P.S. 65 The Academy of Innovative Learning
Progressive curriculum incorporates music, dance and art; racially diverse student body
At their previous school, Sophie Scamardella and Liz Rodriguez noticed schoolchildren participated more, retained more information, and developed more self-esteem when lessons incorporated music, dance, and art. Today, Principal Scamardella and counselor Rodriguez have infused the arts into core beliefs of Staten Island’s PS 65, known as the Academy of Innovative Learning. This new and growing elementary school in Staten Island’s historic Tompkinsville neighborhood combines a heavy dose of those arts within a “whole child” curriculum that also emphasizes social and emotional growth.
“We teach them skills for life, not just skills for school,” said Scamardella, who is perhaps one of the most gregarious and talkative principals in New York.
The school opened in September 2008 with 180 kids in grades pre-K through 1st. Grades have been added annually, and by fall 2012 the school became a complete pre-K through 5th elementary. Teachers seem to love working at PS 65: None has quit since its opening, and Scamardella gets a stack of applications for each new spot.
Students wear blue uniforms bearing the school mascot, the dolphin, which represents intelligence, integrity, respect and honesty. The symbolism seems to rub off on the kids, a racially diverse crowd who during our visit were excited about their lessons and polite toward teachers. “There’s no yelling in this school,” said counselor Rodriguez. “Everyone wants to be here.”
PS 65’s historic building features soaring ceilings, large windows, wood floors and enviable views of New York Harbor. Renovations have added amenities such as elevators, bright colors and two science classrooms. The campus recently added an auditorium and an outdoor playground, but the indoor “gym” is the size of a dance studio.
The emphasis on art is manifested through the inclusion of musical instruments, songs, or art projects during regular lessons. Scamardella’s previous experience taught her that struggling or withdrawn students felt comfortable and engaged when handed an instrument or paint brush that allowed self-expression. “Children need to believe in themselves,” Scamardella said. “How can you learn when you’re coming in crying and upset?” New York art and dance troupes often work with teachers to integrate art into lessons.
When we visited in March, on Dr. Seuss’s birthday, students in many classes wore tall hats (à la The Cat in the Hat) they had created out of construction paper and decorated with poetry. One class was playing “Seuss Jeopardy” on a SMARTboard. In a science class, teacher Danielle Moreau was reading Seuss’s The Lorax and making comparisons to the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
Scamardella said the PS 65 curriculum aims to teach children to be problem-solvers and lifelong learners, and students may get customized assignments based on their individual needs or strengths. The curriculum includes Everyday Math, physical education, Spanish and daily “reflection and sharing time,” in which children record what they learned, enjoyed or observed. They earn tokens for good behavior and good choices, which can be exchanged for items in the Feeling Good Store.
Special education: Special ed students participate in general ed classrooms but are offered extra services as needed. PS 65 is piloting a new program using this approach.
Admissions: In 2016, the school had roughly 200 applications for 32 kindergarten seats, which were mostly filled by siblings of current students (only seven seats were available after sibling priority, according to the parent coordinator). (Skip Card, March 2011; updated by phone call with parent coordinator, Lydie Raschka, August 2016)