UPPER EAST SIDE — When Samantha Kaplan opened P.S. 151 three years ago in the former Our Lady of Good Counsel school building, the paint was still wet from the renovation, and some parents in the neighborhood were skeptical of an unproven school.
Since then, Kaplan and the Yorkville Community School, as it is known, have earned awards and a strong reputation in the community. After starting in a temporary home with four kindergarten classes with 74 students, the school moved into its permanent space this year, in the former Richard R. Green High School at 421 E. 88th St. with 300 kids up to second grade.
The school is still growing, and will eventually have 750 students through fifth grade.
DNAinfo talked with Kaplan about her vision and inspiration for the school.
Q: Were you a good student?
Kaplan: I was a very good student. I loved school. I worked hard. I grew up in Manhattan in the West Village, and I went to public school at P.S. 41. Later, I was a teacher at P.S. 41 for 10 years.
Q. How did you become a teacher?
I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. When I got to college, I thought I was going to be a lawyer, and then something clicked. I remembered when I was a child I had always wanted to be a pediatrician. I loved language. I loved reading. I loved working with children. And I realized what was a more natural fit for me, so I decided to go to grad school for education instead of law school.
Q: What do you remember about your teachers?
The most inspirational people in my life, besides my parents, were my first grade teacher at and my third grade teacher at P.S. 41. My first grade teacher was one of those people who was always very creative. I remember catching chickens with her and making bread with her — all these really creative hands-on experiences that kept me really engaged. I wouldn't want to stay home from school. I had to be there. And my third grade teacher tried to push my thinking. I remember her always challenging and supporting me. I thought that if I was a teacher, I would want to combine both [of those characteristics].
Q: How did you go from being a teacher to a principal?
While I was teaching I was nominated to join the Aspiring Leaders Program, which was something District 2 did to grow its own leaders. So, when the time was right I went into the program. And then I kept putting off becoming an administrator. I loved being in the classroom.
Eventually, I became assistant principal at P.S. 217 on Roosevelt Island. When I was there, I started thinking I'd love to start my own school. I put that out in the universe. I started sharing with my mentors that I'd like to become a principal. Then there was the opportunity to write a proposal for a new school.
Q: What was your vision for your school?
When I was teaching at P.S. 41, I was given a lot of creative leeway, but I also maintained a very structured environment. I wanted to recreate that but also bring in my vision of a school with integrated units of study where children are engaged in three-month-long units of study where everything is integrated.
We're doing something right now on pets. Every kindergarten classroom has a pet: guinea pigs, hamsters, lizards, fish, hermit crabs or frogs. It's wonderful: You have children who might need language development, and they're just starting to talk about what these pets need. We're getting them thinking and going. The units of study culminate in a project that raises money for charities in the community. For the pets, they're raising money for the ASPCA. We're giving back to the community.
When I was teaching, there were always those children who were not engaged because they didn't come with that background knowledge or they hadn't had many experiences. And then you had children who were naturally looking to explore and question. With 25 to 30 children, how do you make that work? What can you give to everyone that will excite them? With units of study, all children can be engaged. Those who want to go off and explore something on their own can do that. And the children, who might need more support, have that.
Q: Was it difficult starting a new school?
From the beginning, the founding parents put so much trust in me. I would meet with them every week in the basement of Rhinelander [Children's Center], share my vision, share the curriculum that I would be using. I was really transparent about everything. What I've learned about this process is that when you say things, you need to do them. So I would make a promise and you have to keep it. That's how the trust began to grow.
I remember back when I was opening, parents were concerned about the new school. I keep saying, look at how the Department of Education has really been working hard to pick the right leaders. I do understand. You sympathize, too. With all this rezoning, it's really confusing for parents. Their children are their most precious gems. But the system is working.
Q: Has the curriculum changed since you started the school?
You can't just create a curriculum without observing your students and reflecting on it and making changes. It took patience and reflection and a lot of trust from the staff because this was something new to them. It took a lot of trust on my part, too, that they were trying.
I spend lunchtime with the students. That's how I find out if they're excited about their learning, what they want to do, what kind of books they need. The teachers are great resources, but if you sit children down in small groups, they provide a lot of insight into their own learning and interests.