by Briana Warsing [repost from MainStreetWire.com]
PTA Co-Presidents Olga Shchuchinov and Natalya Starkova love PS/IS 217. They rave about the teachers. They love the facility. They love Principal Mandana Beckman, of whom Shchuchinov says, “I see her every day. She always has time for me.” Adds Starkova, “Our job is to support her. She is running the school. She is the captain.”
G&T ProgramThe Co-Presidents both have children who have been in the school’s Gifted and Talented (G&T) program since its inception. The program will graduate its pioneer class at the end of this school year.
Shchuchinov and Starvoka are careful to clarify that they don’t speak for the administration, but for the parents, when talking about the school. Each feels that the G&T Program brings value and strength to the rest of the school.
As they see it, the G&T program goes deeper into the curriculum than does the general education program. There is more reading and more discussion. Early writing is emphasized, particularly non-fiction. Another parent, Corinna Kell, explains, “We love the teachers. I have no complaint about academics. We [as parents] just have to keep up!”
PS 217 has what is called a bridge class, with the first- and second-grade G&T classes merged. The Co-Presidents say it allows the teacher to spend more time with each student. They say the school is flexible and trying different models because, as Shchuchinov says, “We must compete with so many schools in District 2.” District 2 has some of the highest-performing and most popular schools in the city. It covers the wealthiest neighborhoods – the East Side south of 97th Street and the West Side south of 59th Street.
The G&T program began in the fall of 2009 as a parent initiative, in which former PTA President and Island Kids Director Nikki Leopold was deeply involved. Then-City Councilmember Jessica Lappin was instrumental in securing the funding.
But a year later, the program almost went away. The New York City Department of Education (DOE) requires a minimum class size of 18-20 students to fund the G&T teacher, and only nine qualifying students were interested in registering for kindergarten for the 2010-11 school year. To save the program, the PTA, the administration, local politicians, and parents got together and found additional students.
Jackson Heights Connection
A core group of Jackson Heights families commute to the school as the result of a special decision allowing students from Queens District 30 to attend the Roosevelt Island school. (Queens District 30 is bounded by Flushing Bay on the north and the East River on the west, and includes Astoria, Ditmars, East Elmhurst, Hunters Point, Jackson Heights, Long Island City, Sunnyside, and Woodside.) This decision helped the program survive and flourish, and has helped the school in other ways as well.
PTA Secretary Emily Kaplan’s son is one of the District 30 students. “Malcolm, my first-grader, takes a private bus to the school, along with thirty-some other kids from Jackson Heights. I really like the school because it’s smaller, and it has more enrichments and more outdoor time than any of the other schools we were considering.”
Shchuchinov says Jackson Heights parents comprise half of the PTA board, including Treasurer Taryn Merkl. She describes the school as stronger for the involvement of Jackson Heights parents. In fact, Shchuchinov and Starkova agree that parent involvement is the differentiator that makes a school really good.
The school’s general education program is also attracting more students. Having a G&T program at the school raises its visibility and adds appeal to its general education program. Kell explains, “G&T fills a void. There was a need to have G&T to get the quality we needed – not quality of kids, but of parents. I have friends sending their children to the general education program here and, five years ago, they wouldn’t have considered it. The demographics of the school have changed totally.”
She adds, “I was so glad not to send my Simon to the United Nations International School like my older kids. Those two extra hours he gets – one in the morning and one in the afternoon, from not commuting – are so great. He has good friends and fantastic teachers.”
The PTA leaders agree. “It all goes back to parents. G&T brings parents. If you have involved parents, you have more enrichment, and the enrichment benefits everyone.”
Shchuchinov’s middle child did not score into the G&T program, but she has never doubted her decision to have him in the school’s general education program. In her opinion, the school has proven itself. About her son, she says, “All kids are gifted in some way, and the school knows that. My son is reading books way above his grade level, and the teachers encourage that. Teachers at 217 work with every child because they believe every child is special.”
Although both PTA presidents have students in the pioneer G&T class and couldn’t be happier with their children’s and the school’s progress, they don’t plan to send their rising sixth-graders to middle school here. Shchuchinov says, point-blank, “Not for middle school,” and Starkova agrees, adding, “[I would] if we had an accelerated track.” (An accelerated track gives middle-school students a more challenging curriculum in specific subjects.)
