SOUTH STREET SEAPORT — A school founded by the original cast of the Blue Man Group — an experimental and, after more than 20 years, an enduringly popular performance art show — is likely to be a creative place.
The Blue School, a pre-school through fifth grade private school, is certainly an innovative learning environment, said principal Allison Gaines Pell. But it’s grounded in “making sure the kids get the skills they need every year, by allowing children to have ideas, ask questions and, ultimately, build a sense that they are responsible for their learning.”
Gaines Pell, who took the helm of the $34,000-a-year South Street Seaport school in 2012, said the school’s educational foundation, with its small classes of 13 to 15 students, and it's inquiry and project-based approach to teaching is, in large part, what drew her there.
Before taking the position at the 220-student Blue School, the 38-year-old New York City native was the principal of Fort Greene’s P.S./M.S. 492, the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters, a school that she founded in 2006.
Her decision to leave Arts and Letters was not easy, but made sense, she said.
“I had an amazing assistant principal who I felt was ready to take over, and I had the opportunity to come here and try to build a school in a different kind of context,” she said. “I felt that there was a real possibility at Blue School to live at the edge of what’s possible to do at schools.”
Q: Your school is focused on inquiry-based learning — how does that educational approach work at Blue School?
I think the people that bring their children to Blue School believe its possible to do extraordinary things in education and that school is a place that can exponentially increase the amount of curiosity and wonder that children have, instead of the other way around.
Our approach to education, which is an inquiry-based approach, means we believe that the classroom should be built on projects that culminate over time, where children are able to have ideas, ask questions and follow through those ideas and questions to their natural conclusion.
Q: Can you talk more about project-based style?
Teachers bring a big idea, or a framing idea, to each grade. This year, for example, the fourth-graders did a year-long study of The Odyssey. There are a lot of questions and time spent thinking about journeys, how people are changed by journeys, that type of thing. So the teachers are working really hard to create a structure to make sure the students get the skills they need, like making sure they are looking at their reading strategies, getting historical context and understanding bigger themes, all while meeting certain benchmarks.
The projects allow a lot of individual exploration — building on and using individual interests, but also having teacher guided facilitation of a project.
The second-graders started out the year thinking about the neighborhood, and over the course of the year, that turned into learning about the history of the South Street Seaport.
But then the hurricane hit and they started thinking about how does this neighborhood recover from it, and how do we recover from it by working together, and how do we preserve its history. They created a movie about the Seaport's history — including the hurricane — they built a museum, they dressed up in costume and told stories from the perspectives of people from the early fish market days.
Our school had to rebuild much of the first floor after the hurricane's floods, but we were able to open on the same day as the majority of the city's public schools. It was absolutely a terrible event, and we'd never want it to happen again, but it did teach the students a lot about coming together and fixing problems. It was very galvanizing for the school, which moved to the neighborhood in 2011.
Q: The school was founded in 2006 in the East Village by the Blue Man Group. How does that influence the school’s philosophy?
You know I’m a lifelong educator, and when I came I really thought about the connection between performance art and a school. When Blue Man first put on blue face at the end of the 1980s, it was an attempt to kind of be a response to culture. I think the founders really see themselves as creating a school in a similar way, as a response to what’s going on in education. As a result, there’s a continuity in terms of having creative ideas and building an environment in which children can have an original insight, but also, more than an original insight, have the tools and experiences they need to carry that out. There’s also a lot of art work throughout the building. There are lots of modes of expression here.
Q: What's your educational background?
I grew up in different parts of the city, and went to Saint Ann's High School in Brooklyn, then to Brown University, where there was a lot of focus on education reform. I wasn't sure at the time that I wanted to be a teacher, but I think whenever I'd have those conversations we have about making the world a better place, it always came back to education. I taught in high school in the city, and then went to Harvard for my graduate degree in education. After grad school, I worked for two education nonprofits before going to the New York City Leadership Academy, that led me to found Arts and Letters in Fort Greene.
Q: What has the transition been like from being a public school principal to leading a private school?
You know, there are so many similarities. Children, parents, humans are the same, no matter where you go. And anyone who sends their children to any kind of school is handing over what's most precious to them. In terms of parents, you bring your whole self to all of the conversations, no matter what. I think that, at Arts and Letters, even though it was a public school, we tried to be our own organization. Even though we were operating under the Department of Education, we had a vision and mission of our own. Here, at the Blue School, we very much have a vision but, being a private school, we don’t have some of the same paramerters that you have in public school — and that’s a huge, huge difference. There's a standardized testing culture that I think has really paralyzed a lot of conversations in public education. And then there's the small differences that really mean a lot. Like, here, if I want to buy a book for students, I can just do that. And I know that sounds little, but there’s a lot of bureaucracy that makes it hard to use your time as efficiently as you’d like to in public schools.