SETSS teachers.
Admissions: District wide school of choice, priority to siblings and then to pre-k students. Pre-k expanded to three full-day classes for a total of 54 seats starting in fall 2014.(Sharon McCann-Doyle, February 2014)