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Spruce Street Principal Keeps Her School Growing With Purpose

By Irene Plagianos | October 4, 2015 7:41pm | Updated on October 5, 2015 11:01am
 Principal Nancy Harris has been with the school since it launched in 2009.
Principal Nancy Harris has been with the school since it launched in 2009.
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DNAinfo/Irene Plagianos

LOWER MANHATTAN — The Spruce Street School launched in Lower Manhattan more than six years ago and the high-achieving public school hasn’t stopped growing since.

“It’s pretty amazing to see our progress,” said Nancy Harris, the school’s principal from the very beginning. “But at the same time, we keep changing and growing, and that means every year is a new challenge and new excitement. The novelty of launching a new school hasn’t worn off yet.”

The kindergarten through eight grade school, which sits at the base of Frank Gehry’s undulating 12 Spruce St. luxury tower, began with 50 kindergartners and has been expanding grade by grade ever since.

This year, the school launched its sixth grade, bringing in an additional 30 students from neighborhoods across the city for the first class in its middle school.

“I think having this new influx of students has made us even stronger. They bring more diversity and new perspectives,” Harris, 35, said. “It’s really wonderful to know that we’ve become a school where students are happy to stay, but also grown into a school that parents and students are seeking out for middle school.”

You now officially have a middle school, but part of your focus seems to be on collaboration between grades. How are you integrating the middle school and how does that meld with your teaching philosophy?

The way I see it, we’re one school, and that’s a purposeful dynamic we cultivate with the students and families. We strive to preserve a sense of community. We’re still a small school with 450 students. This year, we’re running an elective program that groups 4th, 5th, and 6th graders together. Students were able to choose their preferences for their elective class, from nine different courses. Some of their options were comic book drawing, sculpting, running, coding and Spanish. I think having the different grades work together is an advantage. It promotes leadership with the older kids and gives the younger kids a chance to experience some more independence.

For me personally, I care what kids have to say and that’s true whether they are 4 or 14. We want to make sure student voice and independence is very much a part of who we are at this school. We build those opportunities throughout the school and embed them into our curriculum.

Your students performed very well on controversial state tests. Seventy nine percent of students met math standards, and 67.3 percent met English standards, according to the Dept. of Education. How does the testing affect what you do?

In all of our classes we emphasize deep research. We emphasize depth over breadth. Our fifth graders, for example do a yearlong study of immigration. Our teachers make sure what they are doing aligns to standards, but for the students, its about the research and is hopefully seamless.

I am certainly adequately suspicious of [state] testing, but we have a commitment to protecting the curriculum. We make sure that curriculum isn’t hijacked by test prep.

I think, for us, since we are newer, we didn’t feel the big shift into test prep that many older schools did. We try to embed the test prep into the curriculum, and we have workshops throughout the year for teachers and parents, to try and help demystify the tests — we’re passionate about not letting testing overwhelm the students.

I’m very proud of our curriculum and that’s what’s most important to us.

You have a beautiful school, but it’s in a somewhat difficult location. You’re between congested street blocks, where at least two people have been hit by cars. You’re across from a hospital and a new parking garage is opening up on the plaza outside. Where does the school stand with getting a crossing guard?

We’ve had a lot of community support and advocacy for getting a crossing guard and its something we’ve been pushing for, and it's certainly [something] we need, but right now we’re still waiting. Over the years, we’ve gotten a traffic light and street markings, but we really feel like we need the crossing guard. The area around the school is just getting busier and busier.

You’re also in a dynamic neighborhood. How do you incorporate the city into your curriculum?

In that sense, we’re lucky. Our first graders, for example, do a yearlong study about where their food comes from. They work with the Battery Urban farm in Battery Park, and even simulate their own market. Our second graders do a study about community workers, and they learn all about the neighboring hospital, fire station, pet store — all local businesses, institutions that make our neighborhood great. We also have a partnership with Pace [which is a few blocks from the school]. We have student teachers from the school. Their students give our students special presentations sometimes, and we can take advantage of cultural performances, right across the street.

You were born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island and came back to the city for school at NYU. What made you become a teacher?

You know, it may sound cliché, but it's just something I've always known I wanted to do, ever since I was little. I loved school, loved working with children. I came to NYU to study elementary education, then began working in schools on the Lower East Side, where I became an assistant principal.  I say 'happy new year' in September. I feel like I count my life in school years, and I love it.