Our 155 Elementary Schools
Additional reporting by Carol Caffin.
How to Grade Yours
Here’s our first-ever survey of the county’s public elementary schools. In cooperation with the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, we’ve asked Westchester superintendents about the ingredients that make a terrific elementary school. We’ve looked at everything from standardized test scores, class size, and diversity to how teachers incorporate technology into their classrooms. We’ve spoken with education experts, local and national, about what matters—and why. We’ve also given the schools a chance to share some of the distinctive programs they’re particularly proud of—and we’ve highlighted a few schools that have been exemplary in some areas. The result, we hope, will make you feel good about where you’ve decided to live and send your child to school, or encourage you to become more active in improving your local elementary school.
These students at George Washington School in White Plains are learning that it’s just as important to exercise young bodies as well as young minds.
Westchester has long been a magnet for those looking for an excellent public education for their children. It’s certainly what brought my husband and me here 22 years ago from Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Way back then, the only report cards we cared about were the ones our children brought home in their backpacks. “Accountability” was something that we had to worry about in April when taxes were due, and “No Child Left Behind” wasn’t even a slogan. What we cared about was that the local school taught our son and daughter how to read, write, and do math, and that our children were happy to get on the big yellow school bus in the morning.
It’s not so simple now. Today, looking at what factors make a top-notch elementary school can be difficult—which is why we asked schools superintendents and experts for input. As a reporter who has covered Westchester’s schools for more than a decade—and has spent time in most of them—I’ve learned to look for intangibles that never show up in the statistics. During an assembly program, are the teachers paying attention to the event or are they grading papers? Are students involved in the class or are they staring at their desks?
You probably have your own measures of what constitutes a happy child in a good school. We hope the assessments we’ve looked at helps.
Bill McKeon’s fourth-grade class at F.E. Bellows Elementary School in Rye Neck uses technology to teach math. McKeon writes problems that are projected onto a large board at the front of the room; students can work on it from their desks with a stylus pen that controls the board. “It allows kids who arevisually based to have another impact,” McKeon says.
The Little Schools That Could
No one is particularly surprised when an Bronxville or a Scarsdale receives kudos for having stellar elementary schools. But when an urban school district like New Rochelle or a more diverse community like Ossining gains praise for student achievements and innovative programs, it pays to pay attention.
New Rochelle’s 525-student Jefferson School is classified as a “majority minority school,” with 38 percent of the students native Spanish-language speakers, 17 percent African-American, 2 percent Asian, and 23 percent Caucasian. Sixty percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Yet 80 to 90 percent of its students achieve a score of 3 or (the highest) 4 on the state’s standardized assessment tests in math, social studies, science, and English Language Arts. The school received a 2006 National School Board Association Award for exemplary initiatives—the highest honor for schools. What’s its secret?
Principal Cynthia J. Slotkin credits the kids, the parents, and the community. “My student body and community are just fantastic,” she says. But ingenuity and creativity probably deserve as much or more credit.
The school, for example, takes advantage of its proximity to Manhattanville’s School of Education. “We offer
Manhattanville student placement and they offer us staff development,” says Slotkin. The school also is open from 7:30 am to 6 pm, giving educators more time to provide extra help (there are test-practice tutorials and homework sessions offered after school); extra challenges (enrichment programs in the arts, technology, theater, and sports are offered); and extra programs (in January, the school launched a walking club and intramural boys and girls basketball—all before school—and will soon offer a cheerleading club, too). The five-year-old after-school program serves 140 children—more than one-forth of the student body.
Declares Slotkin: “It’s not the length of the day that matters; it’s the quality of the program. It has been an incredible success.” And the perks are not only for the kids. There are workshops, in Spanish, for parents.
Arts, theater, and music round out the three Rs at New Rochelle’s Jefferson School, a “majority minority” school that received the highest National School Board honors in 2006.
