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Léman Manhattan's New Head of School Fosters 'Globally Minded' Style

By Irene Plagianos | February 5, 2017 3:29pm
 Maria Castelluccio, a Bronx native, is now in charge of the pre-K through 12th grade private school.
Maria Castelluccio, a Bronx native, is now in charge of the pre-K through 12th grade private school.
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Andrew Werner

FINANCIAL DISTRICT — Being in charge of students' education from ages 3 to 19 isn't exactly easy, but there are benefits, says Maria Castelluccio, the new head of school at Léman Manhattan.

"Students are very much entrenched in what we believe to be important in education from 3-years-old on, and there's a real value to that," said Castelluccio, who took the helm of the private pre-K through 12th grade school in July. "It's a really exciting opportunity, to watch them grow personally and academically and build on their skills in this environment."

Léman, which takes up two buildings at the tip of Manhattan, is largely focused on the "global mindedness" of students, and fostering learning that both encourages independent thinking and understanding others perspectives, said Castelluccio, a Bronx native who spent the past several years running an international school in Rome.

Castelluccio says Léman is a "true international school" — a place where 3-year olds start to learn Mandarin, and more than 60 nationalities from across the globe are represented in the student body.

As a school that offers the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program — and as the only school in Manhattan that offers boarding for its ninth through 12th graders — Léman attracts international students. 

But the 750-student school, which costs more than $40,000 a year, also appeals to a growing number of local families who want their kids to "engage with students that think differently from them and come from different cultural backgrounds," said Castelluccio, a mother of four.

"I think it's imperative in education today for children to think globally," Castelluccio, 57, said. "I don't think we have a choice, if we want to truly prepare our children for the future."

Castelluccio recently spoke with DNAinfo New York to discuss the school's "globally minded" style of education:

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell us about your approach to education.

My philosophy has always been about preparing the whole child, preparing them to be the best they can be, both from an academic standpoint and socially and emotionally.

The International Bacclaureate program, and our approach, is really about inquiry-based learning. It's about helping students become flexible thinkers, and that starts early on for us, from 3-year-olds, up. Obviously it's guided and facilitated by teachers, because we do have benchmarks and outcomes, but it's very much an inquiry-based approach.

So when we start in the early grades, a lot of it is done with play. Students 3, 4 and 5 years old are starting to learn coding skills and engineering skills, in what we call our "wonder lab" — like how do we build a bridge across this play area?

The ideas of STEAM, science, technology, arts and math, are what we focus on, but in different ways. So, for example, we have a violin program — students from 4-years-old through 3rd grade are learning the violin, and they are using the arts to make connections to other disciplines.

As they move on, they are building their literacy skills. We use a workshop model, which allows students to have a lot of choice in their reading and their writing materials.

Can you describe more how independence in their education works?

When students are more involved in the learning process, they are more engaged, they take more ownership of their education, so every student develops a personal learning plan, a PLP, every year.

They choose an area that they are passionate about and we tie academics into it. It’s a year-long project that they present to other students. For example, one student a few years ago wanted to learn about baseball — and we now have a competitive baseball team started from his PLP. We give students a lot of choices, so we are able to engage them in their passions, with some really specific learning projects. Our students need to be strong readers, strong thinkers, strong writers, strong mathematicians and strong scientists. But all of that is done by engaging students through this model.

When students are more involved in the learning process, they are more engaged, they take more ownership of their education.

The integrated curriculum is global in nature, but also using the rich history of Lower Manhattan, it all ties into who we are as a school — an inclusive, international community.

You were an elementary school teacher and principal in public schools in Westport, Connecticut, for years before becoming a head of school — a position that oversees both the principals and staff of lower and upper grades — in an international school in Rome. Why did you become a teacher, and why did you decide to go abroad?

I think I was inspired by other teachers. I’ve always been fascinated by what makes people learn and become successful. I’ve always been excited by my own learning, and wanted to bring that passion into schools.

As I started to teach, I understood how education was changing. Education has basically been the same for 100 years and as the world was changing, there was a need for children to think more deeply, more globally — and that’s really became a fascination for me. And that’s why I decided to go abroad, to put myself out of my comfort zone, and be around people that were multilingual and had a different perspective on education, and I was able to learn from that and bring it back to this international community. As we know, these young children are our future, and we want them to be civically minded and really be able to solve the future challenges and problems of the world, and that really starts in schools.

And why did you decide to continue in the international school world when returning to the States?

You have more autonomy when it comes to the direction of students education in independent schools, which appeals to me. I think its necessary to be globally minded now.  There’s not any profession I can think of where people aren’t interacting with others that may think differently, may be culturally different, may have different religious backgrounds. For us not to prepare our students on how to interact, how to collaborate, how to have discourse together, how to disagree with one another, and to ultimately make the world a better place, is not a choice anymore.

Students need to be prepared. They need to be able to innovate and create their own futures, whatever that maybe, whatever brings them success — and that’s defined differently for different people. But a strong education can help students figure out what success means for themselves, and how they can create that for themselves — that comes through thinking, collaborating, problem solving, being resilient and being able to fail and get back up.

You live in Manhattan now, after seven years in Europe. What are your impressions of Lower Manhattan? 

I was quite amazed and impressed with the changes in Lower Manhattan. It's become so family orientated, there are so many more people and strollers — the whole environment has changed. And it's definitely changing the demand for the school. The school opened as a kindergarten through 5th grade school in 2005 at 41 Broad St., and we expanded in 2010 with our upper school at 1 Morris St. We're expecting an increase of 200 students next year, but that growth has always been our plan.