M.S. 51 William Alexander
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Healthy mix of arts and academics
Some parents grumble about cost of extras, like trips
MS 51 almost makes you wish you were an adolescent again so you could attend this large and dynamic middle school. Children express themselves through the arts and tackle challenging academics with practical community projects—such as harvesting oysters in the Gowanus Canal, or designing "bioswales," the small, sloped patches of plants, trees and rocks beside curbs that filter overflow water in Park Slope.
Children study a "talent," from among vocal music, drama, instrumental music, dance, photography or fine art. They gather twice weekly for double periods in delightfully teen-friendly wombs including a dance studio, darkroom or black box theater. Classes are large and yet, like the best large schools, the size is stimulating and allows for more variety in academics, arts, teachers and friends.
Students chat easily with one another, in some cases in mixed-race and mixed-gender groups. Impressively, they wait at red stoplights as they approach the building—even when cars are not in sight. Inside, the physical layout has a small school feel but classrooms are spacious. Children visit their homerooms four times a day, including a 20-minute after lunch period during which teens read books of their own choosing.
Teachers are dedicated and it is a school where teachers build their careers. "We have a great core of veterans in their prime still going strong," said principal Lenore Dileo Berner, whose two children attended the school.
Every student, even those with special needs, takes the 9th grade level Living Environment (biology) course and most pass the Regents exam; about one-third take Integrated Algebra. The student government tackles real problems, such as raising money to buy classroom blinds to block the sun from getting in students' eyes. A "green team" works with parents, for example, on composting and gardening at the historic Old Stone House next door.
Incoming 6th graders choose their top three favorite "talents" during orientation in June. They audition and usually get their first or second choice. Sixth graders in drama produce a circus in the fall with juggling and comedy, 7th graders act out a historical drama or a musical such as Mary Poppins and 8th graders perform in a Shakespeare play. Sports teams include boys and girls' basketball and co-ed wrestling teams.
Of the 13 classes per grade, two are small special education classes and four are ICT (integrated co-teaching), which mix children with disabilities and those in general education. All students at MS 51 study French or Spanish.
Academic support is provided first thing in the morning, during lunchtime and after school. A free after-school program has built-in homework and study skills time, in addition to yoga, Minecraft and more. Students enjoy regular field trips to the city's zoo, museums, botanic gardens and the aquarium. Children may go out for lunch—which children adore and parents may find pricey. (The librarian welcomes kids at lunchtime, including those who bring their free lunches from the cafeteria or from home.)
Overnight trips are part of the MS 51 experience: sixth graders visit Ashokan Science Center in the Catskill mountains; 7th graders visit a historic destination like Salem, Mass.; 8th graders travel to a ranch in the Shawangunk Mountains for team-building. More than one-quarter of the children stay back from the 8th grade overnight trip. Berner said many parents prefer to keep their children home. Scholarships are available for those who can't afford the trip but sometimes it is "hard to know who needs what," she said.
One parent grumbled that fees for trips, materials and events "discriminate against those who cannot pay." Berner acknowledged that as the neighborhood and student body grows more prosperous, low-income families might feel burdened by fees, but that the staff is aware and working on it. "We try to make sure we're addressing these really obvious issues," she said.
Many graduates attend top high schools including Beacon, LaGuardia, Murrow, Brooklyn Tech and Bard. Rising 8th graders interested in arts high schools may attend a free two-week summer camp to prepare.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: Parents help pay for a "bridge program" so children with disabilities may start school a week early to settle into a routine, get started on lessons and develop friendships. Students in the "self-contained" classes have different teachers for some subjects and were just as engaged as other students we saw.
ADMISSIONS: As part of a district-wide equity plan, all District 15 middle schools use an open admissions method with priority for 52 percent of seats going to students from low-income households (who qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program), students in temporary housing, and English Language Learners. There are no “screens” for admission. To learn more about the D15 Diversity Plan, visit d15diversityplan.com. (Lydie Raschka, February 2017; updated February 2019)Read more