Schools gear up for year of new initiatives, old values


School started again Sept. 5 for New York City’s more than 1 million students — and that’s just in the public schools — bringing life back to some 2,000 campuses.

But public schools weren’t the only ones hearing the classroom bell.

Private institutions, like St. John’s School on Kingsbridge Avenue, welcome more of what principal Melissa Moore calls a close-knit campus community. And it doesn’t hurt that many of her students come right from the surrounding neighborhood.

“I’m still getting to know the families,” Moore said on Thursday, as kids rushed by her to get to class. She’s “getting to know their stories, hearing their background, where they’re from.”

Loretta Curran went straight to work in her math class from the moment students took their seats. They were asked to read the Laurence Yep book “Dragonwings” over the summer, an historical fiction story centered on Chinese American life in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century.

Because her students are sixth graders, they’ll for the first time start switch classrooms during the day, instead of having everything in just one like younger students.

Paul Triantis is experiencing a first time himself — it’s his first year teaching at St. John’s, and he started Thursday asking his seventh graders what they did over the summer break. Answers came back that included camp, Six Flags adventures, and even a trip to the Dominican Republic.

“Do you like it better here or in the Dominican Republic?” Triantis asks one student, eliciting giggles from the class.

Carmela Geisler’s eighth-grade social studies classroom harbors a few St. John’s graduates. They’re off for the day and decided to stop by not only to mentor some of her students for the day, but also because they love Ms. Geisler.

“We really are like a family,” said Emma Solano, an eighth grader at St. John’s. “Most of these kids have been here for years. There are some kids that have been here since pre-school and now they’re entering the eighth grade. So I think it’s a really cool thing that they grow up with you.”

The close-knit community and small classes are an asset for parochial schools like St. John’s, Moore said.

“Even though I never lacked the attention at school, there were a lot more kids to deal with,” she said. “A smaller classroom size back then would have been a lot better.”

A few miles away, teachers sit with parents and new students inside the office of P.S. 81 principal Anne Kirrane.

“I visited all classrooms today, and I love seeing the children,” said Kirrane of her 5550 Riverdale Ave., school. “I was here all summer with no teachers, no children. It’s so nice hearing the children’s voices and seeing them so excited to meet their teachers. And meet me.”

The school building itself might be one of the oldest institutional buildings in Riverdale, but Kirrane says she still feels blessed to work with her current crop of teachers at Robert J. Christen School.

“Their rooms are just to die for,” she said. “Everything is made so child friendly. I really had to say, ‘You have to leave!’ yesterday” to teachers who just didn’t want to quit decorating their classrooms for the first day of school.

Kirrane is passionate about New York City’s new social-emotional learning standards, and believes that if P.S. 81 is not meeting children’s social and emotional needs, it can’t meet their academic needs, either.

And then there’s the new Civics for All initiative.

Over the summer, a trio of P.S. 81 teachers attended a three-day training at LaGuardia High School near the Lincoln Center to learned about social and restorative justice, and other civic-minded efforts.

While many teachers were familiar with the principles taught at the arts school, according to teacher Maria Palermo, they were unfamiliar with how exactly to apply those principles in a classroom setting.

This year, the teachers will focus on introducing civic engagement to their students at all grades, allowing them to take part in projects that will benefit not only their classrooms, but the community. In the past, those initiatives have included gathering and then donating pet supplies, and even using the money collected from empty soda and water bottles to purchase new books for their classroom.

The civic engagement snapshots get kids interested in civic life, Palermo said, and encourage them to get out there and make a difference.

“The point is for kids to see, ‘What I do actually can produce a real thing in real life,’” Palermo said. “So much of school is abstract, but this is a real action. A real thing.”