Home >> A Issues >> Schools >> Reporters' Notebook

Search form

Reporters' Notebook

As part of their research for the ongoing series Lessons from Our Nation's Schools, Education World editors Diane Weaver Dunne and Ellen R. Delisio visit three New York City schools. Winter weather doesn't deter them from their goal -- to explore schools and communities and find out what our nation's educators are doing right.

In the freezing February dawn, we set out for two schools located in the South Bronx. Armed with lists of questions and pages of research, we tell the doorman at our midtown hotel where we are headed. He advises us to stay inside the hotel lobby while he searches for a willing taxi driver. He warns us to be patient, even though taxis line up in front of and alongside the hotel.

When we made plans for our New York school visits, people told us that cabbies are sometimes reluctant to travel into the Bronx. After four cab drivers turn down the fare, a fifth finally agrees to the trip.

Our intrepid driver asks why we would visit a school in that part of the city. We explain that the schools we are visiting show promise. He shakes his head. "The schools have problems here," he states matter-of-factly.

The South Bronx does have a reputation of violence and poverty. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, Bronx School District 7, in which Mother Hale Academy and KIPP Academy are located, is among New York City's poorest census tracts. The average per capita income is only $5,943; the average household income is $11,228 annually. The school dropout rate for people older than 20 is 56 percent, and 61 percent of the children live in families who speak a language other than English at home. More than 70 percent of the children aged 6 to 19 are identified as at-risk and 42 percent of households receive public assistance.

Many of the school buildings in these neighborhoods, as in other parts of the city, have stayed in service past the age of retirement. The average age for New York City school buildings is 80. In many cases, two or three schools share the same building.

Lessons from Our Nation's Schools

Education World plans to travel the United States and talk to educators, students, and parents about their schools for an ongoing series, Lessons from Our Nation's Schools. Read about our visit to three New York City schools in the following stories.

* Common Elements of Effective Schools

* KIPP Principal Talks About Hard Work, Success, and Challenges

* More Than Reading Scores and Stereotypes: The Voices of City Teachers and Students

* Curriculum, Caring, and Crack Vials: A City Principal's Perspective

* NYC Program Fast-Tracks Teachers to Needy Schools

Reporters' Notebook
Lessons from Our Nation's Schools reveals bright spots in a school system that faces overwhelming challenges. To learn more about the three New York City schools that Education World editors visited, be sure to read our Reporters' Notebook.

Did You Read Our e-Interview With Jonathan Kozol?
Don't miss another recent Education World article, Ordinary Resurrections: An e-Interview With Jonathan Kozol. Kozol's uniquely passionate take on urban schools and urban schoolchildren has been documented in such books as Death at an Early Age and, more recently, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope.

Mother Hale Academy in the South Bronx fits part of that profile. Cracked stone floors and worn wooden cubbies betray the wear on this five-story building constructed in 1920. The brightly colored interior shows signs of many layers of paint. The building now houses about 648 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade and 70 staff members. Slightly more than 98 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The school has undergone something of a renaissance since the New York City school chancellor labeled it a low-performing school four years ago. It was reorganized during the summer of 1996. When it opened that fall, about half the staff members were new to the school, but all shared a renewed commitment. We chose to visit Mother Hale because student performance continues to improve, although its classification remains a "low-achieving" school. (See Mother Hale's report card.)

On our first day in New York City, we visit another school in the South Bronx. KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy Charter School is a middle school for students in grades 5 through 8. Four other schools share the building that houses KIPP at I.S. 151. The 171,000-square-foot fortresslike building, made of concrete and brick, was constructed in 1972. KIPP's 248 students and 14 full-time and eight part-time staff cram into one section of the fourth floor. There is no teacher's lounge with the obligatory coffeepot, just a water cooler sharing space in one room that also serves as a storage room, copy room, and mailroom. The computer lab and a class also crowd into one room. Students sit on adult-sized folding chairs behind traditional school desks or tables. (The KIPP school report card was not available online.)

On the following day, we visit Crossroads School, located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near Harlem. The school is located on the fifth floor of a building that resembles a castle; the school building, completed in 1898, towers over the neighborhood's brownstone apartments. The building has no elevator, so all 175 sixth through eighth graders and 11 full- and 12 part-time staff members climb the five flights of stairs each day. An elementary school uses one of the lower floors, and another middle school is slated to move downstairs this fall. The H-shaped school has narrow hallways and tiny, hidden offices. Space is at a premium; female teachers and students share the same bathroom and the principal's office functions as an all-purpose conference room for staff, students, and parents.

Ann Wiener, the principal at Crossroads, and a group of New York City public school teachers founded the school in 1990. It is run collaboratively -- with input from staff, parents and students -- based on the principals of the Coalition of Essential Schools and the findings of a 1989 Carnegie Foundation Report on middle school education. The philosophy at Crossroads is that children learn best in small settings with people who know them. The cornerstone of Crossroads is a mentoring system that teams a teacher with a group of 16 students. The teacher-adviser develops and maintains close contact with the student and his or her family throughout the school year.