Since its founding in 1982, The Center School and its director, Elaine Schwartz, have fostered a non-traditional middle-school structure focused on the needs of their students.
The school started after a joint project between Fordham University and District 3—which Schwartz directed for three years—shut its doors after nearly two decades.
"When it ended we wanted to continue the relationship, and at that time there weren't many good middle schools for people to turn to," Schwartz said.
Students begin classes here in the 5th grade—most New York middle schools start at grade 6—for a cyclical, trimester-based, four-year course of study that mixes younger and older students in all classes except for math and Latin.
The philosophy, Schwartz said, has been to implement concepts for better learning that haven't often been put into practice.
Combining grades, she said, creates a greater sense of community at the school of 214 students, and reduces disciplinary problems.
"If they're all mixed together they all know each other," Schwartz said. "The bullying doesn't happen because they all know each other at a peer level."
Between periods, students are encouraged to get noisy—"to sort of blow off steam," as teacher Denise Hand put it—the idea being that adolescents need an outlet for their energy in order to keep focused during classes.
Teachers at the school, which shares a building with P.S. 9 on West 84th Street, tackle multiple courses—also unusual for a middle school, most of which focus a teacher on just one subject. Hand teaches five—social studies, science, literature, math and writing.
"I see the kids in a variety of settings, so that's a good opportunity to get to know them," Hand said. "It's kind of nice to see a whole person instead of just a math student."
This year, students are in the Western Civilization rotation of their social studies curriculum, and Hand is teaching the French Revolution.
Although this class mixes grade levels, everyone is learning a new topic. Next year, students who don't move on to high school will enter the Eastern Civilization cycle of their social studies coursework.
And Hand has great expectations for her older students.
"I expect the younger kids in the class to know the chronology, to know what happened," Hand explained. "I expect that as they get older and more sophisticated they're better able to evaluate 'why?'"
The school follows the required state curriculum standards and scores highly on standardized tests, but Schwartz said teachers don't teach to those tests, as many elsewhere have felt forced to do.
"Our theory is that if the kids know how to do reading and writing and math and thinking, they're going to do OK on the test, and so far that has certainly been the truth," Schwartz said.
She said that instead of handing her teachers curriculum guidelines, she allows them to develop their own to better meet the needs of their students. Over 250 4th-grade families look to leave elementary school early and apply to the school every year.
Students have a different schedule each day of the week. Some classes meet for 30 minutes, others for up to two hours. A theater arts program, integrated into the curriculum, requires students to perform in shows throughout the year.
They also take part in classes called "minis," which meet once a week and, Hand said, can be on any subject in which teachers and kids are interested.
Hand teaches one mini on Supreme Court cases relevant to her students and two others on logic puzzles and the French language.
Said Schwartz, "We wanted to take the work week of a kid and make it be something that they could live with. And that means that you have to respect the fact that adolescents can't sit still and that they're open to so many things, and our job is to make sure that they stay open and excited."
All teachers, as well as other staff, also serve as an advisor for 10 to 12 students, which they meet as a group once a week and individually as necessary.
"As an advisor you're an advocate for the kid for the year, socially and academically," Schwartz said.
Schwartz is advising 11 students this year, and she also teaches courses in math and what she calls "family living" to 8th graders.
PTA co-presidents Joanna Carlovich and Mary DiPalermo said both they and their children love the school's non-traditional approach to learning.
"The thing I like the most about it is its openness," Carlovich said. "They're open to the children, they're open to the parents. It's very progressive in the ideas but traditional in the academics."
Carlovich has a son and daughter in high school who attended the middle school, and an 8th-grade son who will graduate from the school next June.
DiPalermo's daughter is in the 6th grade at Center School. She has two sons, one in high school who attended the middle school, and another in elementary who wants to go there.
Carlovich and DiPalermo's older children attend LaGuardia Arts high school—also a non-traditional school—where they are enrolled in a technical theater program.
"I think it was a nice fit going there, coming from here," DiPalermo said.
Added Carlovich, "Now that my two children are in high school, they were well-prepared—the program is just really well-rounded."
DiPalermo said the quality of Center School's staff made it a joy to serve on the PTA.
"They're just really strong child advocates," she said. "They're really all very involved. And I think as a parent you see that and you want to do something back for the school."
— By Gavin Aronsen
Photo above: A teacher addresses students at Center School.
Photo by Andrew Schwartz