It takes 18 students to cover the salary of an additional teacher in an accelerated track. Although there aren’t currently enough students, if change persists at the recent rate, the PTA leaders expect that accelerated-track classes can be filled, and selective screening will begin.
The Co-Presidents point out that G&T was a parent initiative, and it has caused an increased enrollment at the school, which means more parents. “We now have the biggest kindergarten class in 217 history with six classes, two of which are G&T. The biggest change to the school is Island kids staying.”
Shchuchinov says, “A lot of Jackson Heights people are really trying to push forward [to make an accelerated track for middle school happen]. They really want to continue to middle school.”
For now, Shchuchinov frames the problem this way: “Parents in the middle school aren’t as involved as they should be, but [the accelerated track] is inevitable if there are a few committed parents. We already have the programs and the teachers. Now we need more bodies. Then we can hire more teachers and have two tracks. All it takes is for someone to believe in this, and come. We need to attract kids from Jackson Heights. People need to know that kids can go from here to the best high schools. It will take some really involved parents to make this happen.”
Then there is Cornell’s involvement. Cornell is adopting the school. The Co-Presidents believe that the relationship with Cornell will define and elevate the middle school. They believe that IS (Intermediate School) 217 will become a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) school with Cornell as its sponsor. Then it will have not only an accelerated track, but a specialty, like so many other competitive middle schools that have specialties in music, science, writing, art, computer science, dance, performing arts, and other areas.
The middle school is important to the elementary school, says Olga Shchuchinov. “Having a middle school benefits the elementary school a lot. [Without it,] we would not be able to have a dedicated music teacher, counselor, psychologist, social worker, librarian and renovated library, and extra administrative budget. None of that is mandated for an elementary school.”
Even now, despite the lack of an accelerated track, the school offers Regents Exams in some subjects, as well as preparation for the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT).
The School’s Future
“I think that things are changing. The reasons that people chose not to be at PS/IS 217 don’t really exist anymore. The school is different from what it was three years ago,” explains Kell.
Island development has impacted the school. “Southtown and Octagon have been so positive for the school,” says Shchuchinov. “So many amazing families have moved here, all young families. Our entire board is from Southtown and The Octagon. People who have younger children don’t live in the middle of the Island; they’re not accepting new tenants in those buildings. The future of the PTA is south and north, because that’s where the kids are,” says Shchuchinov.
Starkova explains, “We have so many families coming from different countries. It’s unique. We have a very international board, too. Ninety-six countries are represented at the school. All the flags we have hanging up [in the first-floor corridor] represent the countries the students come from. We started this three years ago.”
Shchuchinov says, “You can trace PTA involvement in a school. In the beginning, with limited resources, it’s fundraising, fundraising, fundraising. Now, we can do more. We can work on beautifying the school and having more fun.”
Gifted and Talented Test
The G&T test has two components, verbal and nonverbal. The DOE asserts that the combination provides a balanced look at a child’s intellectual abilities. The nonverbal assessment is administered first, followed by the verbal.
Island parent Michal Melamed encourages parents to work with their kids before the test. “When you’re testing a four-year-old, anything can happen. You can’t send your kid in cold, that’s just mean. Some of it is really complicated, and if your four-year-old hasn’t seen it before, they won’t know what they’re being asked.” She also advises parents to make sure that their child has the attention span to sit through the 60 or 70 questions in the test.
There are two kinds of G&T programs – district programs and citywide programs. District programs are offered within district elementary schools, and prioritize students who live in the local communities served by the school. PS 217 is a district program. Citywide G&T schools accept students from all boroughs, with no priority given for students’ districts of residence.
According to insideschools.org, 3,400 kids scored 97% or higher to earn a citywide spot last year, but only 300 (mostly siblings who scored 99% on the test) were given a seat.
Melamed says that parents shouldn’t be overly concerned with G&T. There are a lot of great schools in the city offering different kinds of programs. Although her son is in a citywide program, her daughter goes to Harlem Hebrew, a charter school with a dual-language program, and they’re very happy with it.
The G&T Request for Testing (RFT) period runs through November 7. Students may apply to take the test either online or in person at the school. Assessments in other languages are offered to public school students in grades K-2 who have been identified as English Language Learners. Parents of students who want alternate-language assessment must include the request on the RFT form.
The G&T test is administered between January 8 and February 6. Applying early is advised.
For more information, go to contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 718-935-2009.