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Choice and Collaboration Are the Keys to Learning at I.S. 289

By Irene Plagianos | December 2, 2013 7:34am
  Acting Principal Zeynep Ozkan says the Battery Park City middle school I.S. 289 teaches students to be curious thinkers.
I.S 289 Acting Principal Believes in Student Choice
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BATTERY PARK CITY — Sought-after I.S. 289 has become known for its high-performing students, but you won’t find much traditional testing at the 15-year-old Battery Park City middle school.

“We are not about testing kids to death,” said acting principal Zeynep Ozkan. “We are really trying to develop ...independence in the children.”

The school’s project-based and, in some ways, self-guided approach to learning is an education philosophy that Ozkan has been fully on board with since she began working at the 201 Warren St., choice school more than four years ago, she said.

The 36-year-old had been the 300-student school’s assistant principal since 2009, but took the helm of I.S. 289 when founding principal Ellen Foote retired three months ago. She hopes to stay on as principal, but must be formally chosen by the Department of Education, which is currently vetting other applicants as well.

For now, Ozkan said, the biggest difference in her transition to principal at the A-rated school has been her “being even busier.”

“What you always carry with you as a principal is that your number one priority is the students,” said Ozkan, who holds a B.S. in biology from Boston College, and an M.A. in education from Harvard University. “And how you do right by the students is to do right by the teachers…you want to be there for your faculty.”

But, Ozkan said, she’s had a great teacher in former principal Foote.

“She had a really strong vision for this school when she started, and that carries on,” Ozkan said. “I think parents choose this school because of that foundation, for education that builds students who are life-long learners, builds up children for the world we actually live in.”

Q: Your school doesn’t believe in traditional testing or assignments, but is known as academically rigorous  what’s the philosophy behind project-based education?

In this age of testing, it is not a school designed to prepare kids for a test, it’s a school designed to build students through a foundation of inquiry, choice and projects.

I think the word “inquiry” is like “edu-babble” —  it's this word we all toss around. But for us, it’s about asking really important, deep questions. More importantly, we’re trying to ask our students how to ask those deep and important questions. And then not stop with the question. When you do feel like you’re getting an answer, how do you know that’s an answer, what are you doing about it? Nothing is just black and white. We want students to really dig into questions — it’s the bigger concepts around inquiry that we’re striving towards.

And when we talk about choice, I’m not a proponent of what I’d call ‘willy nilly choice.’ I think it's about holding students to the same standards and high expectations — and where they have choice is how they get there. The projects all the students work on are a classic example of that choice — and a unifying force here.

Q: Can you talk more about how the project-based system works?

At most schools, you finish a math unit, let's say, and then you have a test. But at our school, it’s about projects to demonstrate your knowledge of a subject area.

Here, the entire unit is about working towards a project. There are set standards for every child to meet, but how each student gets there will likely be different. Let’s say in a science unit about simple machines, the goal is for everyone to demonstrate their understanding and knowledge about simple machines, but the type of machine they design or task the machine will do can be different according to the student’s own process, helped and guided by a teacher.

Or let’s say in English class, we’re teaching students non-fiction reading and writing skills. There are strict parameters and standards that every student must meet to demonstrate their understanding, and we’re teaching them strategies to meet those standards, but they can design their own field guide for those language and reading skills.

So that’s where their choice comes in. Every student may create a different field guide, by researching different topics, but they are all working towards the same standards, they all have the same rubric that they are being graded against.

You seem passionate about this style of education. Why did you decide to become an educator?

Education has also been something that was highly valued in my family. My parents had no money when they immigrated from Turkey, but they were very highly educated — my mom is a teacher and my dad is a doctor.

And when they moved to the U.S., they chose a specific town in Nebraska because its students had very high SAT scores — they wanted the best opportunity for their children.

We moved around a lot when I was growing up, but I was able to experience different types of education. And when I taught biology, I worked in school systems in California, Oregon, Turkey and Hong Kong.

It’s given me a lot of different views on education and, I think, at the base, hard work, determination and principle are what I see as the foundation for a good education.