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Meet the Principal Bringing Big Ideas to Chelsea's Newest School

By Danielle Tcholakian | September 14, 2014 8:29pm
 Pat Carney is bringing big ideas to her new school in Chelsea.
Sixth Avenue Elementary School
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CHELSEA — Pat Carney, the founding principal of the new Sixth Avenue Elementary School, believes little kids can take on big ideas — and she's excited to watch them do it.

Carney just welcomed the school's first pre-K and kindergarten students this fall, and they're soon going to begin exploring their first in-depth science topic of the year: snails.

“You might say, ‘Oh, well, why aren't they learning about all the other things they're supposed to be learning about?’” said Carney, who has a photo on her desk of her college-age daughter at age 6, holding a snail she studied in first grade. “Our belief is that you have kids learn about one topic that sort of represents a big idea.”

The youngsters at the school, also known as P.S. 340, will study snails for the first half of the year and a yet-to-be-determined social studies topic for the second half of the year.

Carney developed her educational philosophy while teaching fourth and fifth grade at TriBeCa's P.S. 234 for 15 years, followed by a one-semester stint as a pre-K and kindergarten science teacher there.

She applied to start a new school about a year and a half ago and was ecstatic when her proposal was chosen for the new Chelsea school, because she already had so much experience in Manhattan's District 2.

“I’m thrilled, because it's just the kind of community I've worked with for many years,” Carney said.

DNAinfo New York sat down with Carney in her brand-new office to talk about her background and her plans for Sixth Avenue Elementary:

Q: You started your career right out of college teaching kindergarten and pre-K before becoming a manager at Time, Inc. Why did you leave education for the business world, and what brought you back?

I always loved teaching, from the very beginning. But I wanted to try something else, and also, it was hard to earn a living as a teacher back then.

What brought me back to teaching was primarily my daughter. There were better hours, it was a better job, and I always loved it and wanted to go back to it. I thought I would go back to it when I retired, but once I had a child, it was really more interesting to me to be in an education environment.  Now that she's gone to college, this is like a corporate job, you're here all hours.

Q: What prompted you to put in a proposal for a new school?

I went for my principal's license when [my daughter] was small. I thought it was a great combination [of my skills]. I was a manager for many years at a big company with a lot of people and I loved teaching. And I thought it was just a good combination of both of them. And to open a new school was particularly appealing because you're really building it from the start. You’re hiring people who share your vision, you're starting with the children you have. I mean, these little kindergartners will be our first first-graders, first second — all the way up to fifth. It was really appealing to me to take that vision I had of how children learn best and start it in a new school.

Q: What makes the Sixth Avenue Elementary School special? What was your proposal?

The proposal, which is really similar to many District 2 schools, is that kids learn best when they're really actively engaged in things they find interesting. You can have a rigorous program in addition to having an interesting program. We're based on having two "content studies" every year, from pre-K all the way up until fifth grade. Half the year will be devoted to a social studies subject, the other half to science.  They're on big topics that the kids really become experts in, and they're really engaged.

It’s not just about kids having fun. It’s also, how do you keep them engaged and interested in snails, but also teach them how to read, and to write? We integrate the reading and the writing into the study of these topics. For example, in second grade, they may study urban parks as a way of looking at how the community is organized to provide services. They would spend the whole semester observing and reading and writing and interviewing people, and then they might create their own park, either a model or an actual park.

With little kids, for example pre-K and kindergarten, your social studies study might be bakeries. So you're looking at these organizations that are developed to provide a service to the community. There's certain workers, there's certain vocabulary, there are certain tools, they visit like 10 different bakeries and then they create one.

In the upper grades, we get the social action study, where they're studying social action and then they themselves choose a topic and [at P.S. 234] we've had social action fairs or they do community service. It’s a really nice study.

Q: What’s your staff like?

They come from all different places. I must have gotten 500 resumes. We were looking for people with particular experience and background, but also a particular approach to teaching and an approach to parents. They came from other schools in District 2, but also from charter schools and private schools — a good mix. But what they all have in common is good experience in early childhood and good communication skills. Because in this community, parents are very involved with teaching and very involved with education and want teachers who can collaborate and communicate well with parents.