Nelson A. Rockefeller (P.S./I.S. 121) Magnet School of Applied Life Sciences
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Small, nurturing pre-k to 8 school
No auditorium or full-size gymnasium
With just two classes in most grades (one in the middle school grades), PS 121 is a small, nurturing school in an Orthodox Jewish enclave in Borough Park. Nearly every class mixes general education and special needs children and most have at least two adults. The school has a stable staff and many sweet traditionsshowcasingstudent work at parent-teacher night, annual dance performances, and Saturday events such as family portrait art day and bingo.
Students from diverse corners of the worldUzbekistan, Mexico, Chinahappily play and work together. Groups of middle school studentslooking a bit like the United Nations, study together for a Regents Earth Science exam or rehearse for an English class performance.
Virtually all students stay for middle school grades rather than go off to one of the district's large, specialized middle schools. A few who leave even come back, the principal said.
"Everyone is friendly. The teachers are good," a 6th-grader told us. "I don't know how I'd be in a bigger school."
Students are engrossed in their work and seem happy to be at school; some skipping through the hallways. Principal Anthony Mungioli brought stability when he arrived at PS 121 in 2014 after it had three principals in three years. The enrollment, which had dropped below 200, was up to 350 by 2016.
"Mr. M is a great principal," a teacher told us. "He's approachable. The environment is calm. Everybody is working together."
Classrooms are large and roomy in the building, constructed in the 1930s, but the gymnasium is small and there is no auditorium. A huge outdoor play yard, adjacent to a city field, helps make up for the lack of a full-size gym. A small garden in the front of the building gives children an opportunity to get their hands dirty planting flowers and vegetables.
The school follows the scripted ReadyGen curriculum in the early grades and then switches to Expeditionary Learning from grades 3-8 which "does a very good job of covering science and social studies," the principal said. Students all read the same books and discuss them together, although there is time for children to choose their own books to read, too. In middle school, 8th-graders are separated into different tracks for math and science; the more advanced students take the Earth Science Regents. Math scores, while improving, are still not high enough to warrant an algebra class, the principal said.
Every room has at least two, and sometimes three adults. In the elementary grades, there is an ASD Nest classroom with a maximum of 16 students, a handful of whom are on the autism spectrum. They get regular social skills lessons with the speech therapist where they get pointers on how to play with their classmates and learn social norms.
Science is a major focus, and the school plans to add a greenhouse with grant money. Pre-schoolers made little bird feeders to go in the garden, planted seeds and watched a Magic School Bus video. Pre-k is play-based, but instruction in kindergarten becomes academic: even 5-year-olds write research projects on countries such as Mexico.
There is a wide range of reading levels, especially since so many students are still learning English. Teachers keep binders of student work which follow the children from grade to grade.
Popular high school choices are Midwood, Madison and the school just down the block, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which is the zoned school for many in the neighborhood.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: Every classroom is either an ICT team-teaching class or an ASD Nest classroom. Classrooms are quiet, neatly arranged and well thought-out without too many visual distractions.
ADMISSIONS: Neighborhood school. Most elementary students stay for middle school. ASD Nest students come from throughout the district and are placed by the Department of Education. (Pamela Wheaton, May 2016)