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Successful Mott Haven Middle School Grows Into a High School

By Patrick Wall | September 16, 2013 10:19am
 After a decade of middle-school success, M.S. 223 added a ninth grade this year.
M.S. 223 Expands
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MOTT HAVEN — On the fourth day of the school year, some students in the first-ever ninth grade class at M.S. 223 were calculating per-capita carbon emissions, while others were visiting a museum exhibition about AIDS.

The students could skip the usual icebreakers since 100 of the 103 youths had gone to eighth grade at M.S. 223, a high-flying public school on East 145th Street that is expanding into a high school.

In the decade since it opened, M.S. 223, the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, has demonstrated how a district school can slash through red tape, gain resources and achieve at levels comparable to the best charter and private schools.

Now, it has decided to extend this model through the 12th grade, giving local students a promising new option in an area with few decent high schools and granting staff an extra four years to turn schoolchildren into confident college applicants.

“We’ve had a lot of time to get better at what we do,” said principal Ramon Gonzalez. “And what we learned is that three years is not enough time with our children.”

M.S. 223 students outperform not only their District 7 peers — among the city's lowest scoring — but also students across New York.

For example, more than 42 percent of M.S. 223 sixth-graders passed this year's state math tests and about 37 percent passed the English exams. In contrast, fewer than 9 percent of their district peers passed the math tests, and about 8 percent passed English. (The citywide sixth-grade averages were also significantly lower than M.S. 223's scores.)

Now M.S. 223 will add one high school grade level per year, beginning with ninth grade this year.

The new high school program, which has tacked on an extra school-day period to offer more class time, lets students choose from three tracks: Spanish, finance or technology. Each will lead to related internships and college credits.

Though the high schoolers will stay in the same M.S. 223 building — which also houses another sixth through 12th grade school, South Bronx Prep — they will soon enjoy a new $1.7 million science lab and be issued Google laptops.

M.S. 223 students will also have access to the school’s sparkling new $900,000 library and media center, renovated auditorium and fitness center, all of which the school had installed in the old public school building by seeking out private donors, grants and capital funds.

All of that, along with the sharp new uniforms, should help ninth-graders who attended M.S. 223 to still feel the thrill of starting high school — but hopefully without the usual self-consciousness and confusion, math teacher Michael Stoll said.

“It sometimes feels like a new school,” he said. “They’re walking around proud and happy.”

Before now, students’ odds of getting a good public high school education in the area were dismal.

Mott Haven tied for last in a ranking of college-readiness rates by city neighborhood — only 8 percent of high school graduates there were found to be prepared for college.

In the past, M.S. 223 graduates might choose to travel hours each day to attend faraway high schools or else try their luck at local ones, only to be startled by the chaos and lack of learning they found there, said Bill Ohl, the school’s special projects director.

“Every year I would see kids with a shell-shocked look on their face,” he said. "They'd say, 'My new school is so crazy.'"

Though they had spent less than a week there, several new ninth-graders who chose to stay at M.S. 223 for high school said they were convinced they had made the right choice.

Student Ndeye Mbengue said she struggles with math — and her teachers know that.

“I figured if I stayed here for high school, at least I was with teachers who understood the way I learn,” she said.

Freshman Krystal Suazo said that M.S. 223 is on par with the best Manhattan schools — a claim few other local schools could make.

“In the South Bronx, you won’t find another high school that offers what is offered here,” she said.

But it isn’t just what M.S. 223 can offer them, but also what students can offer the school and each other, student Edward Valdez added.

“Setting a standard for the next generation,” he said. “That gave me inspiration.”