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SCHOOL 90'S SUCCESS RESTS ON CHILD-CENTERED CLASSROOM

You want poverty, School 90 has poverty: Three-quarters of the pupils are on welfare.

You want inner-city kids, the school has them, too: Nearly two-thirds of the children are blacks living on the East Side.

You want impressive test scores, School 90 has them as well: Tests that measure reading and math skills have jumped 60 percent the past four years, the biggest improvement in the system.

School 90 has succeeded because it has dared to change.

By doing so, it not only has shown that education can thrive in the inner city, but it also has established a model for how other schools can succeed.

"They decided their priority was the kids, and whatever needed to be done, they did as a team," said Marion Canedo, who oversees the early childhood centers. "They've created something that can be replicated -- but only with the same kind of leadership and esprit de corps."

The school, near Fillmore Avenue and Genesee Street, traces its renaissance back five years, when teachers got together and decided they needed to change and Linda Croglia was appointed principal.

The school, an early childhood center for pupils from prekindergarten through second grade, had a decent reputation. But test scores were low, and the staff members decided change was needed.

The first and most important decision involved killing the boss approach that is central to traditional education: Principals boss teachers, and teachers boss children. Instead, a collaborative relationship was struck among administrators, teachers, teacher's aides and parents. The result: a classroom that was child-centered rather than teacher-dominated.

"We used to just deal with the academics," explained Nora O'Neill, a special-education teacher. "Now we're dealing with the whole child, including their emotional and physical side, and we're teaching them more life skills."

The school uses these strategies:

Teach the way children learn.

People learn in different ways. Twenty-one factors influence how people learn. Some learn best by reading; others by listening. Some learn best in quiet situations; others when music is playing.

"Learning styles" classrooms provide pupils with a number of different ways and environments in which to learn.

Anne Marie Tryjankowski's second-grade classroom doesn't have any desks. There are tables for when the class works as a group, but that's only a couple of hours a day.

One recent day, Miss Tryjankowski's class was working on alphabetizing skills.

Two children sat on a couch matching oversized letters with images on a chart.

Another worked on a computer.

Two others listened to tapes.

A half-dozen played what amounted to an educational "twister" game on the floor, stretching hands and feet to match up with the appropriate letter.

All were working on their ABCs -- on their own terms. No one was goofing off or acting up.

"There are no discipline problems because children are actively learning," Miss Tryjankowski said. "The children are so busy, they don't have time to think about how to misbehave."

Learn with peers.

Research shows that the average person retains about 5 percent of what he or she reads. People retain 50 percent when they work in a discussion group, and up to 90 percent when they teach others what they have learned. These are key features of cooperative learning.

Bernadette Ruland's first-grade class conducted a hands-on exercise to determine which weighed more: two pennies or two nickels.

Four groups of children went to work with homemade scales. One child put the pennies, and later the nickels, on one end of the scale, then placed individual paper clips on the other end until it balanced the nickels. Another child marked down the results. The other children joined in the banter, talking about the differing colors and thicknesses of the coins.

Teach language the natural way.

Dick and Jane and Spot of the Basil readers have been replaced by the Gunnywolf in Donna Egan's first-grade class. Unlike the contrived characters of the Basil readers so long in vogue in classrooms across the country, the tale of the Gunnywolf is real literature.

"Whole language," as the approach is known, places equal importance on reading, writing, listening and speaking. Mrs. Egan touched all the bases as she read aloud, and pupils followed in their books.

Next came an exercise to take the children from fantasy to real creatures. She asked the youngsters to name all the real animals they could think of, listing them on a big sheet of paper. The children came up with 17 and got a lesson in spelling, vocabulary and word roots.

The children then scattered to four activity centers, where they could read, write, listen and work on a computer.

Charlotte Homes headed for a table to write. She gave her visitor a lesson on the Gunnywolf.

"It's a compound word," the 7-year-old said matter-of-factly.

Measure student performance in meaningful ways.

"Authentic assessment," as it is called, goes beyond simple report cards at School 90. There are detailed evaluations of language and math skills, as well as portfolios of student work and assessments in skills not tracked in the past, such as problem solving.

"We are giving parents a much broader, in-depth analysis of their child," said Marcia Rosenthal, a second-grade teacher.

Get needed training.

The school couldn't change unless the teachers did, and that required extensive retraining. All teachers received at least 90 hours of training and were given opportunities for additional professional development. Most of them took advantage of the opportunity.

Involve parents.

Traditional parent conferences and PTA-type organizations are just the beginning. Most important, Mrs. Croglia said, is a lot of one-on-one communication.

The school also established a 500-volume library near the front door where parents can borrow books to read to their children. Weekly classes on how to be a good parent were started. The school publishes a newsletter, and many classes send their own communique home weekly.

Parents were encouraged to volunteer for classroom activities, and more than 20 serve on a site-based management team.

"I see more parents involved," said Cheryl Brown, secretary of the Parent-Teacher Organization. "I was one of the parents who walked in, dropped off their kids and walked out."

Mrs. Brown said the change in many schoolchildren is "amazing."

The same word can be used to describe the improvement in test scores.

Five years ago, the school's standardized test scores were among the lowest in the district. School 90 now is one of 15 city schools scoring at or above the national average.

"It doesn't take money to do those things, except for training," said Mrs. Croglia, who is now principal of the Makowski Early Childhood Center. "It takes a commitment to put in time and effort and energy."

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