Similarly impressive is the Brookside school in Ossining, another “majority minority school,” with 41 percent Hispanic students and 16 percent African American. Under the leadership of Principal Felix Flores, the school—which serves second and third graders (the district uses the Princeton Plan)—offers a variety of innovative programs. Among them: a dual-language Spanish-English program that begins in kindergarten that, “many parents believe is a gifted and talented program,” Schools Superintendent Phyllis Glassman says. The school also hosts family math and literacy nights to help parents understand what their children are learning. It offers literacy coaches, a storytelling program, and an extended-day program for math and literacy. To help close the achievement gap, Brookside also features a mentoring program targeting black male students. “We’ve been doing this for a number of years,” says Ray Sanchez, Ossining’s deputy superintendent, “and we only continue programs that work. This program has been nothing but positive.”
HOW YOUR SCHOOL IS STRUCTURED And Why It Matters
According to the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, there are 155 elementary schools in the county (there are, for example, five in White Plains, 11 in Mount Vernon, and 29 in Yonkers)—and they are not all structured alike.
While most of the county’s elementary schools are organized in the traditional kindergarten-through-fifth-grade configuration (or K to 4, or K to 6), especially in smaller communities where there is only one elementary school (e.g, Ardsley, Dobbs Ferry, and Tuckahoe), others—often in less affluent communities but not exclusively so—have a different structure, something known as the Princeton Plan. With this plan, the elementary schools are organized not by geographic location (i.e., all kids residing in a certain designated area go to the same school) but by age (all five- and six-year-olds, say, attend one central school and all seven- and eight-year-olds another, and so on). The combination may be different—all kindergarteners, first graders, and second graders attend one school while everyone else attends another. What are the benefits to using the Princeton Plan?
Diversity, for one, experts say.
Take districts such as Greenburgh Central 7, whose schools generally are less diverse than its population because, says Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, the wealthy tend to favor private schools. The Princeton Plan, by bringing kids from all over town to the same school, helps to integrate the school, if not the community, by mixing privileged kids with underprivileged ones, Caucasian children with Hispanic children, Jewish youngsters with Catholic youngsters. Elmsford Schools Superintendent Carol Franks-Randall says, “Our schools are a melting pot—and it’s beautiful to see.”
Another benefit, educators maintain, is consistency. “Everybody’s on the same page,” says John Chambers, superintendent of the Byram Hills School District in Armonk. That is, all the district’s kindergarteners receive the same education because they’re all in the same school building, with the same teachers, same principal, same educational philosophy. When you’re in a district that may have four or five different elementary schools, some kids may have more science or math in one school while kids in another school may have more history. As a result, Chambers says, students from traditionally structured schools “are not necessarily at the same level of academic achievement when they arrive at the middle school.”
Those who favor the Princeton Plan say there are social benefits as well. “K to five is a big age spread,” Chambers says. “In a K-to-two building, kids get a broader range of social experiences, with a broader sample of friendships.” Celia Oyler, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, points to another advantage: “When you have fewer grades, you can cluster more resources, such as library books.”
Of course, the big downside is there’s no “neighborhood school,” says Joan Rosen, director of public information for the Mamaroneck Public Schools, which has a traditional K to 5 structure. “We do not have a bussing system,” Rosen says. “It strengthens the community feel when neighbors and families go to school together.” And many parents may not be thrilled, either; they may be spending more time in their car driving their child to play dates.
Sometimes districts also organize by what’s known as “magnet schools” or, as White Plains prefers to call them, “parent-choice schools,” in which a school focuses on a theme—the arts, say, or science and technology—and students gain admission by a lottery. Three of New Rochelle’s seven elementary schools are magnet schools: one specializes in the humanities; another in science, math, and technology; and a third is a special early-childhood educational program for pre-K through second grade. “We give parents a choice,” says Jeff Korostoff, assistant superintendent for elementary education in New Rochelle.
AVERAGE CLASS SIZE And Why Small Is Better
Size matters—a lot. When it comes to educating our kids, especially our youngest kids, the smaller the number of children in the classroom, the better. With fewer kids in the classroom, teachers can provide more individual attention and greater personal instruction. Lots of research bears this out. One of the best-known studies, the Tennessee Class Size Project, found a direct (that is, positive) correlation between smaller class size and student performance—and not just in the short term.
