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P.S. 185 Principal Created a Lego Lab to Foster Learning

By Emily Frost | December 17, 2012 12:33pm | Updated on December 17, 2012 2:36pm

UPPER WEST SIDE — Principal Jane Murphy of P.S. 185, the Magnet School for Early Childhood Discovery and Design, believes that early childhood development is essential to setting students on a course for success.

P.S. 185 on West 112 Street, between Lenox and Fifth avenues, serves 237 students from pre-K through second grade, a small span that Murphy thinks helps her teachers better focus on the key foundation years.

"Early childhood is very important to me. I don't think we spend enough time on that...There are less than 40 early childhood schools in the whole city," Murphy said.

With P.S. 185's federal magnet school funding, the school has developed an engineering focus and created a special curriculum around an expensive Lego Lab. In the school's Lego Lab classroom, students use Lego sets to build complicated designs, test engineering principles and then write about their findings.  

"We have high expectations for what we expect the kids to do," said Murphy, who taught for 20 years before becoming a principal.

Murphy worked at a New York City school for emotionally handicapped students for ten years before spending five years in general education in District 4 and then became an academic coach. She then achieved a degree in school leadership from Baruch College. Murphy lives in Harlem and joined the school in 2010 at its inception.

Q: How does having an early childhood focus help the learning process?

A: There's much more of a focus on how kids learn. We teach self-regulation and persistence, which are such a huge part of becoming a learner... And we take what the city tells us to study and then we take it to the next level. 

Q: How do parents react to the technology focus of the school? 

A: When we say 'technology,' we're not trying to raise little eggheads... We use the playful approach to engineering...We're so afraid that technology can take away a part of our experience of being human. But we use it to make sure kids collaborate more with each other and are more communicative. 

Q: How does the school incorporate engineering into its curriculum?  

A: Each week students spend a 90-minute period in our Lego Lab, which has thousands of dollars of material and is worth every penny. Teachers have engineering goals for the students within the lab and we're using the Lego Lab to evolve their critical skills, including writing and cooperative work. They're also learning to test center of gravity and balance, force and counter force. 

I was a teacher for 20 years. You can give all the tests you want, but give them a box of Legos and you'll find out everything about them. I consider it the highest leverage toy. It is so essential to life skills.

Q: How does the school work to foster diversity?

A: One of the most important pillars of the school is diversity. [The magnet program] helps you recruit folks so that you can become more diverse and to have more equity of access. We do a lot of recruitment. The schools from 59th Street to 122nd Street are very crowded. 

You can't force people to bus into the neighborhood, but if you put money into a school in a neighborhood that's struggling, then parents will just want to send their kids there.

We are about 70 percent African-American and 30 percent Latino. 

The schools that are the most successful recipients of magnet grants are recruiting middle-class families. But it takes at least five years. It's really exciting to sit on the edge and work with people.

 Q: What helps you as a leader?

A: I think it makes a big difference to my senior teachers that I was a teacher.

Q: What do you think about the school's broader community?

A: Harlem is an amazing place. It's one of the most beautiful places. It's a very tight community where I've always felt welcomed. And maybe I feel welcomed because I want to feel welcomed.

Q: What is one of the school's challenges?

It's difficult competing with the charter schools. Our challenge is to live up to the standards charter schools have set and their incredible skill with advertising.