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Interdisciplinary curriculum, strong leadership account for 100-percent proficiency at New York school. (Rigor in K-6).

Discussing a helicopter flight he'd recently taken to care for a critically injured patient, Dr. William Meade, Jr., recalled where he first learned the navigational terms "latitude" and "longitude": in elementary school. The 31-year-old physician, who will be completing his residency training in emergency medicine at the University of California-San Diego next June, said he attributes a lot of what he has learned to his primary years at Lincoln Elementary School in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

"That's one of the things that is special about Lincoln--they created that strong foundation, that skill set and support system, that allows anything to be possible in terms of educational accomplishments subsequent to Lincoln," said Meade, who, with merit-based scholarships, went on to prep school and then to Duke University, where he earned both his undergraduate and medical degrees. "I think that's the environment Mr. Albano created by pushing his teachers to get the most out of their students."

Meade was referring to Principal George Albano, whose 27-year leadership has been widely credited for the school's legendary success. Honored last year as a No Child Left Behind-Blue Ribbon School for consistent high academic achievement, Lincoln has increasingly attracted both local and national attention for its rigorous yet innovative approach to elementary education.

The largest elementary school in the Mount Vernon City School District with nearly 800 children, Lincoln has reached capacity due largely to the out-of-boundary enrollment of students by parents who have heard of its remarkable reputation. "For anyone who cares enough about their child to want something better, I'm not going to deny that," said Albano, regarding the 30-40 special permission requests granted each year.

"At Lincoln, the children are challenged and made to believe they can excel," explained Delia Farquharson, who transferred her nine-year-old daughter, Kenja-Rae, there last fall following her disappointment with the neighborhood school. "So I could not leave her in an environment where she was at risk of being taught that mediocrity is okay."

Demographically, Lincoln is the typical multicultural school on the urban fringe, seated in a racially and economically diverse suburb of New York City and facing challenges similar to its city counterparts. However, academically, it is anything but ordinary. Since 2002, nearly every fourth-grader has met or exceeded state standards in reading and math. (In 2004 and 2005, 100 percent of students did so in math as well as in reading in 2006.)

Moreover, when the state of New York tested additional grades for the first time last year, Lincoln's third- through sixth-graders proved consistently strong in both subjects. Even fifth-graders' scores, which were a little lower than those for other grades, were still considerably higher than state averages (77 percent in math and 76 percent in reading, compared to 68 percent and 67 percent, respectively).

Revealing an even more brilliant picture, the most recent disaggregated data (2005) by ethnicity and economic levels showed African-American and white students, along with those qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches, performed equally well on the state exam.

For Albano, closing the achievement gap is a matter of closing the gap between the haves and have nots when it comes to enriching academic opportunities. "Just because you're born into a certain race or neighborhood, you should not be denied what wealthy people can afford," he said. "We've got to stop making excuses. We have an obligation to give the children in these schools what everyone else gets."

That means assigning students at Lincoln highly sophisticated projects that involve creating dioramas depicting artifacts from the Precambrian to the Cenozoic eras and teaching Latin in a study of Julius Caesar.

Yet, to make these types of enriching experiences possible at a school with a 54-percent poverty rate takes more than dollars and cents. "Would I welcome more money?" asked Albano. "Yes. But to me that's another cop-out. You have to be innovative. What I've done is used our success to excite people, because there are a lot of good people out there who want to make a difference."

For instance, more than a decade ago, the retired spouse of one of the teachers volunteered to start a chess club at Lincoln. The children became so adept at the game--winning several local competitions--that a private donor gave a sizeable grant toward funding the training services of chess masters. Today, this expert instruction is the center of a class held twice a week that teaches students not only the art of chess but also the critical thinking skills necessary for reading and math.

By integrating subject matter across the curriculum--even in a nontraditional classroom activity like chess--Lincoln has created a seamless tapestry of learning that allows students to experience firsthand the meaningful, interactive world of knowledge. A second-grade science lesson in which students describe the tools they would bring on a fossil hunt, for example, morphs into a classroom discussion about how writing has its own collection of tools, such as a "grabber" or engaging introduction, which the children would need to employ for their journal assignment describing the imaginary expedition.

"Everything is interdisciplinary," said teacher Mary Anderson, whose husband started the chess club. "There isn't a way to separate the subjects. There isn't a way that you could teach, say, fractions without them learning the vocabulary--the concept of numbers and languages together."

As faculty members collaborate across disciplines and grade levels to prepare lesson plans, interdisciplinary instruction is seen as both a team-building and a time-efficient approach. "People say we don't have enough time in elementary [to cover all the material], but the key is integrating the subjects," said Albano.

Science and math, in particular, are often the center of this multidisciplinary experience. For a fifth-grade project about rockets, teacher Dawn Mullins builds on an exercise led by the physical education teacher using bouncing balls to demonstrate the theory of velocity. The children, who by second grade already have learned the difference between a dependent and an independent variable, use balloons that simulate rockets to test their hypotheses on how far they will travel based on the measure of inflated air.

Classroom lessons at Lincoln draw regularly from a stock of manipulatives and props--including microscopes, magnifying glasses and miniature models--that fill three walk-in closets supplied mostly through generous donations from science institutes and other organizations.

"No one wants to sit all day and read something from a book," said Mullins about the hands-on learning. "And I don't think they'll remember years from now if someone were to ask them about the relationship between velocity and distance. I don't think it really makes an impression on them if they aren't actively involved."

Woven also into this academic framework are the arts. To learn about the water cycle, first-graders sing with piano accompaniment a catchy song written by the music teacher: "Water travels in a cycle. Yes, it does. Yes, it does.... Goes up as evaporation. Comes down as condensation. Rains down as precipitation. Yes, it does. Yes, it does." Following a few song rehearsals, the focus turns to a language arts lesson dividing the scientific terms into syllables, finishing with a discussion of the technical stages of the water cycle.

Like the music session, art class is another occasion to explore complex themes, as students learn the difference between a polygon and a polyhedron by dipping small paper cups in paint and gluing together three color groups to construct a disco ball-like geometric structure called a "spherical dodecahedron." In a well-connected curriculum, said art teacher Jennifer Vaccaro, "nothing is left to chance."

Last year, reading specialist Diana Mesisco used the performing arts as a platform to launch a schoolwide literacy incentive program called "Star Search" inspired by the popular television show American Idol. Students were asked to write an original song about the plot or a character from their favorite book, then invited to perform in a competition judged by a panel of parents and teachers. Along with a medal award, participants were treated to a surprise performance by American Idol's own Julia DeMato, who reached 10th place in the show's second season.

While the ingenuity of these efforts clearly has been the hard work of the staff, many of whom have taught at Lincoln for at least 15 years, all agree that none of it would be possible without the longstanding leadership of Principal Albano. "I believe lots of schools have good teachers, but it takes a great instructional leader to really bring out the best in them," said Mesisco.

An educator who could have retired five years ago at age 55, Albano is considered a tireless advocate for better schooling for the less-than-privileged. "I'm here because I'm on a mission to just not tell you it works, but to show you it does."
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Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Lincoln Elementary School
Author:Ashby, Nicole
Publication:The Achiever
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:May 1, 2007
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