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Students Hit the High Seas for a New Learning Initiative

June 29, 2011

Ryan Cooke, PS 306 teacher and creator of the Classroom Without Walls learning initiative, with a student and her catch on the Long Island Sound. Photo by Fausto Giovanny Pinto


At noon on a recent Friday, while most students across the city were hitting the lunch line, the students at PS 306 were busy tossing out fishing lines and reeling in fish onto a boat bobbing in the Long Island Sound.

As part of a new learning initiative that takes kids out of the classroom and into the real world, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade Special Education students at PS 306 set sail on a day-long fishing trip. It marked the culmination of this year’s Classroom Without Walls program.

“We want to give them a glimpse of what’s out there so they can see it and take it further,” said Ryan Cooke, a 4th-grade Special Education teacher at the Mt. Hope-area school and creator of the innovative program. “These aren’t just field trips,” he added.

During the trip, as the students waited for a bite on the line, a special skill was subtly being emphasized: patience. Young kids, in general, have short attention spans. But a lack of patience is especially prominent for Special Ed students. Fishing, Cooke says, teaches them to control their feelings and focus on a long-term reward.

Silence on the boat was broken as cheers erupted from one side of the boat.

“I got one!” screamed 11-year-old Alexander Sanchez. “Reel it in!” yelled Captain James Whitten.

“I wish I had trips like these as a kid,” Whitten added.

As the crew of the boat helped Alexander reel in the fish, his fellow classmates cheered him on with high-fives.

“I didn’t think I was going to get it, I thought my pole was going to fall in [the water],“ said Alexander, a 5th grader. “I’m going to tell my mom to cook it.”

Students receive a handful of lessons of relatable material prior to the excursion. On the trip they received a mini lesson and afterwards were asked to reflect on the experience in a journal. For the fishing trip, the students studied Marine Biology.

The students have also saw a Broadway show, “The Lion King,” and went on a backstage tour. On a trip to the Museum of Natural History, students went behind the scenes to see how the fossils are put together.

Cooke, a former Special Ed student himself, says a different approach towards Special Education has been long overdue. He said since the program’s inception four years ago, students have been more focused and excited about learning.

“[As Special Education students] they have labeled stereotypes,” said Edgar Irizarry Jr, a paraprofessional at 306. “This gives them motivation and tells them you can do this. Ninety-nine percent of these kids have never gone fishing as well.”

The program, which works closely with the school’s parent association, raised enough funds to take a record number of kids this year, more than 100.

As the school bus pulled up to PS 306 on West Tremont Avenue, after a tiring and exciting day out at sea, one of the more vocal students turned to his teacher and spoke with the excitement only a child could exhibit.

“I’m happy I got to catch a fish,” he said. “I never did that before.”

Success Among Many Benefits of Rugby at MS/PS 279

June 22, 2011

Practicing in the enclosed courtyard at PS/MS 279 has helped the rugby team dominate when playing on much larger full-sized rugby fields. (Photo by Fausto Giovanny Pinto)


In the concrete courtyard of PS/MS 279 in Morris Heights on a school day afternoon, coach Mike Rosario screamed at the Bronx’s most successful youth rugby team. “You already know!” he yelled. “Yes! Yes!” a varying range of pubescent middle school boys and girls yelled back, as two teams of five lined up for a drill.

Rosario tossed what looked like a bloated and misshapen football at the kids, who were all wearing what appeared to be oversized karate belts around their waists.

While the players went at each other, tossing the oblong ball at odd angles (never forward) amongst each other while defenders sought to strip them of their karate belts, local residents stopped at the school fences, curious and fascinated to see the foreign game of rugby being played by a group of mostly Hispanic youngsters.

“You get a lot of people from the neighborhood who stop and ask, ‘what’s going on?’ and when I tell them, they are like, ‘rugby?’” said Rosario, a PE teacher at the school for 12 years now.

Yes, rugby. While many don’t associate the Bronx with rugby, PS/MS 279’s recent success is putting a spotlight on a sport that enjoys most of its popularity in countries like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Rosario’s team recently won four trophies in two separate tournaments, prompting local Councilman Fernando Cabrera to honor them with a city proclamation.

The team originated four years ago when Rosario attended a Department of Education workshop looking to promote physical activity among middle school kids. (The Bronx has one of the state’s highest rates of obesity among young people.)

Rosario asked if there was anything more exotic he could bring back to his school. Workshop organizers informed him about an upstart program called, Play Rugby USA, which uses the tagline: “Developing youth through rugby.”

PS/MS 279 was the first Bronx school to participate in Play Rugby USA. At the team’s first tournament, they beat a veteran team and caught the attention of the tournament sponsor by performing the Haku, a war chant performed by the All Blacks professional rugby team of New Zealand.

