Common Traits at Successful Schools

8th Grade Students, Tompkins Square Middle School Andre Tartar A group of eighth grade students at Tompkins Square Middle School, one of two schools in the East Village to receive “A” grades on a recent evaluation of city schools. Students attributed the school’s success to strong bonds with the faculty. “We are like a family,” said one eighth grader.

The halls of Tompkins Square Middle School fill with children headed to their next classes. The silver-haired dean of community affairs, Devan Aptekar, warns a visitor to get ready for some noise. But it never really comes. Instead of hollering and ricocheting off the walls, students chat with each other using their inside voices. A few even wave hello to Mr. Aptekar as they pass. Nearby, a math teacher jokes with a student and asks him to answer a question before he can enter the class: “What is negative fourteen squared?” Clearly, something is going right here.

In the wake of the recent progress reports on which East Village schools performed poorly, The Local decided to ask the two schools awarded “A” grades, Tompkins Square Middle School and East Side Community School, about the ingredients of their success.

Many of the approaches being tried at Tompkins Square and East Side are hardly novel. Both schools cite small class sizes and the retention of successful, veteran teachers – long regarded as key elements to academic success – as part of the reason for their strong performance on the citywide evaluations of schools.

But the two schools also have some customized elements – such as regular consultation between students and guidance counselors and flexible scheduling that allows for individual study – that they say have helped them succeed.

When asked about his school’s performance, Sonhando Estwick, the principal of Tompkins Square, first cited the retention of strong, experienced teachers. “I don’t think we have a single first year teacher this year.” With space hard to come by — it shares a building on East Sixth Street and Avenue B with two elementary schools — faculty often co-teach classes of around 30 students.

“We end up with a 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio,” said Mr. Estwick, noting that he considers co-teaching a form of “built-in professional development.”

A group of eighth grade students at Tompkins Square — a diverse bunch — said that they are close-knit and encouraged by faculty to support each other.

“We are like a family,” said one student, Daysa Beckum, a 14-year-old. “Lately there’s been lots of bullying at other schools, but when I come here, I know that’s not going to happen. We don’t judge people and we all come here to learn and have fun.”

The importance of that kind of bond is not lost on the students.

“Nothing can really get in the way of people’s relationships,” said Kaz Bakaty, 13, another student. “People at this school, they don’t let things like your views, even if they are completely different, get in the way of relationships.”

Students attribute those relationships to a culture of listening at the schools. Twice a week, students meet with an adult for advisory sessions, where the topic of discussion is not academic but rather social or emotional issues. When students get in trouble, detention functions as a time to sit down with a teacher or dean and talk about what is really going on. Not to mention that the school has five guidance counselors, including one from the Education Alliance and three interns from Hunter College.

“I don’t want to put down the academic rigor that we have here,” Mr. Estwick said, “but I don’t think we could get that type of production if we weren’t first thinking about the child as an adolescent and what they are going through.”

Over at East Side Community School there are several similarities, including teacher retention. The principal of East Side, Mark Felderman, estimated that the average teacher has been at the school for about eight years.

Advisory sessions, which Mr. Felderman called “youth development” are a big focus. Students have sessions at the beginning and end of every day as well as twice more during the week. “Every kid has one adult who is like their parent here at the school,” Mr. Felderman said. The school also strives for small classes, normally 16 to 20 students per teacher, and matches up teachers’ free periods so they can talk about the children and plan their curricula.

But East Side Community School has one advantage that most East Village schools, including Tompkins Square Middle School, do not have: a high school attached to it. Almost every student stays on for high school, Mr. Felderman pointed out, “so we’re not just preparing kids to get through middle school, which are very tough years, but we have a long-term plan” that stretches over seven years from middle to high school.

Accordingly, the school sets its own graduation standards above and beyond district requirements. For example, at the end of the semester, each student presents a portfolio of all their class work to a group of students, teachers and invited guests, in the so-called “portfolio roundtable.”

The school’s crown jewel is its literacy program, where students get 30 minutes of independent reading time a day. The program is so well known, in fact, that UN literacy activist and former First Lady Laura Bush visited East Side on Sept. 8, the first day of school, which also happened to be International Literacy Day.