P.S. 770 New American Academy
Innovative classroom structure allows for in-depth exploration on one topic
Success depends on teachers' skill in managing new lessons each year
Taking inspiration from Waldorf education, and the open classrooms of the 1970s, teachers at the New American Academy remain with students from kindergarten through 5th grade, and work in teams of up to four, with about 60 students, in large open rooms. Other features at this unusual progressive school include no homework, outdoor recess in all weather, and science projects that include solar ovens made out of pizza boxes and designing structures for baby chicks. Lessons follow six-week-long themes on topics like Ancient Egypt or electricity.
Teachers stay with students in one room as they move through the grades, which means they manage the same kids, but at a new developmental level, and must learn all new lessons. Master teachers in each classroom earn the same six-figure salary the principal earns, a practice made possible because the school does not hire deans or assistant principals. The master teachers coordinate and mentor their own small teams of apprentice teachers. "That's kind of the strength and the vulnerability," said a parent, adding that her child's team is effective.
There are three staff members still in place here since the school's 2010 founding by Harvard-educated Shimon Waronker,who remains involved as an advisor. A few left to teach at one of two additional New American Academy schools. Former kindergarten teacher Jessica Saratovsky became principal in 2014. A longtime 1st-grade teacher at PS 33 in Manhattan, she has recruited several former colleagues.
Teachers plan lessons during a 90-minute morning meeting while children eat breakfast and exercise in other parts of the building with support staff. Then 60 children filter into one large room and divide up for lessons. "My one worry was the size of the class," said a father who works in TV sound production. "But it works so well. The kids help each other out."
The relaxed and positive atmosphere is a draw for parents. "What I see here is empathy," said a 4th-grade parent. "Everybody knows each other." One mother who moved her son to the school in 3rd-grade has been particularly pleased with the school's emphasis on positive feedback to parents, while not neglecting a child's challenges. "He's happy to come to school now," she said.
The make-up of the student body is changing as gentrification gains a foothold in Crown Heights. In the lowest grades blondes and brunettes are beginning to outnumber the larger school-wide African American majority. The administration actively recruits children from the community to try to retain the school's racial and economic diversity, which members of the school community said they value.
The principal said teachers try to avoid dull workbook test prep in favor of solid instruction and hands-on projects. One change has been to adjust the schedule to allow for additional small group lessons and to ask kids to tackle shorter reading passages in 3rd-grade. "My child is in a testing grade so that's important to me," said a 4th-grade parent, who admitted she'd like to see stronger test scores.
Even-keeled Saratovsky leads a parent forum on Friday mornings with coffee, pastries and food-for-thought. On the day of our visit, she showed a video in order to brainstorm ways PS 770 students might use technology in the classroom. This sparked a discussion on race, the school's "no homework" policy, and the fears children were expressing related to news of police aggression. Saratovsky, who is herself a mother of young children, was able to draw candid comments from a diverse group of Caribbean, African American, Asian and Caucasian parents.
Instead of hiring art and music teachers, the staff prefers the flexibility and lower cost of arts residencies in partnership with Center for Arts Education. All student take visual arts, dance or theater. There's an after-school program until 6 pm for a fee of about $10 a day.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: Children with special needs are integrated into general classrooms and grouped according to need for lessons.
ADMISSIONS: Priority to District 17. There were about 200 applications for 36 pre-k spots in 2014. (Lydie Raschka, May 2015)
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Brooklyn NY 11212