Bronx Charter School for Better Learning
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Unusual hands-on system for teaching math
Space is tight
Bronx Charter School for Better Learning has a loyal and cohesive staff, excellent attendance and involved parents. Founded in 2003, it is based on the teaching of Caleb Gattegno, an Egyptian-born mathematician who developed methods of teaching reading and math using color-coded charts and wooden rods some 70 years ago. His multi-sensory approach has been used widely in Europe and Africa.
In some respects, the school is traditional, with an emphasis on discipline, spelling and grammar. But teachers want kids to grapple with concepts and be curious. “You never tell them anything they can figure out themselves,” said long-time math coach Paula Hajar, who has an EdD from Harvard.
Most of the classwork is done in small groups. In math, young children use Cuisenaire rods (brightly colored wooden rods) to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The rods come in 10 different lengths, each representing a different number and color. Children put the rods together in a way that allows them to visualize arithmetic facts or understand fractions.
Reading is taught with a program called "Words in Color." In this method, each letter-sound is assigned a different color, and all the sounds in the English language are listed in color-coded charts on the wall. For example, the "f" sound in English may be represented by the letters "f" or "ph" or "gh." Each of these letters or letter combinations is color-coded lavender, to help children sound out words like "rough" or "telephone."
The school occupies pleasant prefabricated classrooms on the playground of PS 111. Classes have about 25 children each and typically there two or more adults working with children in each room.
Special classes include instrumental music, and a band, in grades 3 to 5, as well as chorus, chess, art and gym. Children through grade 3 study Korean and are exposed to aspects of Korean culture, like Lunar New Year and martial arts.
Space is tight at the school; some specialists have to double up and art is brought into classrooms on a cart.
Staffers try to engage students who struggle in creative ways. For example, a student behind in academics or behaving poorly may thrive in the band, Hajar said. The school psychologist has created a space with soft chairs where kids who need a break can collect themselves.
ADMISSIONS: A lottery is held in April. Priority is given to District 11 residents. There are far more applicants than seats. (Lydie Raschka, interview, April, 2020)