P.S. 17 Henry David Thoreau
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Dual language and a well-liked principal
Teachers spend lots of time improving behavior
PS 17 is a well-maintained school in Queens that serves neighborhood children including many from the Astoria Houses public housing development. The school is enjoying newfound stability with strong leadership after a period of low teacher morale, student behavior problems and declining enrollment. "It's wonderful seeing a school go from zero to ten," said a longtime parent. One welcome addition is a Spanish-English dual language program that opened in 2013.
Principal Rebecca Heyward arrived in 2012 after working as a math teacher at nearby PS 122 Mamie Fay. She increased arts instruction, and improved attendance and test scores. During our visit parents approached her with smiles, hugs and homemade goodies. Several praised what they see as higher standards under her leadership. "I like how my child is using strong vocabulary," said 5th-grade parent Brenda Carrasco.
Students in dual language classes hear instruction in English one day and Spanish the next from the same teacher. Most children enter the program in kindergarten but a few spots open in 1st grade for children whose ability to learn in Spanish is considered high. We saw lively teaching in these classes, as children worked with objects to learn math concepts.
The school has an inviting pre-kindergarten program with experienced teachers in classrooms with dress-up corners, art supplies, blocks and cozy seating areas. By contrast, the kindergarten rooms verged on too static, with children writing at tables in rooms without blocks or play areas. Heyward said she wants to re-introduce blocks, which were stored in the basement during the previous administration.
PS 17 has adopted the PBIS (positive behavioral intervention and supports) system, in which teachers reinforce positive behaviors with tickets, prizes, bowling parties and other incentives. Improving instruction is part of this initiative, and although it will take several years until PBIS is fully realized at PS 17, test scores are beginning to inch up.
Enrollment has stabilized but has not grown fast enough to avoid the city siting another school in the building. In 2014 the staff cleared out classrooms on the fourth floor to make room for Q300, a citywide gifted and talented program. The congenial leaders of both schools have worked to ensure that the schools peacefully co-exist for the benefit of all the students. "The building flows," Heyward said.
Not surprisingly, family income disparities are now reflected within the building with the addition of the new school. The parents at Q300 raised $60,000 halfway through their first year with only three grades in place. PS 17 receives Title 1 money because it serves a high percentage of children from low-income families, but the funds have not been enough to replace the expensive SMART Board light bulbs. Parents at both schools said they hope to do some joint initiatives in the future.
Special education: The school offers ICT (integrated co-teaching) classes, in which two teachers, one trained in special education, work in classrooms that mix special needs and general education students. There are also "self-contained" classes that serve a maximum of 12 special needs students only.
Admissions: Neighborhood school. The dual language program had three times more applicants than space in 2014. These classes, said the principal, are close to the ideal 50-50 split of native-English and native-Spanish speakers. (Lydie Raschka, February 2015)Read more