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P.S. 172 Beacon School of Excellence
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Strong math, science and special education
No gym, main library or art
PS 172 has long won recognition for its high test scores—a remarkable achievement considering that most of its children are poor enough to qualify for free lunch and many speak another language at home. Its math and science programs are particularly strong. The school also has a good record of integrating special needs children in general education classes.
What are the secrets to its success? The school has strong, stable leadership and gives teachers lots of time to plan their lessons together. Rather than relying on textbooks, the staff has put together its own curriculum with a rich mix of carefully-thought-out units on topics such as poetry, the solar system, multiplication or the history of Mexico. There is consistency from class to class and a logical progression from grade to grade. Every month the curriculum is revised based on the needs of the students. Each summer, the entire staff revises the curriculum after discussing what worked best and what needs improvement.
In math, the staff has mastered one of the trickiest tasks of teaching: how to challenge strong students while giving weaker students the help they need to be successful. We sat in on a 5th-grade math class in which the teacher managed to adapt the same complex problem for different children: If two teachers, shopping together, each buy a pair of shoes at a "buy-one, get-one-for-half-price" sale, what's the fairest way to divide the cost?
Some children worked on the problem independently or in pairs, others got little hints from the teacher, and still others got step-by-step instructions from the second teacher in the class, who is trained in special education. At the end of the class, all children sat on a rug and discussed how they arrived at the answer.
Science is an integral part of the curriculum. Children might make their own toothpaste in a simple chemistry experiment, connect electrical circuits, or dissect owl pellets. First-graders learn about the human body, not just the skeletal system and the digestive system, but even the parts of the brain. These lessons build their vocabulary—which helps them become better readers.
Jack Spatola, who has been principal since the mid-1980s, and Assistant Principal Erika Gundersen assigned the teachers so that their strengths complement one another. "There is at least one teacher in every grade who really loves math," said Spatola. "We try to have some in each grade who have a love of science, and a love of history." A number of teachers majored in math in college—unusual among elementary school teachers.
Starting in November, teachers identify children in grades 3-5 who are struggling and invite them to attend special classes from 9 am to noon each Saturday. Parents are kept abreast of the situation and offered concrete suggestions of what they can do to help.
Despite this intense focus on academics, PS 172 has a warm, calm atmosphere. On one of our visits, parents dropped by to talk—in English and Spanish—to Spatola.
Even the kindergarten classes focus on academics, with no designated area for blocks or dramatic play. The school has no main library or real gym; one cafeteria doubles as a gym, a second as a dance studio. The auditorium has been partly sectioned off to create storage cubicles for resource teachers.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: Most of the teachers are certified both in special education and in general education. Special-needs students are integrated into general education classes. Speech therapy and most other assistance take place in the classroom. This also puts extra adults in the classroom to help all students. The school offers team-teaching in every grade. It has no self-contained classes.
ADMISSIONS: The school occasionally admits out-of-zone students but may not know if it has space until September. Seats are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis with an eye toward maintaining diversity and not overburdening special ed. services. (Clara Hemphill, October 2013; updated, interview and web reports, August 2016)