P.S. 153 Helen Keller
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Gifted and talented program; focus on social development
Large class sizes; no gym
Located amid several other architecturally non-descript schools at the edge of Co-Op City, PS 153 Helen Keller is a neighborhood elementary school that also is home to a gifted and talented program for children from throughout District 11.
While school administrators stress that academics are important, PS 153 devotes particular attention to the children’s social development. Students meditate for three minutes twice a day. Community service is a priority as children fundraise for charities, buy hats for children undergoing chemotherapy and create sacks of useful items—dubbed “blessings bags”—for people in nursing homes.
Students are urged to “fill their buckets” with points, for staying on task, or holding the door open for someone else. The school makes ample use of awards, such as trinkets, pizza parties and extra enrichment class periods.
Classes generally include a group lesson, administrators said, followed by individual and small group work, with the assignment and lesson prominently posted. While we did not observe any full class lessons or discussions, we saw 3rd graders work on their own trying to puzzle out what motivated characters in the book The Lemonade War. In a 1st grade class, the teacher went up to the children as they worked asking, “How are you doing, buddy?” or “What are you working on today?” In all classrooms, children put signs on their desks to indicate whether or not they need extra support. Most students seemed to be keeping up and staying on task.
Teachers throughout the school make liberal use of thinking maps, a way to visualize learning, starting in kindergarten. Other than the gifted program, classes in grades k through 4 have a mix of students at all academic levels. In 5th grade, though, students are grouped by ability in reading and math and may have a different teacher for those subjects.
There are gifted and talented classes on each grade. The school tries to integrate students in the gifted program with those in the zoned school and with students in a District 75 program for students with severe disabilities, PS 596. Children share the same lunch and recess and some activities. Currently, the gifted program is undersubscribed, with only about 20 students in a class, as opposed to 30 or more in some classes in the regular program. To address this, PS 153 is trying to spread the word about the gifted program and encourage more families to have their children apply to it.
Principal Meghan Kelley says the school does not put a big emphasis on testing, but reading scores are substantially above average for the district and the city. Math scores, while less impressive, are still above average.
All children have physical education twice a week, art and music, technology and, starting in 2nd grade, science lab, once a week. Student in grades 3 to 5 also have an enrichment class—an individual topic such as chess or taekwondo taught by a teacher with a particular interest in it—once a week.
The building has its shortcomings, such as the lack of a gym, but the staff works to make good use of what it has: A large block of space has been reconfigured as a wing for the four kindergarten classes and two multipurpose rooms house physical education classes. The school has its own library and cafeteria but uses the auditorium in Harry Truman High School. It is slated to get a new playground.
Admissions: PS 153 is a zoned elementary school. Students from throughout District 11 may apply to the gifted and talented program. Admission to that is determined by the city’s test. (Gail Robinson, November 2019).