The study looked at kindergarten through third-grade classrooms of 22 to 25 students, classrooms of 22 to 25 youngsters in which the teacher had an aide, and classrooms of 13 to 17 students. It found improvement in early learning and cognitive studies among the kids in the smaller classes and found that improvement was especially significant (almost double) among minority students. Indeed, African-American youngsters in smaller classes in the early years, the Tennessee study found, were more likely to take the ACT or SAT than black students who had been in larger classes.
Says Sara Wilford, director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College, a proponent of small classrooms: “You need to know children well to teach them well.”
You also need money. Very often there is a correlation between the wealth of a community and the class sizes in its school. Take Briarcliff Manor, for example, where the median household income is $157,880, versus New Rochelle, where the median income is $66,363. Briarcliff Manor has on average 20 students in its kindergarten through second grade classes; New Rochelle: 22. Still, no one knows exactly how small a class ought to be for optimal learning conditions. And a just-published study by Northwestern University found no evidence that small class size reduces the achievement gap within a class. In other words, high achievers know how to take advantage of the benefits of fewer students in the class better than low achievers.
GIFTED EDUCATION And Why It’s No Longer PC
There are times when it seems as if every child in Westchester inhabits the rarefied precincts of Lake Wobegon, where, as Garrison Keillor famously put it, every child is above average.
Gifted education, or, more precisely, what are now known as “pull-out programs” that target children identified by IQ or other measures as being in need of greater intellectual challenges, largely have fallen by the wayside in most districts. Partly, they were seen as politically incorrect—aren’t all children in some way gifted? Plus, they weren’t exactly pound-smart. These programs served perhaps no more than 10 percent of a class; how does a district defend spending its hard-to-get money on so few students?
Although federal legislation in 1972 required that all students be tested and identified, whether for special education (students who needed tutoring and help of some sort) or gifted education (students who needed more challenge than their classmates), federal funds somehow only materialized for special-needs students, not for “gifted” ones. Districts found it difficult to financially support programs for the gifted. Fewer and fewer districts even have a once-a-week session for gifted students to explore subjects in greater depth. Declares JoAnne Ferrara, chair of curriculum and instruction at Manhattanville College, “When you’re talking about No Child Left Behind, well, the gifted are really left behind.”
Districts favor an “enrichment for all” model, in which a teacher may work in the homeroom classroom with all students on a special project, or provide extra readings or math problems for a few students. If you’re the parent of a child who’s been designated as gifted, you’re going to have to work closely with his or her teacher to be sure that there are challenging assignments or projects, not just more-of-the-same—and probably look outside for other experiences.
FOREIGN LANGUAGES And Why the Sooner the Better
Face facts. The world your young child lives in is becoming more and more global. To succeed, he or she will need proficiency and fluency in more than English—even if English continues to become our universal language. Foreign-language education, experts say, is not a frill, or something to be assigned to a lunchtime enrichment program or to an after-school club.
“We are being quite myopic,” says Ofelia Garcia, a Teachers College professor. “The world is going to have such an advantage over us. All over the world, foreign language education is booming.”
Some of our districts seem to understand the need for early foreign-language education better than others. Local districts that have significant non-English-speaking populations—for example, Tarrytown, New Rochelle, Yonkers, and Ossining—already have embraced the teaching of Spanish and other languages from the very beginning of the school career.
Mount Vernon, on the other hand, is teaching Chinese. Four years ago, the district hired a teacher who happened to be Chinese to work at the Grimes Elementary School and, to the district’s horror, it found that some of the youngsters were making rude comments about the teacher’s ethnicity. Principal Frances-Ann Lightsy and the teacher, Chun Li, decided to do something about it: they started an after-school program to teach children about Chinese culture. That grew into a program that today has students from grades K through 6 learning Chinese language and culture twice a week. Children also may continue their Chinese education Saturday mornings. The majority of the students are doing so.
