PARK SLOPE — Students entering M.S. 51 audition for one of six "talents," then spend the next three years developing their skill in chorus, drama, dance, band, fine art or photography.
The rich arts programming has made M.S. 51 a draw for high-achieving middle school students, but principal Lenore Berner comes from a science background. A science major at Cornell University, her early career was in dietetics, counseling hospital patients who needed to change their eating habits.
When she realized that working in hospitals depressed her, but that she enjoyed the education part of her job, she went back to school at Columbia University's Teachers College. After five years teaching chemistry at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, Berner spent a year teaching at P.S. 321 in Park Slope, where she earned "wonderful things" from principal Liz Phillips, whom she still considers a mentor, she said.
Berner became principal at M.S. 51 in 2006. She was selected for the job in part because of her strong ties to the neighborhood, she said. Berner has lived in Park Slope since 1992 and her kids went to P.S. 321 and M.S. 51.
"[District 15 leaders] thought I was a good match for this building — having been a parent here first, I had an interesting insight into the school," Berner said.
Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of at M.S. 51?
A: Well first of all, it's a great school — it was great before I got here. My own kids loved this school. It’s the arts program. I take no credit for it.
Some of the things I've worked on is more collaborations. [Our students] audition for a talent when they get here and the talent that they get is the one that they stay with for three years. So they really are specialized. But by doing some after-school collaborations, we've been able to provide students with an opportunity to dabble in something else.
We have short plays that we do in 10 rehearsals, and any student can try out. Drama seems to be a super popular thing, so if a child doesn’t get into that initially, at least they have an opportunity to be in some shows. The photography teacher also does an after-school program if kids want to dabble in that. And the performing arts teachers have come together every year and done a musical. It allows kids from any talent to audition.
Q: How has your own background in science influenced M.S. 51?
A: Because I was a science teacher, I came here with a more critical eye in science. I love field trips and we’ve added some really interesting overnight trips to environmental centers. We have a collaboration with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy.
My goal was to connect science with actual agencies in the city. They used to do a pretty old-fashioned science fair when I got here. We changed that to a science expo which highlights how students have worked with various agencies over the course of a year. Our recycling program works with the Department of Sanitation.
Also, I added the science Regents exam. That was something we didn’t do here before. Eighth-grade students who want to be — and have the grades and prove that they can do it — can be in the ninth-grade class. We do that in math as well. They take the Algebra Regents now.
Q: What challenges do you face?
A: I have pretty severe budget challenges. I’m not a Title 1 school, so it’s a constant battle to support the school. A school with high-achieving students can be a very expensive challenge, because these students in a way have special needs to keep them engaged, to keep them excited with learning. You really have to be able to provide a full program and sometimes that’s not apparent in my budget.
The Parents Association has been extremely helpful. They are a wonderful and amazing force and they do great exciting events and things all year long.
Q: What’s new at M.S. 51 this year?
A: New this year — the big news — is my French dual language program. This is the inaugural year. Three years ago, Giselle McGee, the principal at P.S. 58 [which has a French dual language program], and I talked about the idea over some coffee.
We’ve always had a really wonderful second language program here and we are the only middle school [in District 15] that offers French and Spanish. Unlike other middle schools, because we’re gifted and talented, a child chooses what language they want to study and they stay in the language three years. Giselle knew that about my school and she knew that we had some great French teachers.
It’s been two years in the planning in terms of buying resources, getting grants. We decided to structure the program with advanced French language arts and one content area that would be taught in French. We chose social studies.
Q: What else is new this year?
A: Another thing that’s new to our school is that we’ve been expanding our inclusion program little by little. It’s called ICT — it's a team teaching classroom where one-third of the students are students with IEPs, individual education plans, students with special needs. For many years, we just had one of those classes in each grade. Now, we’ve increased that to three. Even though M.S. 51 is a gifted and talented school, I’m happy to increase that program. The nice thing about special education program is that we include those kids in everything. I’ve worked at other schools where that’s not the case. Those students are mainstreamed into physical education class, talent class. They all take [a] second language. They get to go outside at lunch time.
I feel like that’s another thing I brought to the school — having worked at schools that had a lot of struggling learners — I may have been the first principal that the staff heard say we need to come up with structures to help struggling learners. Because it helps all learners to come up with different strategies. It will help a gifted child and it will help a kid who doesn't understand it.