The team practices in a small outdoor courtyard the size of a full-length basketball court, which is less than half the size of a normal rugby field. Rosario says training in the confined space has been an advantage. At tournaments, with much more to play, the team dominates.

The co-ed team often competes against all-boys teams that are often quick to underestimate their female opponents.

“Being a girl, we prove the boys wrong [in there assumptions],” said Edna Valasquez an 8th grader who has played on the team for two years.

Aside from the glory of victory and weight loss, Rosario says there has been another other positive byproduct of the rugby program: improved academics.

Every team member must have a weekly tracking sheet that measures grades signed by all of their teachers. Those who fare poorly are not allowed to play.

Rashaan Graves, a 6th grader on the team, said he barely made it out of fifth grade with a 69 average. Since joining the team, he said his grades have improved and on his last report card he averaged a 91.

“My mom was crying because it was such a big change,” said Rashaan who attributed the gains to the discipline he learned playing rugby.

Because of its low cost and multiple benefits, MS/PS 279 Principal James Waslawski called the program “a principal’s dream.”

“It’s appealing in capturing the student interest,” he said. “We need more programs like this that can achieve all it has.”

Librarian Started Career as a Teen

June 22, 2011

Jerome Park librarian Linda Acevedo (left) was honored by Councilman Fernando Cabrera (center).
Photo courtesy of Councilman Fernando Cabrera


A local librarian was recently honored by Councilman Fernando Cabrera for her outstanding track record of work for the New York Public Library.

Liana Acevedo, 31, the manager at the Jerome Park branch, who has been working for the NYPL since she was 15, nearly half her life, received the recognition during a small ceremony in mid-April.

“It is my pleasure to honor this upstanding member of the community that exemplifies hard work, dedication, and service of excellence,” Cabrera said. “Liana’s service has spanned over almost two decades and she deserves to be honored for her commitment to better her community for as long as she has.”

Acevedo, the child of Puerto Rican parents who immigrated to the Bronx, said she spent the majority of her Sundays growing up in the Hunts Point library. While her mom used the resources at the library to better her English, she soaked up as many books as possible. That led to the attention of a librarian who offered young Liana a part-time job as a teen.

“The library is like a family. I loved reaching out to kids,” Acevedo said. “Teens get a bad rap, but you have to communicate with them.”

After college, Acevedo was accepted to masters programs in psychology and Library Science. Her early experiences cemented her decision to become a librarian.

She’s been at the Jerome Park branch for almost two years now and is known for developing innovative programs both indoors and out.

“She is friendly, she cares for people that use the library and faced with adversity, she gets through with a smile,” said Jane Fisher, the Bronx library network manager who nominated Acevedo for the acknowledgement.

Middle School Fights ‘Low-Achieving’ Label

March 21, 2011


Parents and staff at a local middle school are asking the city to keep their school open, despite being on a state watch list for low test scores and poor academic performance.

MS 391, or the The Angelo Patri Middle School on Webster Avenue, was put on the State Education Department’s list of “persistently low achieving schools,” in December as part of a federally funded program to reform some of the state’s worst schools.

But teachers and staff at MS 391 say the poor ranking is unfair, as they’ve spent the last several years changing the school from a place plagued by drugs and gang violence to one that gives back to the community and boasts an 88 percent attendance rate.

At last month’s Community Education Council meeting for District 10, supporters of the school appealed to the DOE to keep MS 391 open and asked for more resources to improve.

“To be labeled as a failing school when we really have succeeded on so many levels was kind of daunting for us, and surprising,” said technology teacher Eric Collins, who said the school has changed completely since 2007, when now-principal Graciela Abadia and former principal Pedro Santana joined its administrative team.

The DOE did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

“This school that was considered to be kind of a tough place became a model of progress,” he said, adding that MS 391 won a “Blackboard Award” last year for being an “Outstanding Turnaround School.”

“The environment has changed quite dramatically,” said Marvin Shelton, president of District 10’s Community Education Council. Shelton said the school has cleaned up its image but still suffers academically.

“They’re on the right track and hopefully they’ll be able to turn it around and get those scores up,” he said.

State law requires that school districts perform one of four actions at low-achieving schools—they can be “transformed,” converted to a charter school, phased out entirely or “turned around,” meaning the principal and at least half the staff is removed and replaced.

A school chosen for transformation, however, will get extra funding in the form of a $2 million improvement grant to recruit better-compensated teachers and implement a new evaluation system for school staff.

PTA President Sandra Thomas, whose two granddaughters attend MS 391, says the school community won’t accept any decision other than transformation.

“The school is a lovely, caring school,” she said. “We already transformed with all the hard work that the teachers and parents have done.”

