P.S. 321 William Penn
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Academically demanding school is also fun
No pre-k, overcrowding
PS 321 has a well-deserved reputation as one of the best schools in the city. Children learn to think deeply, to work independently, and to take responsibility for their own education. Teachers work together as a team and think seriously about how they can continuously refine their techniques. Both children and adults are excited about learning.
Longtime principal Liz Phillips, whose own children attended the school, has created an atmosphere thats both demanding and fun. To be successful, kids have to love school, says Phillips. She serves as a mentor for a number of principals in Brooklyn; some of the best principals in the city have trained under her and served as assistant principals at PS 321.
While each classroom has its own personality, there is a consistency to the instruction from class to class and from grade to gradea remarkable feat considering there are nearly 90 teachers in the school. The school does a good job challenging top students while giving children who need extra help the support they need.
The biggest problem is overcrowding. For more than a decade, some classes have been held in the mini-school which covers part of the playground in a building that was originally designed to be temporary. In the main building, teachers meet with children in small groups sitting on the floor of the corridor. In one classroom, children made room for a dance lesson by pushing their desks to the side. The art teacher comes into regular classrooms in some grades, because there isnt room for a separate art class. There is no room for pre-kindergarten, and after-school programs are limited.
Despite the overcrowding, PS 321 has managed to keep class size reasonable, with 25 or 26 in the lower grades and 29 in the 5th grade.
In every class we visited, there was a happy hum of activity as kids worked thoughtfully and purposefully. In kindergarten and 1st grade, children build towers and other structures from wooden blocks, writing labels to identify them, such as a bank. They interview adults in the school, such as the custodian or the security guard, to learn about their jobs. They walk to Prospect Park as part of a tree study. They make mobiles to learn about balance and motion.
The school has been working with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for more than 30 years, and writing is one of the schools strengths. Teachers balance traditional skills like spelling and cursive writing with imaginative assignments.
In 3rd grade, as part of their study of China, children wrote essays with topics as varied as traditional medicine, pandas and the first emperor. By the time children are in 5th grade their projects are quite sophisticated. One essay, part of a study of the Civil War and Reconstruction, gave reasons why you would not want your leg amputated.
The school has an eclectic approach to math. Teachers take pride in their ability to create math games that build childrens skills in fun ways. They created a math website, www.ps321math.com, to share their games with one another and with parents.
Firmly in the progressive camp, PS 321 has been part of the rebellion against standardized testing. More than one-third of children opted-out, or refused to take state tests for reading and math in 2015.
Parents are welcome in the school and are particularly invited to see their childrens classrooms once on month, called First Friday.
A hyperactive PTA raises about $1 million a year. At the same time, the school takes steps to ensure that fundraising efforts dont alienate parents who might not have much money. Even if only 10 percent of children qualify for free lunch, thats still 140 children, says Phillips. While the annual auction is expensive ($125 per person), the school has free events such as a potluck supper and family arts nights designed to include everyone.
The proportion of Black and Hispanic children enrolled at the school has declined in recent years, and Whites now make up 75 percent of the population. A multi-ethnic group of parents have organized a diversity committee to ensure that all feel welcome.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: Each grade has two ICT classes with two teachers, one of whom is trained in special education. Although there are no self-contained classes, the school integrates children with significant special needs in regular classrooms with extra supports. For example, a child with significant emotional problems may have a full-time aide assigned to help her manage her behavior. A mentor teacher with significant special education experience is available to give classroom teachers guidance and support.
ADMISSIONS: Neighborhood school. In recent years, the school has had room for all the children in its attendance zone. (Clara Hemphill, March 2016; updated August 2016)Read more