All Things Considered

October 01, 2000 5 min read
At New York City’s P.S. 5, a typical 12-hour school day includes breakfast, a trip to the dentist, and a karate lesson.

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a misty spring morning in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, and parents are walking their children to school. Some traverse Broadway, the same avenue that, 10 miles south, dazzles tourists with its theater marquees and sky-high office buildings. In this mostly immigrant area just north of Harlem, the avenue is decidedly unglamorous; signs in Spanish advertise check-cashing shops, and laundry hangs in the windows of smog-stained apartment buildings. But the destination of some parents is distinctly cheerier than the rest of the cityscape: Ellen Lurie Elementary, also known as P.S. 5, is housed in a relatively new building that looks like a thoughtfully constructed pile of Lego bricks.

Parents linger outside the cafeteria each morning as their children eat a free breakfast.
—Lloyd Wolf

The 200 or so students who eat breakfast for free are inside the cafeteria. On the playground, several mothers shiver in their jackets and lean against the windows, chatting and glancing through the glass at their children. They wait here every morning, keeping vigil until teachers arrive to collect their kids and march them off to class.

When the playground monitor gives the signal for the children outside to form a line and file into school, the parents line up and hold their kids’ hands all the way to the door. The students submit to this gesture of affection far longer than many kids would, but eventually they squirm away and bound into the building. The parents take a final look, then fan out into the community.

Students gather in the playground before the school day begins.
—Lloyd Wolf

A handful of mothers don’t leave. They wander into the parent resource center, a room on the first floor that serves as classroom, counseling office, or friendly gathering place, depending on who’s inside. Soon, as their children are cracking open books elsewhere in the building, the mothers—and one father—are poring over their own English lesson, led by a bubbly ESL teacher in overalls.

. These parents are obviously comfortable. For them, Ellen Lurie Elementary is not incomprehensible or impenetrable. It’s not a place, like so many other schools, to which parents are summoned only when their children have done something wrong.

FILLING A NEED: Dr. Jorge Mendieta, one of P.S. 5’s two dentists, works on a student’s cavity during the school day. The dentists have a fully equipped office and a dental assisant in the school clinic, which they share with a full-time nurse practitioner and a receptionist who keeps track of appointments.
—Lloyd Wolf

The reason is that P.S. 5 is a full-service community school, a hub for educational and social services. It’s one of two schools the Children’s Aid Society, a nonprofit organization, opened in partnership with the New York City school system in 1992. Education fads come and go, but the CAS model has taken root in Manhattan—the group now operates eight community schools in the city—and across the country. CAS consults with 29 schools it helped create in 12 other cities, and at least 25 organizations not affiliated with CAS—the Alliance Schools Initiative in Texas, Full Service Schools in Florida, and Schools Uniting Neighborhoods in Oregon, to name a few—are tinkering with similar concepts.

ME, ME!: Students beg teacher Maria Grullén to call on them during “Golden Hour,” a period set aside every day for work on reading skills.
—Lloyd Wolf

In Washington Heights, the CAS school is considered a success. Last year, researchers at New York’s Fordham University gave P.S. 5 high marks for creating a culture that helps students thrive.

With these accomplishments in mind, Teacher Magazine visited P.S. 5 one day last May to observe the school in action. As the following photo essay illustrates, students make use of the building in a variety of ways. Six days a week, the school opens at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast and closes more than 12 hours later, giving kids plenty of time for tutoring and after-school activities such as music, karate, and scouting.

In the school’s parent resource room, a mother balances a toddler on her lap while studying in an ESL class.
— Lloyd Wolf

Two dentists and a nurse practitioner operate an on-site medical clinic so that a kid who needs a filling, for example, misses as little class time as possible.

Most shrewdly, CAS and the school address the needs of parents, recognizing that a family under stress is a distraction to learning. A large number of the residents in Washington Heights are recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and almost half the population lives below the poverty line. Accordingly, the school offers counseling, plus ESL and GED classes that help make parents employable.

Elementary students leave for the day, yet the school stays open to educate older pupils. Among the classes offered is GED prep.
—Lloyd Wolf

During their three-year study, Fordham researchers found that, compared to other schools in Washington Heights, P.S. 5 had happier students and more involved parents. And academic achievement improved dramatically from the beginning of 1997 to the end of 1999; the rate of students reading at grade level jumped from 28 percent when they were in 4th grade to 42 percent two years later. P.S. 5 also leads the pack in faculty retention and attendance as well as the number of teachers who conduct after-school programs (for which they receive additional pay), according to CAS.

As a full-service community school, P.S. 5 is a hub for educational and social services.

But these gains don’t come without a price. Logistical challenges abound, such as negotiating the use of classroom space, tying classroom instruction to after- school programs, and redesigning social services as community needs change. “It’s extra work-there’s no way around it,” says Manny Muñoz, director of community schools at Children’s Aid Society. Consequently, each school needs its own full-time CAS representative working on-site “to make the model less taxing on the school staff and facility,” he says.

. Even with that kind of support, however, flexible teachers who are eclectic thinkers tend to thrive at P.S. 5, while those who yearn for structure don’t. That’s because the Washington Heights community continues to change. “Never assume that just because it worked last year, it’ll work this year,” says Philip Coltoff, executive director of the Children’s Aid Society.

“It’s been described like an arranged marriage,” he says of the relationship between the school and its teachers. “First you get married, then you fall in love. It does require building bridges that aren’t there to begin with. You have to help teachers understand that they still have a vital role to play.”

—Samantha Stainburn