BRONX — A small but growing number of educators believe they have found the key to helping struggling schools in low-income neighborhoods.
They’re borrowing a page from the city's gifted-and-talented programs, which offer hands-on, project-based learning with lots of enrichment opportunities like field trips to museums and workshops to build robots.
But instead of separating children based on test scores and providing only high-scoring students with something extra, this model — developed by University of Connecticut Professor Joseph Renzulli — hinges on offering enrichment school-wide.
In fact, an entire district in The Bronx, where all but two of 38 schools are overwhelmingly low-income, is moving toward a school-wide enrichment model under the leadership of its superintendent, Dr. Karen Ames.
“I’m a supporter of G&T, but I realize that’s 1 percent of the population,” Ames said. “My roots, first and foremost, are about presenting an equitable and accessible curriculum… My dream is to see every kid with a reading book in one hand and a writing notebook in other hand.”
In 2014, Ames took the helm of the southeast Bronx’s District 8 — spanning from Hunts Point to Soundview and Throgs Neck — where the great majority of its students are low-income, she said.
She has plenty of experience teaching and supervising the city’s gifted-and-talented programs. Ames brough the first G&T program to the borough in 2003 when she was a local instruction superintendent of the South Bronx’s District 9, as well as the network leader for elite gifted schools like Anderson on the Upper West Side and Bensonhurst’s Brooklyn School of Inquiry.
But she also has experience with failing schools in poor neighborhoods — similar to those currently called “community schools” — by providing social services like mental health and eye checkups.
During her first job teaching at a low-income school in Coney Island, Ames learned that her middle school students understood very little of their neighborhood’s geography and had basically no experience visiting cultural institutions.
So, she would take her students to the boardwalk nearby and take monthly trips to places like the American Museum of Natural History in the Upper West Side.
“I wanted every kid to have the opportunity to love going to a museum,” Ames said. “You needed to give kids exposure and experiences so they had something to write about. Our mantra became, we give children experiences so they can write and tell their stories.”
In her current role, she won a grant from the School Innovation Fund to help bring educators from the Upper West Side's New-York Historical Society into her Bronx schools. There, they worked with students and teachers on professional development and curriculum, which now includes primary sources and other materials rather than text books for social studies. Students go on museum trips, as do their parents.
Ames is taking her embrace of historical research and collaboration with cultural institutions to another level at a new school — P.S. 583 at 1028 White Plains Road — opening in her district next fall. The school will use history- and inquiry-based learning as a foundation for all subjects.
“This goes back to my philosophy that all kids should have exposure to a curriculum that expands critical thinking, that exposes them to music and art,” she said.
The district’s new direction seems to be having an impact when it comes to state test scores for third- through eighth-graders.
The district saw a 6 percent gain in English scores and a 1 percent gain in math last school year. But she’s most proud that the number of students with failing “1” marks dropped by nearly 2,000 over the last two years.
“We definitely believe it’s because of the strong curriculum with the humanities,” she said. “Kids who are Level 1 are not literate. They’re at risk. Kids on Level 2 are on upward trajectory and will have the opportunity to be literate and college- and career-ready.”
Professor Renzulli has visited the district and helped four of the schools implement his model, with more heading in that direction, Ames noted.
“This is not a highly prescriptive model,” Renzulli told DNAinfo, noting that the main tenets are rooted in engagement, enthusiasm and enjoyment, since “anything we enjoy, we work harder and better at.”
The education psychologist’s early work focused on identifying gifted students, Renzulli explained.
“I suddenly got to the realization: I don’t know who is gifted. These opportunities and encouragement should be available to all children,” he said, adding that the plan is "common sense.”
The city’s gifted-and-talented programs are notoriously difficult to get into: Roughly 35 percent of eligible kindergartners were shut out of programs for next school year, with efforts underway in The Bronx and Brooklyn to add more G&T seats.
But Renzulli believes the efforts miss the point.
Many principals have told him they liked his approach in theory, but some worried it wouldn’t help improve test scores. Renzulli believes too much focus on test prep has hurt the way children learn and gotten further from the true mission of schools as places for “talent development,” he said.
To "guarantee" that someone is gifted via testing means educators miss the likes of finding the next Thomas Edison, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and many Nobel prize winners, he added.
Scott Krivitsky, a teacher at Coney Island’s P.S. 188 and winner of a 2015 Daily News Hometown Heroes in Education award, believes that the broad enrichment approach at his school — where nearly 90 percent of students are low-income — would translate well at many schools across the city with similar demographics.
“Most of the research I know shows that these students are hands-on, kinesthetic learners. They’re not print-rich students,” said Krivitsky, who created the first elementary school Lego robotics program in District 21.
“Students build something and then feel empowered,” he said. “And then they can write about it.”
Krivitsky is also developing the Brooklyn Marine STEM Education Alliance, bringing together roughly 30 elementary, middle and high schools in his district to create a pipeline of schools focused on project-based learning.
“These students are very smart,” he said, “but we need to restructure the way we do things.”