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Center School Principal Follows Unique Approach to Middle School Education

By Emily Frost | February 4, 2013 7:35am

UPPER WEST SIDE — The Center School, on West 84th Street at Columbus Ave., prides itself on being a different kind of middle school, one where bullying is nonexistent, the curriculum is specialized and arts are a major school-wide focus. 

"[The school] is very popular," said Mary DiPalermo, co-president of the school's PTA.

Elaine Schwartz heads the public school that serves fifth through eighth graders, and has been principal since she helped found it in 1982.

"We get around 300 applications for 50 spots," added Schwartz, who said they try to "get a mix of kids," and that most of the students are from District 3. The school values diversity in its selections. Ninety-five percent of the students go on to public high schools, Schwartz said. 

Schwartz founded the 220-student school because she felt there were many successful elementary schools in the city, but not as many middle schools.

"We decided that nothing had really worked, so we decided to start from scratch," she said.

That meant radical changes from most public middle schools, including mixing fifth through eighth graders in every class except Latin and math, varying the length of class periods, grading through written assessment and not letter grades (except in eighth grade), founding an advisory system, and a strong focus on theater. 

The formula is working, according to the Department of Education's progress report, which gave the school an A last year. But Schwartz encourages prospective parents not to pay that much heed, because in other years they've had very successful graduates but received a 'D' on the report. Similarly, Schwartz does not prioritize teaching to the state's standardized tests. 

"We don't do test prep ever. When the tests are coming, we give them a practice test," but that is all, she said.

How does mixing grade levels benefit the students' education?

You'll find very little bullying, very little fighting. They figure out how to relate to each other. We want to teach them life skills.

Why did you develop the idea of letting kids have flexible schedules — with different class-time lengths and a longer hallway passing time?

It's what they teach in education schools, actually, but nobody puts it into practice. Kids learn better by doing. There's a lot of group work. They learn from each other. The hallways are noisy [on purpose.] No one sits glued to their desk. You have coffee, you talk to your co-workers. Humans have to move around. If you pretend they don't, then you get it in the other direction. [The students] are very responsible. They behave like kids, but if given the opportunity, they respond to it in a proper way.

How do you assess the students if you're not using grades?

The first report home is written by the children. We say to the kids, "you are responsible for your learning." The teacher writes a brief comment underneath what the student has written. In the second report home, the teacher writes the report, but the students leave a comment after each one. It's better for a parent when you get a report card without numbers or grades, you get a sense of what they're actually doing in the classroom. 

Tell me a little bit about your curriculum.

The staff develops their own curriculum. They're excited. They're diverse — they're all a little quirky. The curriculum is based around a trimester system. In each subject, [students] are going to have a different teacher in each trimester. We would rather [the students] went seriously in-depth rather than have an overview. And the changing of the teacher keeps people stimulated. [The students] look forward to it. 

Center School trimester classes range from a class focused solely on the Great Depression to oceanography to computer programming, rather than broad survey courses. 

Why is theater central to your school?

The age that the children are [9 to 14 years old], they're not comfortable with their bodies. We want them to feel good about themselves. The confidence they gain is kind of amazing. Kids who have never danced, dance. Kids who have never sung, sing. They understand that they are part of making the whole performance, whether they play a tree or the lead. We've had [theater] since day one.

What are some of the challenges facing the Center School?

The Board of Education gives principals a budget, but then they designate where all the money goes. If I had control of the money, I would put it into more teachers. One of my goals would be to give the staff more time to interact. The staff meets once a week, but I'd like it if we had the ability to meet more often as a group without the stress of having taught all day.