The Jewel In The Crown

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Although the teachers have not accepted E.D. Hirsch's core curriculum whole-hog, it got them thinking about what children in each grade should know.

The school day begins at 8:30 a.m., but Kurz arrives each morning at 6 o'clock and puts in a good 12 hours. There's neither martyrdom nor braggadocio in his voice when he imparts this information. It comes with a little pragmatic shrug, the same shrug you see when he mentions expectations. "It's really a question of intention," he says. "If you intend something to happen, you can make it happen. If you want to get the job done, you can do it."

Kurz's commitment is not lost on his teachers. "He gives 100 percent," says Janet Jackelow, one of the three reading specialists at 161. Adds Diane Yules, one of Jackelow's colleagues, "If he only gives 99 percent, you feel like something is wrong."

The teachers who come to P.S. 161 tend to stay. A number refer to themselves--half joking--as "seasoned." They have been working here for eight years, 10 years, 19 years, 25 years. "We're a stable teaching staff," says 1st grade teacher Sheila Katz. "Mr. Kurz's attitude is, 'You're doing well, but you can always do better.' You strive to do better if someone sets the tone."

When Kurz was appointed principal, the school had been on a slide. The previous principal, although well liked, had been distracted from his duties by an illness in his family. Kurz came in and set a different tone. Teachers say he has set goals, written guidelines, and streamlined routine procedures, even down to printing out labels with relevant student data so teachers don't have to copy the information by hand in their record books. They also say he has assembled a good faculty: A veteran administrator, he has maneuvered around union contract provisions, recruiting teachers he wants and dissuading others with talk of what he demands from the staff.

By most accounts, he demands a lot, but he also promotes a professionalism that the teachers appreciate. He encourages the reading specialists to go to conferences and then share what they've learned with the teachers. The staff, working in grade-level groups, has spent the second half of the year rewriting the school curriculum after extensive discussions of the ideas of cultural-literacy guru E.D. Hirsch. Although the teachers have not accepted Hirsch's core curriculum whole-hog, it got them thinking about what children in each grade should know. They will implement the revised curriculum this fall.

Every morning, the principal is out on the street greeting students as they arrive at school. Most are accompanied by a parent or older sibling, but some need shooing from the local candy store. There's no yelling and no bullhorn--Kurz speaks to the youngsters in the same calm voice he uses with teachers, parents, and reporters. Students eventually line up, by class, on the playground behind the school and walk into the building behind their teachers. Kurz's goal is to create an atmosphere redolent of a private school, right down to the uniforms--plaid skirts with yellow blouses for the girls and yellow shirts with navy pants and ties for the boys.

Of course, academic achievement doesn't rise from children merely putting on uniforms; it comes from what goes on in the intimate confines of the classroom. Ten years ago, when Kurz arrived at P.S. 161, he saw little consistency in how reading was taught from class to class, grade to grade. Some teachers relied solely on phonics instruction, others used a whole-language approach. Students moved from one teacher to another with little carry-over. That had to change.

First, Kurz introduced a basal reading program called Open Court, published by McGraw-Hill. A phonics-based series with a literature component, Open Court provided a schoolwide foundation but was by no means the whole story. The school has also poured thousands of dollars into supplementary reading materials. Now, each grade level from kindergarten up is stocked with classroom sets of popular storybooks, more than 100 titles in all--everything from More Spaghetti I Say and Noisy Nora to Charlotte's Web and Robinson Crusoe. Much of the money for these books has come from PTA fund raising; the activist group brings in as much as $25,000 a year. Teachers have made these books an integral part of the curriculum. They assign readings as homework, and students discuss them in class the next day.

Wednesday mornings, from 7:45 to 8:15, a few tables lined up in the gym become a children's literature bazaar.

Children of all grades compete to become members of the Principal's Reading Club. To join, kindergartners and 1st graders must go to Kurz's office and read a book aloud to him; older students must read five books and write and revise reports on each. Club members receive a certificate, a button, and a place of honor on the school's central bulletin board.

Then there is the bookstore. Wednesday mornings, from 7:45 to 8:15, a few tables lined up in the gym become a children's literature bazaar. The three reading specialists display and sell books suitable for all grade levels. The store is also open during parent-conference days and at events like today's kindergarten fair. Over the past year, the school has sold more than 6,000 books--at a loss. The school buys them for 99 cents each and sells them for $1, which doesn't cover shipping.

Excitement about the Wednesday bookstore begins to build early each week, according to reading specialist Jackelow. "Children start asking me on Monday afternoon, 'Have the books come in yet? Have the books come in yet?'"

Barbara Adler has been teaching for 20 years, 15 of them at P.S. 161. She has the soft-spoken, exuberant manner of someone who knows her way around kindergartens. Sitting on a small chair with her 30 students seated around her on desks and the floor, she leads phonics exercises on the letter B.

"I'm thinking of a word that starts with a B that you wear on your arm," she says. Hands go up, with a bunch of "ooohhs." "A bracelet," says Jeremiah, who now comes up and, to much applause, pulls a bracelet from what Adler has christened the B Box, a cardboard container she has filled with objects starting with the letter they are studying.

Adler has developed exercises used throughout the year to introduce each letter of the alphabet.

Jeremiah looks in the box and spots an object. "I'm thinking of a word that starts with B that lots of pirates used to go out on." More hands and "ooohhs." "A boat," someone says, and the activity continues. Later, Adler writes a B on the board and directs her students to make the shape of the letter in the air, on a friend's back, on the floor. These are exercises Adler has developed and used throughout the year to introduce each letter of the alphabet. By this time of the year, her students know the drill.

Sensing the need to switch gears, Adler pulls out a book titled Me and asks who would like to read. Nicole's hand goes straight up. She reads with ease. "Look at my little cat. I like my cat." She pauses at the end of each page to show the class the picture. "Look, little cat. A big dog! Run, little cat, run." The others applaud when she finishes.

Adler points to Me as an example of how she "revs up" the Open Court phonics program. "This is a book I found a few years ago to help them develop sight words," she says. "It's good when children are reading some words. They can take it home and read it to their parents."

Now, Adler moves on to another B-word activity, pulling out a book on butterflies, I'm A Caterpillar. She asks Brittany, a girl with hair beautifully coiffed into four braids, to read. Brittany has been sitting quietly with a sad look on her face, but as she begins to read--"I turn into a pupa. Then I turn into a chrysalis...."--the sadness seems to melt away.

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