P.S. 249 The Caton
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Good leadership, strong academics, longer school day & lots of arts
Some dimly lit corridors; grade expansion means less space for out of zone students
PS 249 is a happy, active place, where strong academics and enrichment activities give all children a chance to excel. "Grandparents," easily spotted in bright red Department of Aging jackets, help watch over little ones and provide extra hands in the classroom. Students may play intramural soccer, dance to the beat of African drums, or learn the violin during the school day. There is always a buzz of activity, even on Fridays, when children typically are distracted by thoughts of a school-free weekend.
That's mostly because of "Super Science Fridays," an entire school-day each week devoted to science-related instruction. "Attendance on Fridays was kind of a challenge," says Principal Elisa Brown, so she had to come up with something special. Students may conduct experiments in class, build volcanoes with the science teacher, and devote themselves to non-fiction books during reading period. "When they leave on Fridays, they leave with a project, something they made, and in a calm, happy tone," Brown says.
Students at PS 249 seem genuinely happy to spend time at school. Those in grades 3-5 stay until 5:30 pm two days a week and come in on Saturday mornings. A lot of extra-curriculars - such as soccer teams, or music or dance lessons, are available at the school.
Formerly an early childhood school serving PK-3, PS 249 has added a 4th a 5th grade. It enrolls many students who arrive with little grasp of English. To serve them, the school offers a dual language Spanish-English classes. Kindergartners start with one period a day in which they are immersed in their non-native language; upper grades have more. The hallways are also split, clearly denoting with signs which rooms are designated for English immersion and which for Spanish immersion. These rooms face each other, so that when students or teachers change classes, they don't have to travel very far. For non-dual language classes, many classroom teachers are trained in English as a Second Language, so children are not pulled out of class.
The ESL-trained teachers are going to be with you all day, teaching every subject, said the principal, a soft-spoken but imposing figure. She was a Cahn fellow in 2007, a recognition of her strong leadership.
Children thrive with stepped-up arts activities. Artists from the Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy teach African dance, drumming, drama, capoiera and art. The Noel Poynter Foundation brings in musicians to teach students to play the violin. Theres a drama teacher on staff.
You need a lot of things for 800 plus kids to keep them engaged, said the principal. "Kids that might not be as successful with academics have an opportunity to shine in another way."
The school is proud of its wellness policies which include a lot of physical activity under the guidance of a licensed phys ed teacher and 10 am healthy snacks for all. PS 249 adopted a positive behavior (PBIS) approach to discipline with color-coded -- red, yellow and green -- charts in classrooms to indicate what kind of day a student is having. Children earn "bee" points for good behavior enabling them to shop in a small school store.
Academics are strong. We treat all children as if they were gifted, says the principal. Students get lots of individual attention, especially during the second period of each day when all instructional staff is working with students in classrooms. Teachers work closely together with the more experienced staff mentoring newer faculty. Teachers participate in a book club on Wednesday.
Children dress in tidy uniforms-light and dark blue for grades 1-3 and khaki and white for grades 4 and 5. They read from science textbooks, and take spelling tests. To prepare for the city's standardized reading and math exams, the school assesses students with tests at least three times a year. Everyone begins the day by doing a math problem and a math review. There are also before-school, after-school, and Saturday test-prep sessions.
Students also get the opportunity for travel: 3rd graders spent a week on a farm in Vermont; 5th graders visited historical sites in Philadelphia.
English language learners: Many students from Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Honduras and El Salvador are in Spanish-English dual language classes. Other new immigrants come from Haiti and from African countries and are taught in regular classrooms by teachers trained in ESL.
Special education: There are several self-contained classes, but no Integrated Co-Teaching classes. We look at kids individually, the principal said. There are occupational, physical and speech therapists.
After school: Community organizations such as Ifetayo and the CAMBA hold extracurricular programs after-hours and on Saturdays in the building that are free-of-charge for PS 249 students.
Admissions: Neighborhood school. Because it has expanded its grades there are few seats for out of zone kids; the school is at 110 percent of its capacity, administrators said. (Pamela Wheaton, May 2013)