Charter school boasts small classes, perfect scores


By Sisi Wei

Hope Terroade, a 28-year-old kindergarten teacher, smiled into the distance as if she were reliving the endearing moment all over again.

“The whole school is outside at dismissal, and the students, they just all start crying,” she said. Terroade couldn’t see the second and third graders, but her students and all the first graders were all standing close together, crying.

Terroade said she and several other teachers quickly walked into the crowd, asking students what was wrong. They all received the same response: “I don’t want school to be over.”

“And we were trying to tell them, ‘It’s summer! You can go swimming!’” Terroade said. But the students weren’t excited.

“They all walked away with lumped-over shoulders, slowly waving,” said Terroade as she demonstrated the walk and the children’s sad expressions.

It was the end of the 2006-’07 school year at Manhattan Charter School on Attorney St. and it was a day Terroade would never forget.

“I have never seen anything like this before,” she said. “They were just so sad that school was over. Each child was so reluctant to leave, and so many started crying. That means so much more to me than any letter of recognition.”

M.C.S. was launched in fall 2005 with kindergarten and first grade. The school will add one grade level per year until reaching fifth grade. The 2008-’09 school year is the school’s first year of teaching fourth grade.

The charter school is open to all city students, but now gives preference to students who are from School District 1, which covers the Lower East Side and East Village.

Currently, M.C.S. is located in the same building as and shares space with P.S. 142, the Amalia Castro School. But this school year, saw M.C.S. start a week earlier than its public school counterpart. The charter school began classes on Aug. 25. The earlier start date doesn’t mean more school days, however, just a rearranged yearly schedule, said Principal Genie DePolo.

Due to a decision made by teachers and the small administration — including the principal, curriculum coordinator and business director — M.C.S. students will have a longer day to accommodate for new programs starting this year.

In addition to M.C.S.’s five core subjects of humanities (traditionally known as social studies), mathematics, English language arts, science and music, the school is adding an art class.

“When M.C.S. started, it really wanted to give each child a rigorous education,” Terroade said. The mission was to make the children lifelong learners while exposing them to the arts and encouraging them independent thinkers, she said. The mission “enticed” her so much that Terroade applied to teach at M.C.S.

“Here, they have the option to be really exposed to the arts,” she said. “You mean my students get to go be in a room with Picassos all over the walls? How great is that?”

The newly constructed art room is filled with four, long, bright-crimson tables surrounded by walls plastered with postcard-sized versions of paintings by various artists.

In addition to the art program, Principal DePolo also hopes to start the foreign language program sometime this year. Students will either be learning Mandarin Chinese or French.

“We have so many students who are Spanish speaking,” said DePolo, citing it as the reason the school did not choose to teach Spanish. “We wanted to make sure it was truly a foreign language.”

To accommodate for added art and foreign language instruction, the school day has an extended end time of 3:30 p.m. compared with last year’s 7:45 a.m.-to-2:45 p.m. school day.

“Even if the day’s extended, the people who feel it won’t be the children,” said Terroade, who thinks the students will just absorb every extra minute.

“Our kids are like sponges every day because they love to learn,” said Danielle Berg, a third-grade teacher at M.C.S. “I don’t know if it’s them or if it’s us, but it doesn’t matter. It’s really every kid” who’s excited to learn, she said.

Berg has spent six years teaching elementary school, the last two at M.C.S. Although she’s easily engaged 80 percent or 90 percent of her students in the past, the fact that 100 percent of her students at M.C.S. are always interested is a surprise, but a wonderful one. Her experience with the students is one she can’t even describe.

“It’s just a really special place and, as a writer, you may feel that you can put down everything in words — I even majored in creative writing — but you just have to be here to understand,” she said.

The students’ engagement level has really paid off. Last year was M.C.S.’s first year teaching third grade and its first year of state testing. All 19 third graders passed both the 2008 English Language Arts and math exams. In School District 1, 61 percent of students passed the English Language Arts exam and 86 percent passed the math.

DePolo said the reading and math scores are more impressive considering the school’s demographics. Ninety-five percent of the students are minorities and 75 percent receive free or reduced lunch.

“Have we closed the achievement gap for our third graders?” DePolo said. “I think so.”

She said it was exciting when the school found out about the scores, but state officials told her not to publicize it because the test results were not ready to be released. The school ended up throwing an internal party for the students and their teacher.

“I really felt the kids were prepared,” said Berg, the school’s only third-grade teacher last year. “It felt right from the day I met them.”

Last year’s third-grade humanities curriculum was a figurative “trip around the world” to Iraq, Puerto Rico, Italy, China, Poland and Ghana, with each new unit focusing on different aspects of each country.

When students were studying Michelangelo, Berg taped a piece of paper underneath each of their desks and asked students to lie down and paint to replicate how he completed ceiling paintings.

“We tell them a little and then we let them experience it,” she said.

Hands-on experiences are the focus of the school’s curriculum across all grade levels.

“We have to teach mastery of the standards, but how do we do that creatively?” Terroade said. “How do we make it real for the students?”

This year, her kindergarteners will be starting science with the topic of trees. The class will “observe trees through fall” and the students will be “walking around with clipboards with observations.”

“How much more powerful is it to walk outside and touch it and actually interact with it?” Terroade said.

As part of their humanities curriculum, students also study the Lower East Side by taking community walks through the neighborhood from kindergarten until second grade.

“Most of our students are from the neighborhood but have no idea what that entails,” said Terroade, whose kindergartners take community walks at least once a week, sometimes more often, if weather permits. At this frequency, student field trips are no longer few and far between.

“It’s no longer ‘We’re going on a field trip!’ ‘When’s the next trip?’ is really the conversation,” Terroade said.

Berg and Terroade also agree that the level of parent involvement has been very important.

“Having the parents behind me [for teaching Iraq] was something I hadn’t ever experienced,” Berg said. “Can you imagine third graders discussing the Iraq War?”

Terroade agrees, “Parents on board, students on board.”

Parents can also go on community walks with the children as chaperones. M.C.S. has often needed to rotate parent volunteers so that all parents are given an opportunity to experience a trip with their children.

“What we decide here is that every adult here is responsible for every child in this building,” said DePolo, who personally stands at the double doors to welcome each student at the beginning of every school day.

“I start each morning with a good morning and a handshake,” she said. “I don’t think I missed a single day last year.”

“The teachers know that each child is a priority,” Terroade echoed.

Class sizes are smaller than the city’s traditional public schools, where elementary the class-size limit is 25 to 32 pupils depending on the grade. Every class at Manhattan Charter is capped at 24 students, and the school has an average of 12 students per teaching adult. Other than fourth grade, each grade level has two classes. In addition to the teachers in each classroom, grades 1 through 3 each have one teacher’s assistant for both classes. Kindergarten has two teacher’s assistants — one per class.

The school’s achievement is a success, but it’s also a requirement, said DePolo. Born in Little Italy and now a Bronx resident, DePolo has been the principal of M.C.S. for the past two years and understands that, as she said, “It is crucial for us to show that we are doing a good job here.” If M.C.S. doesn’t meet the goals set in its charter, the school is always at risk for being closed.

Regardless, the teachers at M.C.S. have full confidence in their students.

“If we set the bar high, these kids will rise to it,” Terroade said. “If I’ve impacted them the right way, then they’re better prepared for life.”