Guitar club. Political debate. Pumpkin picking. Mosaic art. Cooking. Fashion design. Ballroom dancing.
Welcome to…The Pratt Institute? The New School? New York University? Not even close. Welcome to P.S. 32, in the Bronx.
Principal Esther Schwartz favors an energetic approach to learning. Students at her K-5 school choose from a thrilling array of enrichment programs. They also benefit from comprehensive support covering academic, psychological and social needs. Mental health professionals report to Schwartz. So do classroom coaches and an in-house research team.
That’s why every P.S. 32 teacher returned this year, why P.S. 32 students shuffle quietly through the cavernous 19th-century building and why P.S. 32 test scores have soared since 1999. Just 19 percent of P.S. 32 5th graders met state standards in math that year. In 2007, 82 percent did.
“When I got here, we had students in the hallways, crawling under desks, major crises going on,” Schwartz said. “We’ve truly grown.”
Today, P.S. 32 is the pride of East Tremont and a “Turnaround for Children” model school.
Turnaround for Children, a New York-based nonprofit, helps low performing schools reach out to students and address disruptive behavior.
“Esther Schwartz embraced our strategies and flipped the character of P.S. 32,” said Greg Greicius, Turnaround’s senior vice-president. “It’s a high-need neighborhood. It’s rough. But that school glows.”
And P.S. 32 really does glow. Stroll through the school and you’ll admire stretch after stretch of colorful student work: impressionist paintings à la Claude Monet, autumn scenes and flowers inspired by Georgia O’Keefe.
Assistant Principal Adalia Rosamilia loves P.S. 32’s “Cityscape Collages”—orange apartment buildings with tissue paper windows and four-door sedans with shirt button wheels.
“It’s only October, and look at these walls,” Rosamilia smiled. “Ms. Schwartz is a woman of the arts. She’s passionate about music, dance and theater. When Ms. Schwartz took over, she made art a priority.
“We tap into the talents of our teachers. When we hire a teacher, we ask about his or her hobbies. Say a teacher plays the guitar. Bam! We start a guitar club.”
P.S. 32 planners inject art into math, science, reading and writing. The result: a fun, integrated curriculum. According to Schwartz, P.S. 32 boasts a 92 percent attendance rate.
“Before, kids would stay home,” said Melissa Locasto, a veteran kindergarten teacher. “Now they’re excited to come to school.”
Of course, P.S. 32 owes its flourishing arts scene to disciplined classrooms and motivated students. It’s amazing what a school can accomplish when teachers and staff are equipped to handle disruptive behavior.
“We don’t have fights here,” Rosamilia said.
Schwartz sends a student handbook home to parents and guardians at the start of each school year. The handbook lays out, in detail, P.S. 32’s consequence system.
“We’re consistent,” Schwartz said. “So kids know exactly what to expect when they break the rules.”
But rules only take a school so far, especially a school like P.S. 32, which caters to foster kids, homeless kids and English language learners. In order to head off classroom problems, Turnaround showed Schwartz a new way of educating.
“Most ‘Turnaround prescriptions call for principals to improve academic performance,” Greicius said. “But focusing on academic issues alone is like inflating one tire on a broken down car. P.S. 32 has developed an all-encompassing approach—one that examines each student’s unique needs.”
In most low performing schools, disruptive behavior earns a phone call home. And a phone call home leads to a scolding or spanking. That sort of punishment, Greicius explained, doesn’t help anyone.
Imagine a student running out of his classroom. Turnaround encourages teachers to ask why. Because he has to use the bathroom? Because he hates art? Because he’s attached to a guidance counselor who arrives at 10 a.m.?
At P.S. 32, social workers, administrators, classroom teachers and even experts in math and reading meet weekly to sort out disruptive behavior.
“Thanks to Turnaround, we discuss the child’s strengths and weaknesses, their best and worst subjects, their family history,” Schwartz said. “We discuss the whole child and formulate strategy from there.”
P.S. 32 employs three social workers and a guidance counselor. Cristian Diaz, one of the school’s social workers, supervises a quartet of Columbia University interns. Turnaround forged the P.S. 32-Columbia connection.
Turnaround also backed P.S. 32’s efforts to build rapport with parents and the community.
“We’ve improved in that area,” Schwartz said. “At parent association meetings years ago, we saw low turnout. Now parents feel at ease. They know P.S. 32 is a safe place. We see 100-plus show up.”
Schwartz asks neighborhood shopkeepers to display student work as well.
“A Turnaround school is a place open to the community for learning, sharing and collaboration,” Schwartz said. “A Turnaround elementary school makes sure that all of its students are ready for middle school.”
Or The Pratt Institute, The New School or New York University.
690 E. 183rd St.
Bronx, N.Y. 10458
Esther Schwartz, Principal
— Daniel Beekman