Harlem Village Academy West Charter Middle School
Focus on kids independence, rather than obedience
Shifts around teaching approach are a work-in-progress
When it was founded in 2003, Harlem Village Academy was known for relentless discipline, silence in the halls, and a no excuses approach to education. That philosophy is changing: Teachers now encourage children to talk in class, work together in groups and take responsibility for their own education.
We dont want them to just be obedient, waiting for someone to tell them what to do, said Jason Epting, principal of Harlem Village Academys middle school, the oldest of a network of five schools now called Harlem Village Academies.
We were sending kids off to college, and they really didnt have the independence to be successful, said Matt Scott, chief operating officer for the network.
The Harlem Village Academies network has hired Shelley Harwayne, the founding principal of Manhattan New School and former superintendent of Manhattans top-performing District 2, to help staff adapt from a traditional approach to teachingwith desks in rows and the teacher doing most of the talkingto a more progressive approach, with desks in groups and teachers walking from child to child, offering individual help.
Instead of traditional parent-teacher conferences, each child now presents a portfolio of work to his or her parents, with the teacher looking on.
Theres a new philosophy around discipline as well. In the past, children might be sent home for minor infractionssuch as not wearing a belt as the uniform required. Now, the school has adopted restorative justice, finding ways for children to make amends (and borrow a belt) without forcing them to miss class. If youre not in class, youre not learning, Epting said.
The new methods are a work in progress, and, on our visit, many teachers seemed to be more comfortable with traditional methods. Its been a really hard change, one staffer said.
The school day is long, from 7:35 am to 4:30 pm. As is the case at most charters, teachers are not unionized.
Many children enter 5th grade with very low levels of academic skills, particularly in reading, and teachers work hard to bring them up to grade level. For math, the school blends the challenging Singapore Math program with a Japanese approach that focuses on understanding concepts. Children have math for at least 100 minutes a daysignificantly longer than at most middle schools.
As at most schools in the state, the Harlem Village Academy middle schools test scores plummeted with the introduction of new tests aligned to the Common Core in 2013. Still, the test scores are better than average for District 5 middle schools.
Located on the top floor of PS 194, Harlem Village Academy has clean but worn classrooms and corridors. A boys bathroom was closed for repairs at the time of our visit.
Students who graduate from the middle school are automatically admitted to the Harlem Village Academy High School, which has a high graduation rate and a good record sending graduates to college.
The founder of Harlem Village Academies is Deborah Kenny, formerly a teacher and an executive at Time Warner. She has received national attention for her work with Harlem Village Academies and published a book based on her experience,Born to Rise. The network has received support from donors such as Bill Gates and actor Hugh Jackman.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: The school has six special education teachers and a number of ICT, or team-teaching, classes. Epting, a former special education teacher, is committed to keeping children with special needs, rather than counseling them to leave as some schools do. Once they step into our school, theyre ours, Epting said.
ADMISSIONS: The school offers a lottery in April, with preference to students who live in District 5. The high school only admits students from Harlem Village Academy and Leadership Academy Middle Schools.(Clara Hemphill, March 2015)
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Manhattan NY 10030