Feature stories

The school that never closes

Children’s Aid Society partnership allows MS 319 in Manhattan to educate and serve students on many levels

TREES – Teamwork, Respect, Enthusiasm, Excellence and Social Justice – is the colorful message and decor of the 6th-grade floor at MS 319 and the class motto.

If you’re mechanically inclined and a bit creative, you can recycle bicycle parts with a little bit of help from Sean Lyons in one of the many after-school programs.

For additional photos, go to the “The school that never closes” gallery >>

There’s something special going on at MS 319.

It’s not just the students moving quietly through imaginatively decorated hallways, spiffy in their uniforms of khaki pants and light blue shirts and greeted by teachers and a principal who seem to know each of them by name. And it’s more than the brightly colored classrooms — each the personal color choice of the teacher — named for famous people associated with the subject taught.

This Washington Heights school is a public school that combines best educational practices with a wide range of in-house health and social services and after-school activities provided by the Children’s Aid Society to ensure that students are physically, emotionally and socially prepared to learn. The community school model that MS 319 exemplifies recognizes that academic success or failure does not occur in a vacuum but is tied to myriad forces outside the classroom.

In his Spring Education Conference speech, UFT President Michael Mulgrew announced that the union had joined with the Children’s Aid Society and several other organizations in seeking federal funding to replicate the community school model in nine more schools citywide.

Like the city that never sleeps, MS 319 is a school that never closes. It is open until 10 p.m. on weekdays, all day Saturday and during the summer. It would be hard to find an activity dear to the hearts of middle schoolers that isn’t offered here. But before the fun begins each afternoon, there is an hour of quiet time — a time for homework, tutoring, mentoring, preparing for specialized high schools or enrichment.

‘We’re all equals here’

It’s academics first at MS 319, which is why the school can boast an A report card and “outstanding” quality review ratings.

“We’re all equals here,” Principal Ysidro Abreu remarks. “The staff push me to grow and I push them, with lots of notes back and forth.”

The Children’s Aid Society has forged a partnership with MS 319 and the three other schools housed in the modern, two-block-long Marisol Sisters Campus, providing wraparound services that address the well-being of the whole child to make sure no one falls through the cracks. Marinieves Alba is community school director for the society operation, which has been a part of the campus since its opening 13 years ago.

All told, the Children’s Aid Society is working in partnership with 21 public schools citywide.

Chapter Leader Tiffany Braby describes her school as like “a private school in a public setting.” But, unlike most private schools, 90 percent of this school’s population qualifies for Title I and more than 50 percent are or were English language learners from the largely immigrant community outside its doors.

Providing many services

Michelle Kohut, a Children’s Aid Society social worker who works in the school’s on-site clinic, speaks of the “many unmet financial needs of families” — evictions, overcrowded living conditions, electricity turned off, homelessness — that all contribute to the kind of stress that impedes learning. Her team helps resolve those problems as well as providing mental health counseling to students who are referred by parents or teachers for stress-related depression due to family violence, divorce and/or separation, grief, bullying, academic pressure and other issues.

Add vaccinations, physical and dental exams and treatment of long-term health problems like diabetes and obesity to everyday health issues, Kohut said, “and this place gets packed.” The clinic is fully and professionally staffed to meet all these needs.

“The teachers really appreciate having us here,” Kohut said. “When they get worried they’re not meeting the needs of students facing serious outside school problems, we’re able to tell them, ‘It’s not about you. You’re doing a great job.’”

Obed Fulcar, a special education teacher, said, “There’s no doubt in-house services here complement education.”

Sharing good practices

Literacy teacher Maureen Parkinson spoke of the advantages and importance of the additional resources to the overall “atmosphere of well-being,” which, she said, is further strengthened by a spirit of collaboration, sharing of good practices through regular dialogue and meetings on grade and subject level.

Parents, the other vital link to the success of the community school, figure prominently at MS 319. Parent Coordinator Willy Frias is proud that “parents love coming to 319 and feel comfortable here.” He keeps them well-informed through a weekly newsletter and breaking news e-mails to all 539 students and parents, such as the reminder e-mail message the night before the May 5 state math exams suggesting that parents have children review their notes, get a good night’s sleep and eat a good breakfast.

The Children’s Aid Society takes parent involvement a significant step further by providing English and computer classes, mammography screening and legal advice on immigration and housing problems and by paying for uniforms or graduation and prom expenses when the parent can’t afford to.

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