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Manhattan School for Children Principal Encourages Learning By Doing

By Emily Frost | June 2, 2014 7:39am
 Lowenstein said she's committed to active learning through project-based curriculum. 
New Principal Claire Lowenstein Guides Manhattan School for Children
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Principal Claire Lowenstein is willing to embarrass herself publicly if it teaches her students about risk-taking and learning as a lifelong pursuit.

Lowenstein, who heads the 20-year-old public K-8 Manhattan School for Children on West 93rd Street, has committed to finally learning how to ride a bike on the playground, while school is in session.

She'll even use training wheels if necessary.

The humor of a grown woman stumbling through an inaugural bike ride aside, Lowenstein, 40, takes this kind of hands-on learning seriously. As she's moved from teacher to assistant principal and, in February, to principal, she's made sure it's embraced at all levels throughout the school's curriculum. 

One of the centerpieces of that philosophy is the school's fourth-floor $700,000 greenhouse, developed and funded in 2008 with help from parents and the nonprofit NY Sun Works

The greenhouse provides an abundance of projects with the curriculum designed by the school's teachers, Lowenstein said. Students learn environmental science, sustainable farming practices and about food and nutrition, she said. 

The past two springs, the school hosted a TEDxYouth@MSC conference with guest speakers focused on the topic "Discovering Sustainability Science." 

It represents the kind of 21st century themes Lowenstein said she wants to the school to revolve around. 

DNAinfo New York sat down with Lowenstein to learn about how she hopes to cultivate cutting-edge project-based learning and her plans for the future. 

Last spring you announced that you and the school's business manager, Tatiana Hoover, were going to build a new neighborhood charter school and leave MSC. What made you change your mind? 

We decided that we love MSC. I had been here for eight years. From the minute I walked into the school I knew it was home for me. I’m going to put the charter on hold. I’m not going anywhere. Some of the visions [from the charter] have been layered in here: real-world learning, technology, those kind of key principals where kids learn by doing and are challenged to embrace real problems. 

What's the feeling you want members of the school community to have about MSC?

We have a small school mentality even though we’re a large [780-student] school. Kids still feel that they’re part of a neighborhood even though we're not a zone school. It’s an open environment.

At each grade level, there is one integrated class that includes students who have special needs but who function close to grade level academically. Why do you use that model?

I truly believe in the inclusion model. It makes the population a more empathetic school. A goal of the school is for [the inclusion] to be seamless. We plan the curriculum with all learners in mind. We want to make sure technology is a vehicle to match the needs of students. So instead of handwriting, a student with mobility issues uses a computer, for example.   We're interested in helping other schools [use this model], but we'd have to expand our own program. We don't have funding now. 

What did you learn from Susan Rappaport, the school's founding principal, who was with the school for more than 20 years?

I learned to listen as much as possible. She was very much a quiet leader, which I really appreciated. She believed the environment is just as important as the instruction. The school's environment is another vehicle for kids to be independent. She also believed in really being connected to the families. They are a very important constituent. We have an open-door policy. I really enjoy that. You see parents all over the school. 

What are your goals for the school?

One [goal] is to really embrace our commitment to progressive education ... Kids have ownership of their learning. We have town halls where they showcase what they’re learning. That shows how kids learn by doing. 

In the older grades, we’re realizing: how do we sustain parent involvement? We’re prototyping an app to live stream kids every marking period and live stream a piece of work and post comments via a website they can access anywhere in the world. 

Another goal is bolstering communication. We recently unveiled a new website. I write a letter to families and students every week. There's a "Chat with Claire" held every week [at the school.] They can send in anonymous questions through the Square Space site. The next goal is to have it written up on the site. 

How has the school changed?

Historically, kids would leave after fifth grade. One of my commitments was to showcase how great our middle school is. We only had five spots open and we had 200 visitors. We really have anchored our families to stay. This type of education works for all kids. I’ve also been partnering with high schools to make a seamless transition.  

So why did you sign on to publicly learn how to ride a bike?

One of the missions [of the school] is to tap into people’s interests and passions, because that’s really how they learn. It’s also about being encouraged. We encourage kids to take risks. I will be completely public about [the bike riding lessons.] Maybe we’ll live stream it.