First day jitters for kids & principals at the 2 new schools


By Julie Shapiro

Four-year-old Charlotte Newman is both excited and nervous to start kindergarten next week at P.S. 276 in Tweed Courthouse.

Charlotte is looking forward to taking the grown-up step of starting school, but she’s a bit apprehensive about meeting so many new people and making friends, said her mother, Gabriela Newman.

It might make Charlotte feel better to know that Terri Ruyter, the principal of 276, feels the same way.

“It’s very exciting and a little nerve-racking,” Ruyter said this week.

P.S. 276 and the Spruce Street School, Lower Manhattan’s two new K-8 schools, are opening next week with a total of six kindergarten classes in an incubator in Tweed Courthouse on Chambers St. The final homes of both schools are still under construction, but Downtown needed the kindergarten seats for this fall, so the schools are opening a year early.

Ruyter and Nancy Harris, principal of the Spruce Street School, have been working all summer to hire staff, order supplies and convert the lower level of Tweed Courthouse into kindergarten classrooms.

“They did an amazing job of pulling it together,” said Pam Hughes, whose son Henri is starting kindergarten at the Spruce Street School next week. Compared to the way the space looked when the Ross Global Academy, a charter school, was using it last year, the rooms are more colorful and kid-friendly, Hughes said. (The principals declined Downtown Express requests to view the new school space saying the teachers needed to focus on getting the rooms ready.)

Hughes was most impressed with Tweed’s spaciousness and architectural grandeur. The four corner rooms are 49 feet by 49 feet with floor-to-ceiling windows, which will be divided into kindergarten classrooms with extra space for a teachers’ room and a science discovery center with hands-on exhibits similar to the Museum of Natural History. Additional rooms on the first floor of Tweed will hold multipurpose space and a cafeteria.

The upper floors of Tweed house the Dept. of Education’s headquarters, so children will have to go through a metal detector as they enter the school.

Both principals have mapped out a detailed curriculum for their school’s first year, using an inquiry-based model that is similar in philosophy to P.S. 89 and P.S. 234, Lower Manhattan’s two existing schools.

Ruyter said she is most excited about her science program for P.S. 276, whose future Battery Park City building, scheduled to open in 2010, will be the first “green” school in New York City.

“We’re trying to root the curriculum in the idea of environmental sustainability,” Ruyter said. The kindergarteners at 276 are going to learn about the different habitats in a tree, including the bugs that live in the bark and the soil, and the squirrels and birds that live in the branches. The children will have real trees to observe just outside the school’s entrance in City Hall Park.

Students at both schools will also use the northeast lawn of the park for gym, and although the area now has as much mud as grass, the city is supposed to blanket the lawn in artificial turf this fall, Harris said.

The Spruce Street School’s curriculum will be similar to 276, but instead of focusing on sustainability, Harris will focus on community. The kindergarteners will start at the most local level — the classroom — and will expand outward to their families, their school, and their school’s role in the broader community. They will also learn about their new school building, which will likely open in 2011 in the base of the Frank Gehry-designed Ratner tower on Beekman St., and will take field trips to see the construction and talk to workers, Harris said.

The Spruce Street School held an open house last month where parents and children met the staff and toured the space. After the months of discussion about the Tweed space and confusion over the application process, Harris said it felt good to see the pieces fall into place.

“People are just really excited that it’s real,” Harris said.

P.S. 276 plans to hold a similar open house on Thurs., Sept. 3. The first day of school is Wed., Sept. 9.

The enrollment at both Tweed schools is still growing as new families move in, and neither principal had an exact count this week. Each of the schools has three kindergarten teachers and they will share an art teacher and other staff.

The three kindergarten teachers at P.S. 276 are Katie Mullaney, an early childhood teacher who worked in Collaborative Team Teaching classrooms in Brooklyn; Lucas Rotman, a former third-grade teacher at the Manhattan School for Children; and Madeline Wyman, a recent State University of New York-Fredonia graduate who student-taught kindergarten and first grade at P.S. 111 in Manhattan.

P.S. 276 and Spruce students will also take science classes from Liz Tollis, an early childhood teacher who impressed Ruyter when she pulled a live millipede out of her bag during the interview to demonstrate how she would use it as a teaching tool.

The three kindergarten teachers at the Spruce Street School are Arielle Diskin, a head teacher at West End Day School; Gina van der Vliet, who worked in early childhood education in the Bronx and is fluent in Dutch; and Lauren Halpern, who taught elementary C.T.T. classes in Brooklyn.

Students at both schools will take art classes from David Seligman, a former teacher at the Washington Market School.

Tweed will be getting a combined guidance counselor and physical education teacher in Rachel Goodman, who previously held both those positions at a small school in Vermont. Ruyter said it makes sense to combine the roles to help children learn about teamwork and problem solving. Another guidance counselor, Sarah Maiolo, has 10 years of experience on the Upper West Side and is also a P.S. 150 parent.

The many English language learners at Tweed — Ruyter said the school is “like a mini U.N.” — will have assistance from Juliana Germak, a fluent Spanish speaker who has been working at a Brooklyn public school for the past five years.

The Third Street Music School Settlement will provide music and movement classes.

After school, Manhattan Youth will bring its programs to Tweed, with on-site classes in tumbling, drumming, Mandarin, karate and more.

Bob Townley, Manhattan Youth’s executive director, said Tweed does not have enough students for a sustainable after-school program, but he wanted to make sure the kids had services.

The Tweed schools are also working with Gilsports, an after-school athletics program that will pick kids up at Tweed one day a week.

The principals expect most parents to walk their children to school, but buses will be available for those who live more than half a mile away after the first two weeks of school, Ruyter said.

As the first day of school approaches, parents from both schools have been gathering informally, holding play groups for their kids and brainstorming on fundraising plans. Some of the parents, though, are still on the waiting list for P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 and are hoping spaces in those schools will open up within the next two weeks.

Netta Levy, whose daughter is No. 4 on the P.S. 234 waitlist, has accepted the fact that she will likely be attending P.S. 276 instead. While Levy expressed frustration about the drawn-out admissions process, she said she is heartened by the excitement she is hearing from parents who have toured Tweed. Asked if she shared that excitement, Levy said she had no choice.

“I now have to be very excited about this school and this situation,” Levy said.