QUEENS — P.S. 303 opened only five years ago, but the school, called The Academy for Excellence Through the Arts, has already ranked No. 1 among all early childhood schools in New York City.
The program, which earned straight As on its 2011/2012 progress report, is the brainchild of principal Barbara Leto and three teachers — Deana Bates, Laura Ugbomah and Susan Gallo — all of whom came from P.S. 150 in Sunnyside.
In 2007, they wrote a proposal for a new school.
“We sat around and we talked about what type of school we would love to open that we could send our own children to,” Leto said.
Leto, 48, a former flight attendant who said she is passionate about education and the arts, went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and then to Queens College, where she graduated with degrees in education and in theater, drama and dance.
Arts play a big role in the school’s study program. “It’s a challenging curriculum,” Leto said.
“We want to teach not only the academics, which is the book part, but also be able to have that hands-on experience,” Leto said. “They are small and we are asking them to retain a lot of information. But what better way to retain the information than to actually build, and to create, and to be able to interact with whatever it is that we are doing.”
The school’s 211 students audition for shows, learn to interpret scripts and craft decorations for performances.
Science and English classes also include numerous art elements. In the past, children transformed a classroom into a rainforest — complete with waterfall and vines — and they built a solar system from beach balls of various sizes that were suspended from a classroom ceiling.
How is your curriculum different from other schools?
Math, social studies, and science are as important as drama, music and the visual arts. So the kids have to work here twice as hard.
It’s all intertwined. For example, now they are putting on “The Glass Slipper.” The kids have done the scene analysis, they worked on props, they worked on scenery and costumes. But at the same time they are also working on vocabulary and learning all the theater terms. Depending on whether it’s a period piece, they are learning about the style of dress, they are learning the way that they speak, they are listening to the music. So a lot of our stuff is very hands-on and very project based.
The kids audition, they get chosen and, just like in the real theater, they have to be off script at a certain time. You get fired here, if you are not great. Well, we really don’t fire them, but I tell them: “Are we gonna have to fire you?”
They get up there and they are not afraid to perform. In early grades kids could be very shy, but here they are not because they start doing it from a very early age. So we’ve put on "Mary Poppins," "Peter Pan," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Wizard of Oz." But writing is also very important in our school and we start all the way from pre-K. Writing for different audiences is something that we emphasize as well.
Art education is part of every subject at your school. Why do you think it is so important for children’s development?
I think art is like a universal language and kids learn about themselves [through the arts]. Children may not be the top students in terms of reading, but all of the sudden there is a talent that they have, they get to see themselves in a way that they’ve never seen themselves before. They can learn lines and interpret them and they can be showcased in a new way. I remember one little girl who was very shy in pre-K and she was a lead in "Beauty and the Beast" in the second grade.
The kids at the school also create their own portfolio.
Yes, it’s a traveling portfolio. It starts in kindergarten and then there are certain pieces that go in there every year. And by the time they leave the third grade they have a portfolio of art pieces and writing pieces. Teachers select some of them, others are placed by kids, because not everything that a teacher selects is what the children consider their best work. We teach them to advocate for themselves and we teach them to speak up and as long as you are doing it in a respectful way, you can question anything in the school. When they don’t like something, they are taught to say, ‘I don’t like this.’ For example, they have a committee for lunch and there were certain things that they took off the menu because the kids didn’t want them. They also suggested things like they liked. So they liked the veggie burger but the chicken Florentine wasn’t something that they enjoyed at all.
What sort of talent are the kids expected to show? What is the application process like?
They don’t have to be talented. When we first started out, we were an application choice school and this year we became a District 28 school, so you just apply. It is a lottery school because we always have more applicants than we do seats. For example, now for kindergarten I believe we passed the 200 mark for 50 seats; and some of those seats are already taken for pre-K children who have siblings in the building and have priority. For pre-K we had about 400 applicants for 36 seats.
How do you choose the teachers?
Every teacher here has a talent and has a background in the arts. Our kindergarten teacher is an opera singer, the other kindergarten teacher was a drama teacher and director. Our second-grade teacher is a stage manager by trade, we have two teachers from the media field, one of our pre-K teachers is a graduate of Fashion Institute of Technology.
We also have enrichment clubs on Friday afternoon. Teachers create them based on their interests. We’ve had a photography club, a videography club, a newspaper club, we’ve had journalism, Italian, cooking, Greek mythology, yoga, the Impressionists, Andy Warhol…
How is having such a small school an advantage?
We have 211 kids so we know every child very intimately. We get to know their likes and dislikes, we get to know those things that are going to upset them, we get to know the families very well. The families are very warm and very helpful, they donate a lot of stuff because art materials are very expensive.
Where can kids transfer after they leave P.S. 303 and how are they doing in their new schools?
When we first wrote the proposal, we wrote it for k through eighth grade but they [the Department of Education] looked where the need was and they decided it should be pre-K through third grade. After that, kids go to their zone schools. So some will go to 196, others will go to 101 or 144. There’ve been a lot of parents who’ve wanted to expand the school. I imagine that families apply here because the arts are important to them. We want the arts to be important to the children and they leave here definitely having an appreciation for the arts. This past year our kids outperformed all kids in the district and we outperformed the Anderson School in Manhattan in math.