Thomas said Abadia opens up the school early every day, and for four hours on Saturdays, to provide students with extra tutoring sessions with teachers who volunteer their time on their off-hours.

“This has nothing to do with extra money—these are teachers that are concerned about the kids’ education,” she said. “All we really need is that grant to keep us afloat.”

Black is the New Schools Chancellor, Bronx Pols Divided

December 3, 2010



After much debate and political maneuvering, Cathleen Black, the veteran publishing executive, is the city’s new schools chancellor. She replaces Joel Klein.

Black was put forward for the job by Mayor Bloomberg in early November, but her candidacy had been in jeopardy after the State Education Commissioner David Steiner questioned her lack of related work experience.

Schools Chancellors need a professional certificate in educational leadership and other qualifications. Black’s had a successful career in business and publishing — she’s been called the “First Lady of glamorous glossies” — but she’s never been a teacher, and her resume boasts just a single day as a guest principal in the Bronx.

To get around this, Black needed Steiner to grant her a waiver, and on Nov. 29 he did just that, having been convinced that her lack of experience would be mitigated by the appointment of a chief academic officer to serve as her deputy.

That night, Bronx Assembly members Vanessa Gibson and Marco Crespo released a joint statement slamming Steiner’s decision.

“This is not the time to compromise on who will lead New York’s schools or to adopt a ‘Let’s Make A Deal’ approach regarding the person who will be leading public education in our City,” Gibson, who represents Morris Heights parts of the South Bronx, said.

She added: “It is particularly insulting that Commissioner Steiner is claiming that Ms. Black has ‘extraordinary experience’ when everyone knows that her credentials don’t provide the excellence in education needed for this important post.”

Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz echoed Crespo and Gibson: “I can’t think of another example where the head of a key city agency was appointed only on the condition that someone with actual qualifications was appointed to serve as a top deputy,” he said in a statement.

Other Black critics, including civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, are now threatening to take the matter to court.

Bronx politicians as a whole are split on Black. Councilman Joel Rivera, for one, is a staunch supporter. In a letter sent to Steiner, Rivera said Black was “committed to keeping the focus on ending inequality in education and closing the achievement gap.”

In a phone interview Rivera said Black had called him and convinced him that she would work closely with local elected officials — something Klein’s opponents said he failed to do.

Not that Rivera is critical of Klein. “[He's] done a pretty remarkable job with the Department of Education,” he said.

Rivera said there are two schools of thought: one, that you need an educator to run a school system, and two, that when you have a 135,000-employee agency, with a multi-billion dollar budget, you need, first and foremost, a strong manager. Rivera is firmly in the second camp.

“It’s not as if she’ll be in the classroom,” he said. “Give her an opportunity to show what she can do . . . instead of ridiculing.”

Black’s chief academic officer will be Shael Polakow-Suransky, a former teacher and principal who founded the Bronx International High School, a small school located in the Morris High School Campus.

PS 204 Celebrates Move to New Home

December 3, 2010



In September, PS 204 moved into the Morris Heights Educational Complex, a brand new building on University Avenue, much to the joy of students, parents, and teachers.

The elementary school’s old home, a converted synagogue a few blocks away on West 174th Street, was in a terrible shape. And it lacked a gym, an auditorium, a library, and other amenities that typically make a school a school.

The new building, a state-of-the-art facility which PS 204 shares with P723, a small special needs school, boasts all of these amenities – and then some.

On Nov. 16, the schools held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening.

“Our story is how we went from rags to riches,” said Marcy Glattstein, PS 204′s principal, speaking in the auditorium afterwards.


Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson and State Senator Jose Serrano, both of whom supported the school’s relocation, were among those in attendance. And so were dozens of parents, many of whom attended a public meeting with DOE officials last year, during which they made a compelling case for PS 204′s relocation.

“The parents came out, the community came out, they changed history and they got it done,” Serrano said.

Two PS 204 fifth graders, Tyler Montilla and Janicebell Ulerio, won an essay contest about the differences between the old and the new buildings, and both read their essays in the auditorium.

“My school now has a beautiful library… with many more books that before,” Janicebell said.

“In science we [now] have a fake skeleton to help us with the human body,” said Tyler, who also noted that the new building has “water fountains that actually work.”

“We deserve what we got and what we fought for,” Tyler said.

PS 204 is considered one of the better elementary schools in the Bronx. When the DOE releases its annual progress reports, the school routinely receives an A grade. Parents and teachers said they hoped the new building, and all it offers, would enable them to build on past successes.

The school’s old building, the former synagogue, is now occupied by the Carl C. Icahn South Bronx Charter School, which moved to Morris Heights from Morrisania this fall. A DOE spokesman previously said that the city would address some of the concerns PS 204 parents had raised about building.

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