Friday, April 25, 2014

Unique school makes the grade

By Shant Shahrigian
Marisol Díaz/The Riverdale Press
Melany Blanco and Alexa Vargas perform at the New School for Leadership and the Arts’ ‘Holiday Spectacular’ on Dec. 13.

Educators in New York City and beyond have struggled for years to help at-risk students succeed. As the debate continues, the New School for Leadership and the Arts (NSLA, MS 244) has developed a strategy that helped it earn its third consecutive A on Department of Education (DOE) Progress Reports earlier this year.

While NSLA students’ test scores were on par with peer middle schools, the school excelled in categories measuring student improvement and school environment. Principal Dolores Peterson, who started NSLA in 2005 along with Assistant Principal Eduardo Mora, said the school strives to create an atmosphere where the students — many of them from low-income families — can attain a feeling of accomplishment.

“We have this belief that middle schoolers come to school every day carrying this sign that says, I want to feel important now,” Ms. Peterson said. “What we try to do is provide all kinds of experiences for students to feel successful.”

Further, NSLA teachers and administrators clock untold overtime helping students navigate the struggles of growing up in low-income neighborhoods. Nearly 90 percent of the student body is eligible for free meals, and Ms. Peterson said most parents of the school’s 786 students have never attended college. 

Every week, faculty review students’ grades and behavior to identify problems before they arise — a pro-active approach documented in the 2012 PBS “Frontline” documentary “Middle School Moment.”

Between the extracurricular activities and faculty members’ extra attention, NSLA has created a family atmosphere, both students and teachers said.

“We’re treated like a family and we’re just totally involved in our environment,” seventh-grade student Kayleen Garcia volunteered. “Once you step into the doors, there’s always someone greeting you and opening a door for you.”

Seeds of motivation


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