The new school year is upon us, a fact some youngsters acknowledge only with total dread. But the middle schoolers at Innovate Manhattan Charter School, the Lower East Side’s third and newest charter school, have a lot to look forward to when classes start tomorrow.
On August 23rd, Innovate opened the doors of its brand new facility at 38 Delancey Street, in an open house for students and their families. The pristine space, located on the third floor of a residential and commercial building, embodies the tenets of the Kunskapsskolan Educational model (KED), which was developed in Sweden and is currently used in 34 Swedish schools. Innovate Manhattan is the first American school to adopt the model, which emphasizes individual instruction and flexibility to help students take charge of their own learning.
Innovate’s new home bears little resemblance to most of the city’s middle school classrooms—not least of all because of its enviable resources. (“We took the plastic off the computer screens this morning,” said math teacher Jeffrey Milano at the open house.) Its floor plan includes couches for students, computer stations in hallways, airy classrooms with glass walls and state-of-the-art teaching technologies, and smaller breakout rooms for more private study or counseling. The differences between Innovate and traditional school settings are more than just aesthetic; this special design was conceived to compliment the KED methodology.
The light-filled atmosphere is intended to foster an open learning community in which students use the school’s resources with relative autonomy. Most of the school day at Innovate is devoted to workshops, times when students move between classrooms to seek out the help they need, when they need it. Students from different grade levels share classroom spaces, and teachers offer help tailored to each child’s needs as they progress through a standardized curriculum.
“I was actively seeking something different and progressive around individualized learning,” said head of school Gayla Thompson. “It was something I’d done in my classroom for years as a teacher, but I’d never seen it done in a school that had that concept.”
After a teaching career in public, private and charter schools, Thompson took her position last spring, near the close of the school’s first year. She was excited by Innovate’s multi-faceted KED model, which allows students and their families to plan out learning goals within the school curriculum. Students attend only a few traditionally structured classes each week. They design their own schedules with the help of “coaches,” teachers who meet with students in groups of 15 twice a day and individually once a week. Teachers also upload notes on students’ progress to the web in real time, so parents can regularly check in on their child’s work.
“It’s like the dream,” said Erin Van De Merlen, another math teacher. “In a traditional school, the desire you always have is to have more time with students, especially one on one time. That’s the biggest difference, for each teacher to have that time built into the day, to sit with a child—where you’re not down to the wire, trying to squeeze it in.” While struggling students can work to strengthen specific skills, those who excel can also receive appropriate instruction, even moving beyond grade level. (“You want to do calculus? I’ll sit out there with them and do calculus,” Milano joked.)
Parents appreciate that their children can push their own limits in their best subjects. “My son thrived a lot,” said Diana Jessamy-Calliste, the mother of a returning student. Her son was able to move on to advanced material when he had mastered the required basics. “He’s motivated—he’s a competitive kid. He doesn’t want to wait.”
At the open house, eighth grader Emma Zin also attested to the program’s flexibility. “I really love this school—it’s a lot better than the first school I went to,” she said told the gathered families. “It was way too slow for me in math, it was way too fast for me in English, and this school allows me to go at my own pace.”
Innovate is also hoping to establishing its own pace, after a challenging first year in a problematic location. Tucked temporarily into the Tweed Courthouse building on Chambers Street, and surrounded by employees from the Department of Education, the school staff encountered difficulty creating the sort open environment that is crucial to the KED model.
“It wasn’t their own, and they knew it,” said Erica Millado, a returning teacher. She believes the new facility will usher in a more comfortable chapter in Innovate’s story. “You could feel the energy, and I feel that energy will be completely different because it’s our space.”
She is also looking forward to a more stable school administration, after the school’s first principal quit the post mid-way through last year because of professional differences with some of her colleagues. Peg Hoey, president of Kunskapsskolan USA, took over as interim head before Thompson was hired last spring. At the open house, Hoey emphasized that the school could leave its past difficulties behind. Speaking to students, she said, “Your job this year is to show New York City that it’s not crazy that this school model works here.”
Innovate’s impact for families in the local community remains to be seen. Students hail from all five boroughs, and while the school now gives preference to students living in its new area region, School District 1, most families don’t live in Lower Manhattan. Lisa Donlan, president of the district’s Community Education Council (CEC), expressed a wish that the school had done more to work with CEC1 to engage the local community. Last week, however, she told The Lo-Down she was hopeful the school would reach out in the future.
At the open house, parents were looking to move forward from the school’s rocky beginnings. “Birth is painful, and there’s no question we went through a lot of pain last year as this school was born,” said Chris Owens, an active member of the school’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association. “We’re here for the next step, the next chapter.” With a space designed for its own needs, the school has a chance to prove the value of its charter. “We can have a great year,” said Owens. “We need to have a great year, but we can have a great year.”
UPDATE 9/13/2012 The Daily News investigates the school’s hiring practices, and finds a convicted felon was hired to work in the school cafeteria without a background check.