P.S. 63 Author's Academy
Learning how to challenge kids at the top
Called "the secret of the South Bronx" by satisfied parents, PS 63 is an oasis of calm, boasting steady leadership that enables new and veteran teachers to deliver lessons with very clear expectations. In a word, said long-time principal Reinaldo Diaz-Lens, the school provides students with "continuity."
Children have spots on the rug indicating where they are to sit, and attention is given to details such as how to hold a pencil correctly. In one class we observed, students were instructed to face each other to discuss writing ideas with a partner, and "touch the page" of a book when re-telling the "big event" on that page. Administrators and coaches keep tabs on assessments of student work and every assignment on display has feedback from the teacher.
There is comfort in this level of clarity, and at PS 63 it garners results: "Our kids test well," said Diaz-Lens, referring to state exams, on which children are rated according to a four-point scale with 4 as the highest. "We know we can move Level 1's and 2's up." He showed us the reading levels of a class of 23 second graders: three were reading just below grade level, two above, and the majority were solidly in the middle.
Staffers work closely with children who are struggling and create extra lessons to help them practice gaps in their skills. We watched 4th graders review spelling patterns for this reason, changing singular nouns, like "baby," to the plural "babies." The principal said, "We look at trends. We try to anticipate pitfalls." Kids who are still learning English attend early morning classes. For additional support, there are "self-contained" classes for English learners on every grade level.
In this well-organized school administrators are now asking themselves what they can do for kids at the top. When students finish their math work in class they are instructed to help a partner or practice math facts, but Diaz said these kids can be pushed to do even more in areas like measurement and early algebra. The school has a twice a week early morning classes for high achievers.
Children who have special needs are not treated differently here. On our visit to a team-taught class with a mix of kids who have special needs and their general education peers, a small group of five sat at a back table guided by a teacher. This smaller group was a mix of kids from both camps who needed help with a particular math concept. A "self-contained" class is directly across the hall so children who need a higher level of assistance can easily go back and forth between classes to join lessons depending on their strengths or weaknesses.
In the backyard, a portable "mini school" is occupied by Mott Hall Charter (not to be confused with Mott Hall middle school in Harlem) which will move into several classes in the main building in 2014 as they await the construction of their own building. PS 63 lacks a real gym so each school uses one of two makeshift spaces with padded pillars. The auditorium and the cafeteria are shared.
Admissions: Neighborhood school (Lydie Raschka, October 2013)
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Bronx NY 10456