P.S. 161 Arthur Ashe School
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Strong leadership, rigorous academics, rich arts and extracurriculars
Early focus on academics may not be for everyone
Some schools view their namesakes as afterthoughts, but at PS 161 The Arthur Ashe School in Richmond Hill, Queens, longtime principal Jill Hoder believes it will always be relevant to be named after Arthur Ashe, a man who rose above his circumstances to become one of the best tennis players in the world. In this calm, well-rounded school that welcomes families from all over the globe, a rigorous curriculum, a rich arts program and an emphasis on staff collaboration means that all students are prized and guided to achieve their best.
Students here certainly dont lack for stimulation. When theyre not designing a new playground, or writing biographies of famous aviators, children might be hard at work in art class, jewelry making, technology, dance, chess or guitar. But high expectations dont come at the expense of warmth. Students here feel safe and they feel loved, said Hoder. On our visit, we saw students give several impromptu hugs.
PS 161 uses the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for English language arts and makes a special effort to integrate literary projects with social studies. During our visit, we saw examples of strong writing and thoughtful discussions. A 5th-grade class had a lively conversation about how to avoid plagiarizing when writing a research paper. Outside the classroom, teachers met with an ELA coach from Teachers College and discussed ways to bring a lesson about colonial times in America to life by focusing on villages and architecture.
As students move to the upper grades, teachers departmentalize, specializing in reading, writing or math. There is also a greater emphasis on responsibility and self-assessment as children are encouraged to edit and grade much of their own work based on set rubrics. Responsibility carries over to social emotional learning: Student safety monitors happily patrol the hallways to offer help to their peers and good behavior is rewarded with Arthur Ashe dollars that can be used toward class prizes like ice cream or pizza parties.
For mathematics, teachers rely on the Department of Education approved GoMath curriculum, while outside partnerships offer some unique hands-on experiences. A grant from the New York Lands Foundation in 2015 paved the way for a brand new playground, track and set of tennis courts that 4th-graders helped design along with professional engineers. A joint program with Price Waterhouse Coopers lets 5th-graders work with accountants to analyze emerging job markets. Its important for our students to see the real-life applications of what theyre learning, says Hoder. When they learn something in math class, I want them to think, How am I going to use this?
Many children come to the school directly from countries like Guyana and Trinidad and have had interrupted educations. The school also has a high number of English language learners from South Asia who need extra support, which Hoder is happy to provide. She is proud to call herself a data person and has a color-coded chart tracking each students progress in her office.
In addition to adjusting curriculum, and increasing professional development and teacher prep periods to meet more rigorous state standards, the school holds weekly workshops and conferences to give families tools at home to support what their children are learning in school. The only downside to this Common Core focus is that classic fiction and literature have taken a backseat in ELA classes, as teachers focus more on informational texts geared toward the kinds of questions they believe students will face on state exams.
The school has two pre-kindergarten classes, one of which combines general education students and those with special needs. In this earliest year, the focus is on socialization and exploration, through activities like blocks and play kitchens, but we did see students sitting in rowsand trying hard not to fidgetwhile a teacher directed a lesson to the whole group.
ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS: More than 11 percent of students qualify for ENL (English as a new language) services. While Punjabi is the primary foreign language spoken here, Hindi, Spanish, Bengali and Urdu are other popular languages. Five staffers speak Punjabi, and two ENL specialists work with students as needed.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: Providing a top-notch, inclusive education to special ed students is a high priority at PS 161, a barrier-free school. The school has eight ICT (integrated-co-teaching) classrooms, and even an ICT pre-kindergarten. A District 75 program for children with more severe disabilities is housed within PS 161 and students are mainstreamed in all classes. Assistive technology in gym class gives students with physical disabilities thoughtful access to physical education; several have participated in the Special Olympics. SETSS, OT, PT, speech and counseling are also available.
ADMISSIONS: Zoned school. (Aimee Sabo, November 2015)Read more