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Bronx Teacher Hopes to Open a 'Talents-Infused' Charter School

By Patrick Wall | March 31, 2012 2:11pm | Updated on April 28, 2012 12:24am
LaKiesha George, a third grade teacher at the Family School on Sheridan Avenue, wants to open a new
LaKiesha George, a third grade teacher at the Family School on Sheridan Avenue, wants to open a new "talents-infused" charter school in the area.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

CONCOURSE VILLAGE — At a charter school dreamed up by third grade Bronx teacher, students in science class would dance their way through the life-cycle of a butterfly.

The art instructor would co-teach reading lessons, and the gym teacher would ask students to practice counting by fives during stretches.

And rather than age-based grade levels, the school would be organized by skill, so that students progress from one reading or math group to the next as they master the material.

For now, this innovative, “talents-infused” charter school exists only on paper.

But LaKiesha George, a public school teacher who designed the program, plans to submit a charter application to the state this summer. She hopes that by next year her dream school will open and offer students a way to use their passion for sports or art to learn history and science.

"I always hated to choose between art and science," said George, 32. "You can’t be a famous scientist who loves to draw? Why not?"

At the school, which George would call New Generation of Scholars, students would focus on a particular talent, such as acting, singing, technology or athletics.

Students interested in dance, for example, might create dance routines during skill sessions, study the cultural dimensions of dance in social studies, or draft a report on the meaning of dance during writing and design costumes in art class.

"We believe that your talent is your strength," said George, who also taught Saturday dance classes at P.S. 114. "It needs to be used in the classroom."

In classes such as reading and math, students would study alongside peers at their same skill level, regardless of their age. So a 6-year-old who excels at reading but struggles in math, for instance, might parse grammar with 7-year-olds but brush up on her subtraction with students who are 5-years-old.

The state's Board of Regents will vote in December on whether to issue proposed schools a charter. Last year, New York's two charter authorizers, the State University of New York and the State Education Department, received 67 full applications for new charter schools. They approved 24.

The authorizers expect more than just interesting ideas from aspiring school founders, said Niomi Plotkin, director of new school and leadership development at the Charter School Center. They look to see whether applicants have attracted strong board members, selected high-quality curricula, mapped out the school’s culture and instructional model and hashed out a feasible budget, she said.

"Charter schools are public schools, but they’re also nonprofit organizations,” said Plotkin. “Starting schools is a hard business."

George, who is in her eighth year as a teacher, wanted to start a school after feeling powerless to keep students on track beyond the confines of her own classroom.

"When they leave me it’s like I didn’t exist,” she said. “All that hard work just went down the drain.”

She became an educator in 2004, as a member of the NYC Teaching Fellows, a program that certifies people without education backgrounds to become full-time teachers. She proved so adept — teaching first, second and third grades at P.S. 114 in the Concourse area of the Bronx — that she became one of the school’s most popular teachers and the co-chair of the School Leadership Team.

Last fall, George moved to another Bronx elementary school, called The Family School, where she teaches third grade. She also enrolled at the New York City Charter School Center, which guides would-be school founders through the charter planning and application process.

From October to February, she took two evening classes a week at the center, then spent several hours every other weeknight and her entire weekends writing the application — a dense, 60-page document that spells out every detail of the proposed school, from the educational philosophy to the daily class schedule. George plans to submit her finished application to the State Education Department in July.  

So far, George has recruited a longtime teacher, a financial analyst, an official from the Administration for Children’s Services and the former executive director of a nonprofit as members of the proposed school's board of trustees. She hopes to add up to five more members.

"I’ve been doing this for 28 years, and I’ve never seen the kind of energy that she has,” said board member Arlene Aswad, 59, a former colleague of George's at P.S. 114.

Aswad, who has been a teacher for nearly three decades, lives in Co-op City, near where George is raising her three school-aged daughters, Rain, Winter and Poetry.

Aswad said the main reason she agreed to become a trustee was because of her awe of George as an educator.

"Within any given school, you’ll find a LaKiesha," Aswad said. "But in a situation where a total environment is like that, can you imagine? It will be a utopia."