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East Williamsburg Principal Introduces Students to the World Beyond School

By Serena Dai | September 28, 2014 9:33pm
 Sandra Noyola, principal of P.S. 147 in East Williamsburg, said she's proud of the school for its partnerships and project-based learning.
Sandra Noyola, principal of P.S. 147 in East Williamsburg, said she's proud of the school for its partnerships and project-based learning.
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DNAinfo/Serena Dai

EAST WILLIAMSBURG — For Principal Sandra Noyola, student performance goes beyond grades and book smarts.

Schools should also be supporting the emotional, social and intellectual growth of children, she said — a goal she's pursued through teaching methods and partnerships with outside organizations since taking the helm at P.S. 147 in 2011.

The pre-K through 5th grade elementary school located at 325 Bushwick Ave. now has a focus on environmental engineering, with the hope that the students will be prepared for a world grappling with the challenges of a climate crisis.

Noyola budgeted money for a $10,000 hydroponic lab, which is now in its second year of growing cherry tomatoes, herbs and cucumbers in the school, with the help of students and a partnership with NY Sun Works.

P.S. 147 works with Columbia University's Teacher's College on its teacher development, with the Bushwick rooftop farm ECO:Station NY. It also collaborates with a former New York Historical Society consultant who brings in objects to visualize curriculum and with some 15 to 20 other organizations throughout the year, she said.

Noyola hopes to add yet another program to the school by fall 2015 — the city's first Japanese and English dual-language classes, a program suggested by local parents.

Noyola, who has a dedicated grant writer on staff, says she constantly seeks out ways to help students see the world beyond the school's walls.

"It's that integration of resources that really makes the curriculum rich and hands-on for the kids," she said. "If they're not doing, they're not learning. They have to access the content, they have to touch it, feel it, be a part of it."

The principal credits the partnerships and a strong school team with increasing enrollment and diversifying the population at the school, which went from 227 students in 2011-2012 to 308 students this school year, a 37 percent increase.

Noyola worked as a teacher, a literacy coach and an assistant principal before coming to P.S. 147. She sat down with DNAinfo New York to talk about her philosophy, test scores and how the area's changing demographics impact the school.

Why did you decide to make P.S. 147 an environmental engineering-focused school?

I am very in tune with what’s happening in our world — global warming, climate change — and what’s happening to our planet as a result. Technology is not going anywhere. These are the jobs of the future. We want to arm our children with the skills that are necessary for them to be able to be marketable. Not everybody is going to be a lawyer, a doctor, police officer, a teacher. Those are all great jobs, and they are all significant, but we have a crisis here in this world. We need children that have this awareness [about climate change].

How do you balance holistic learning with the need to score well on tests?

My response to the test scores is: 'How can we bring more project-based, hands-on experiences that connect to the curriculum? How can we build that knowledge base so that when they are asked to perform on the test, they can take it?'

We do prepare the children for tests. But we are not a test-prep factory school. We're about the real hands-on, engaging project-based learning for kids. As the test draws near, we shift our programming to do explicit test-prep work.

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What's the greatest challenge as you move forward at the school?

Childcare. That’s what we’re working on. Right now, we don’t have a full-scale, after-school program that runs until 6 [p.m.]. We're limited to funding to support that kind of program.

What parents have initiated is a partnership with Kids Orbit. Our parents have to pay [more than $3,000 a year]. It’s not funded by the school. That’s challenging for some parents.

Parents approached you about starting a Japanese and English dual-language class. How will it impact the school?

[It's bringing] new families. The parents are really invested.

Previously, our school was predominantly Hispanic and African-American. Now we have Asians. We're diversifying the school. The truth is that Bushwick is diverse. The school should reflect that.

It’s nice to know that parents who don’t even have their children here come and visit. It’s ignited a flame. We’re really ensuring our school embodies the East Williamsburg community.

You've increased the number of outside partnerships at the school since you've started. Why have you pursued that?

That was an area that we needed to improve in: How can we make the learning deeper and more hands-on and relevant, so that the content is not abstract?

We are continuing a partnership with Richard Bluttal, a consultant [formerly at] the New York Historical Society. He actually bought shackles through eBay and did a workshop with us as a staff [for a unit on slavery]. That created a genuine conversation among all of us, which is what we strive to do across the school community with workshops and content areas.

He plans with teachers. He goes into units of study. He’s helping teachers integrate objects and visual-thinking strategies into his lessons so that the learning is not just abstract and from a textbook, but looking at paintings [or objects] from the time.

In this progressive model, the children are integral. They are the center of the learning.