LOWER MANHATTAN — Being kind to the environment is an integral part of attending the city’s first green school.
But even with P.S./I.S. 276's solar panels, rooftop gardens and recycling program, principal Terri Rutyer doesn’t see her school as having a “theme.”
“Some public schools are tech schools or science schools or performing arts schools,” Rutyer said.
“We really just strive to be a great, well-rounded public school."
The relatively new school, which opened kindergarten classes in 2009 then moved to its eight-story Battery Park City building in 2010, has quickly built a reputation for high-quality education, with Rutyer at the helm since its start.
Before jumping into her principal role, Rutyer worked for the Department of Education as a literary specialist and as an administrator for a grant program that funded teacher education related to American History.
She also taught elementary school in New York and Santa Fe, N.M., for more than 15 years.
Unfortunately, she’s also had to spend time grappling with former colleagues at the DOE to keep her school community in tact.
In a neighborhood with a swelling population of youngsters, 276 has already filled all of its classrooms.
“We’re trying to come up with a solution [to the overcrowding],” says Rutyer. “It won’t be perfect, but it has to be something that’s workable for everyone.”
What's your approach to education at the school?
First, we really try to have a well-rounded program — art, science, music, social studies, math — and we want to be an inclusive school. It was never on my radar that we would have a gifted-and-talented program, or screen the students in any way. The children who live in this neighborhood come to this school, and we do our best to educate each and every child.
I think providing the best education for every child comes from paying very close attention to the children. You have to understand what makes them tick; you have to understand what gets them excited. You have to know where their breakdown points are — where they need to be challenged and where they need to be supported. You can use children’s gifts and interests to help them learn.
So here, all the children are challenged in music, and those kids who are really gifted in music, they have that place where they can shine. All the kids have physical education, and some kids are just natural athletes and we can stretch them by providing afterschool sports programs. By providing a lot of opportunities, we’re giving all the kids a place where they can really shine, where they feel ‘I can do this special thing and I can have some confidence’ – and that trickles down to academics.
How does being "green" factor into the school?
You want the kids to be aware of the environment in which they find themselves and the larger environment. And we're figuring out how to do that in the curriculum.
We have a lot of recycling happening, composting, the kids are participating in the urban farm, we have rooftop gardens. We're also working on using less electricity in the building, and the children are being made aware of the little things, like turning off lights when you leave a room.
276's PTA started a petition asking to limit this year's kindergarten to three classes instead of the five you currently have because they fear overcrowding will force the school to turn rooms designated for things like art, science and music into classrooms. How are you dealing with the overcrowding issue?
It's a challenge. All our classrooms are used, so where do we put all these kids next year and still hold on to the integrity of the educational program? And it's not just seats, you have to think about how do you get nearly 900 students safely through recess and through the lunch line so they get fed? Right now first lunch starts at 10:45. Something has to give.
As for the petition, I'm incredibly fortunate that I have such a supportive and involved group of parents here — I couldn't have dreamed of anything better. Hopefully the petition makes a difference.
How did you decide to become a teacher?
Well, it took me a little while, but I finally figured it out.
I started college at a state school in Missouri, but decided to take time off and did all sorts of things. I worked as a nanny in France, lived in Germany, worked at a ski resort in Killington, then finally went back to college.
When I graduated, with a degree in Political Science, I worked on Wall Street for six weeks, then I got laid off.
I was literally going though a binder of jobs and saw an ad that said "Teach English in Tokyo, make lots of money," and I was like "Yes, I've been a poor student, I want to earn lots of money." So I applied, and spent a year teaching in Japan, another six months traveling in Asia, then came back to New York and started substitute teaching and working towards my teaching degree [at Columbia's Teacher's College].
I knew teaching was what I wanted to pursue.
A lot of the public schools in Manhattan have a good reputation. Aside from being green, what are the draws of 276?
I think we have great teachers, and are constantly tweaking our curriculum to make it the best educational experience for each kid. We're still pretty new, so we're still working really hard to keep improving.