Perhaps the most impressive foreign-language program in the county was started at the Ward School in New Rochelle nine years ago, and has been instituted in four of the district’s seven elementary schools. There, all students from grades K through 5 learn both English and Spanish—studying one day all subjects in one of the languages; the next day in the other. Next year, New Rochelle is introducing the dual-language program for Italian and English at the Jefferson Elementary School. “We had to revise the foreign language program at the middle-school level because our students were so proficient,” says Estee Lopez, director for the English Language Learner Program and Instructional Services. Students receive two to three high school credits for participating in the program.
HOW DIVERSE IS THE SCHOOL And Why It’s Important
Diversity? Why should this matter? There is research suggesting that students who know how to navigate in classrooms where not everyone looks alike are better prepared than those who are in homogeneous schools. “The population in the United States is becoming more diverse, with more Hispanics than blacks,” says Barry Gold, a professor of management at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business and author of the book, Still Separate and Unequal: The Future of Urban School Reform (published by Teachers College Press, 2007). “With the globalization of the economy, learning about other people and cultures should be able to help them. They understand the world differently, and benefit from seeing how other people live. Otherwise, they’re not getting as full an education.”
According to a Briefing Report by the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, “recent studies have found that students who attend more diverse schools have a higher comfort level with members of racial and ethnic groups different from their own and a greater desire to live and work in multiracial settings.”
STANDARDIZED TESTS And What They Really Mean
Standardized tests aren’t about to win any popularity contests. But you can’t get away from them. They matter because they tell us how well students have learned the material that New York State expects them to know. Throughout our state, third- and fourth-grade students are expected to be competent—or better—in reading and English language skills, and mathematics. Fourth-grade students are also tested in science.
Students are graded from a low of 1 (not meeting the learning standards) to a high of 4 (meeting the learning standards with distinction) on these tests. Schools in which a high percentage of students receive grades of 4 can be said to be performing well. For example, in Scarsdale, 27 percent of the district’s third graders received a test score of 4 in English and nearly 50 percent received a 4 in math. In Rye, 9 percent and 26 percent of its third graders received a score of 4 in English and math, respectively. Rye Superintendent Edward Shine says that the district uses the test to determine if a child who does poorly has a learning disability or needs extra help. “Not promoting a child does not solve the problem,” he says.
But of course, there’s a correlation between how well students do on standardized tests and how financially well off their parents are. “Generally, wealthy families’ kids do well on tests and in school,” Shine says. He notes, too, that there’s a high correlation between the parents’ level of education and the child’s performance. The more educated the parents, especially the mother, the better a child does in school, he says.
Still, some schools, despite the disadvantages their student populations may have—non-English speaking parents, poor parents, uneducated parents—manage to have students who perform remarkably well on these standardized tests.
Take, for example, the Elmsford School District, in which the student body is 42-percent Hispanic. It has been recognized by the State Education Department as one of the High Performing/Gap Closing districts, which means that its students met all applicable state standards for English and math and made progress in those subjects for two consecutive years. How did the district do it? “We have done a number of things,” Elmsford Superintendent Franks-Randall says. “We have a before- and after-school program focusing on English, language arts, and math.”
Greenburgh Central School 7, the Mamaroneck Avenue Elementary School in White Plains, and all of New Rochelle’s elementary schools for the 2006-2007 year, also received this distinction.
TECHNOLOGY And Why It’s So Cool
Lots of schools make lots of noise about their technology programs, or classroom innovations. Beware: no matter how hefty a budget line, or how glitzy and glossy the shiny computers appear in the classroom on Open School Night, what matters is that the teachers in the school know how to use them.
“Technology is good only if it enhances instruction and provides more of an in-depth analysis,” says Manhattanville’s Ferrara. “It can allow students in the upper grades to do more research. It can help with higher-order thinking skills. Students can also work independently, which is a goal.”
Technology is not a substitute for teaching, but it can make the material more accessible to children and provide resources that go beyond the textbook.
