I.S. 340 North Star Academy
Accelerated science instruction a small, close-knit community.
Extremely cramped quarters with no gym;classroom management needs work
North Star Academy is a grand name for the small community of bright learners located in a snug red brick building in Prospect Heights. The school, which has an accelerated science curriculum, draws most of its students from Caribbean-American families living in Crown Heights and East Flatbush.
Principal Jean Williams looks for flexible and versatile staff members: the Spanish teacher is also a painter; the art teacher covers two periods of 6th grade math; and the dean coaches the Double Dutch team.
Each class is assigned to a homeroom to start the day and that teacher also serves as an advisor to help out with everything from student elections to social concerns.
Williams has a hands-on approach to leadership. When we arrived she was covering a math class because a teacher was absent. She seems accepting of varying teacher styles and encourages teachers to strengthen their practice. Two English Language Arts teachers plan lessons together because one is strong in content while the other has better organizational skills. Four teachers were absent the day of our visit and this contributed to some rocky classroom changes. A teacher stopped to lecture kids in the hallway, then scolded them again in the classroom. "Excuse me!" Williams said, stepping in to calm a class of boys upset at missing gym class because the substitute teacher did not have the qualifications to teach it. A downside of the small building is that there is no real gym. Physical education takes place in the low-ceilinged basement.
The PTA has been active in a media center renovation and parents come out for award ceremonies, holiday events or performances celebrating black history. Still, in recent years, the school has seen a decline in test scores and teacher and parent satisfaction (as measured by the 2010-2011 Learning Environment Surve y). Hit by budget cuts, the school lost popular step and cheerleading teams as well as a violin program. The math coach is teaching two classes leaving her less time to support teachers and a full-time dean is now part-time. To save money, Williams will absorb one 6th grade class into the others, raising class size in that grade to 27 per room. Recognizing a need to support teachers in the area of classroom management, Williams hired a group called "Ramapo for Children" to work with teachers on prevention and consistency.
"We try to do a lot of enrichment work," Williams said. An instructor from the PENCIL program, which links schools and businesses, was teaching 6th graders about financial literacy the day of our visit. Over spring break kids devote four days to a Math Marathon. Eighth graders take Regents exams in Living Environment and Integrated Algebra. The school offers Spanish and chorus. All kids get a weekly double period in the science lab. "We're struggling to get a debate team," said Williams.
Every child has a double period of art once a week and the school is equipped with laptops and Smart Boards. The computer lab is used for additional writing practice. Some of the displayed writing was of good quality, each piece with a distinctive point of view. Strong singers and several high achievers aim for specialized high schools in Manhattan but most opt for quality schools closer to home like Brooklyn College Academy, Medgar Evers Prep and Benjamin Banneker Academy.
Special education: There are two multi-grade special education classes for children with special needs only. On our visit seven students set up an experiment in the science lab in which they exposed potato slices to a variety of surfaces. "I have a strong feeling that fungus is going to grow on it," predicted a boy.
After school: Students participate in Double Dutch and flag football.
Admissions: Admission is determined by a combination of factors making up a "composite score". The final 4th grade report card counts for 40 percent, state tests 40 percent, attendance ten percent and student performance ten percent. (Lydie Raschka, October 2011; admissions updated November 2014)