In Bill McKeon’s fourth-grade classroom at the F.E. Bellows Elementary School in Rye Neck, a math lesson focused on division problems. From their desks, students could work on a wireless mouse that would manipulate the “InterWrite” Board at the front of the room, using different colors to differentiate the ones, tens, and hundreds places.
“The board assists children who are visual learners,” says McKeon, who has been working with this system for the past six years. He writes problems that are projected onto a six-by-four-foot board at the front of the room, which the students can then work on from where they’re sitting by means of a stylus pen that controls the board. As the students manipulate the numbers to solve the problems and then make up new problems, their facility with a particular math technique improves, says McKeon.
“It brings all of what they do to life,” says Rye Neck Superintendent Peter J. Mustich, who has made it district policy that these interactive boards are in every classroom.
EXTRA, EXTRA, EXTRA and why school doesn’t end at 3 pm
Think back to your elementary school days. Chances are what’s stayed with you are some of those special events and activities—maybe a school play, perhaps a field day in a local park. You probably moved here precisely because you wanted to give your children those extras.
Luckily, many schools have made it their mission to offer students a variety (a great variety) of experiences—whether through before- or after-school programs, lunchtime specials, or push-in classroom workshops that offer creative and fun moments designed to bring out students’ talents and imaginations. Good school districts recognize that these programs matter because children aren’t simply the sum of their standardized tests, and have skills, talents, and abilities that deserve to be developed.
It’s not about having a mandatory longer school day, but about providing resources, space, and staff to offer tutoring, dramatics, nature walks, music, and other opportunities to students who want them.
It’s no surprise that districts like Scarsdale give its fifth graders a chance to develop an independent research project—great training for the types of academic challenges that middle school and high school present. Nor should it be a surprise that Blind Brook students can learn flamenco, or that Briarcliff Manor children have a chance to participate in the National Circus Project. And many districts have partnerships with arts organizations, from the Jacob Burns Film Center to the Metropolitan Opera, or local universities and colleges, to add even more to their students’ experiences.
What may surprise is that some of the less affluent districts do such a good job at providing these extras, too. Peekskill’s school day for students in grades five through eight extends from 3 to 6 pm, with activities such as ballet and garage bands, so students can enjoy “experiences that students in affluent districts have,” says Superintendent Judith Johnson. Struggling elementary-school students in Peekskill can go to summer school for an extra four weeks as well.
Similarly, in Elmsford, where the student body is 42-percent Hispanic and the median family income is $78,000,
students get help in reading and math before and after school. There’s also a lunchtime enrichment club, and a robotics club in partnership with Pace University
PHYS ED And Why It’s Not As You Remember It
If you were one of those kids who loathed the very idea of gym class (and ran out of creative excuses to avoid PE sometime by Thanksgiving), you might wish you were a student in White Plains.
Instead of focusing on competitive sports and performance, the district—and specifically, the Mamaroneck Avenue Elementary School—has shifted to what Jody Cole, district coordinator of health and physical education for White Plains, calls “an emphasis on making children comfortable with themselves in a physical setting.”
Which means what, exactly? “The emphasis is not on athletics,” she says. “It’s more about enjoying and understanding the
benefits of physical and mental activity. ” So, instead of typical competitive sports, in which kids spend a lot of their time as bench warmers during gym class, Mamaroneck Avenue students are more likely to be grouped in teams trying to figure out how to use a rope to swing themselves across a pit. Or there could be a gym class focusing on dancing, or yoga. Some of this is a response to state standards. Now even gym class has specific curriculum goals that have to be met.
“Physical education is certainly a necessity in this world,” says Greg Ransom, director of athletics for Southern Westchester BOCES. “Obesity is an epidemic, particularly in young children. We need to get kids into a habit of eating right and exercising. A healthy child has a better opportunity of succeeding in the classroom.”
Merri Rosenberg, a freelance writer, happily sent her two children through the Ardsley schools. She covered schools and education for the New York Times Westchester section for more than a decade.