A Hands-On Education

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Independent P.S. 40 students learn by doing

By Gavin Aronsen

“It’s a magical place,” said P.S. 40 Principal Susan Felder, settling on the proper words to define her school. “There’s something really special about our kids.”

Felder has been at the elementary school for the past seven years, during which time she has helped mold it into one of the best in Manhattan’s high-performing second district.

A teacher helps one of her students at P.S. 40. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

The key, she said, is the theme of community, evident in the class curriculum, school staff and active relationships with parents and others in the vicinity of the school on E. 20th St. The theme, she added, is “also how we live our lives in the building.”

As an example, during a tour of the school, Felder pointed out two 1st graders who held a door open for her on their way back to class.

“How many kids do you know who would do that for us?” she asked.

P.S. 40, also called Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is home to 589 students from pre-kindergarten through the 5th grade, with an average class size of about 25 students.

In addition to the standard reading, writing and arithmetic, children in each grade enjoy an outside arts program. Some students visit local restaurants and apply what they learn to open a restaurant of their own at the school. Others put on stage performances with help from the National Dance Institute or start a circus.

Over the lunch hour, while walking down the kindergarten hallway—grades are divided physically by corridors—Felder made it sound as though some teachers might wish the students’ restaurants were open in their rooms at that moment.

One teacher stood near her classroom door eating a small fruit cup. Another, 40-year veteran Roni Morris, sat on the ground—fruit cup-less—designing a chart for an afternoon class.

Said Felder, “When you talk about our school, it’s basically based upon three fundamental concepts: academic excellence, our curriculum and the way we live together as a community.”

Another mission statement, penned last year by the student council, simplifies it: “At P.S. 40 children are learning, safe, and happy.”

In a 5th-grade classroom, students spoke about a recent activity involving a mock newsletter designed to give them a sense of how British American colonists might have felt about the Stamp Act of 1765.

“We expressed our feelings of how we felt about five cents for a piece of paper,” a boy in the class explained. “We found that we were trying to relate to the colonists.”

In a computer lab, students worked on computer diagrams that described their classmates. A sign on the door outside read “Media Literacy”—a recent name change that came with a full-time lab instructor.

“Which is really what elementary school’s all about: literacy,” Felder said.

It comes as no surprise, then, that after teaching for 12 years on the Upper West Side and before serving as principal of an Upper East Side school, Felder spent time as a literacy staff developer.

The school’s focus on literacy is evident from the moment one enters. An easel just inside the front entrance, signed with a heart and the name “Ms. Felder,” greets people with the word of the week. At the beginning of November, that word was “elect.”

“Today we elected a new governor, Andrew Cuomo,” the easel read. “What would you do if you became governor of New York State?”

Felder said teachers would “always celebrate” when students begin using a word of the week on their own.

“We want to create independent learners,” Felder said. “Upper grades have electives once a week on Thursday afternoons where they get to go off, almost like middle schoolers, to that class.”

As an example, one of the school’s science teachers leads a class where students get to learn about outer space. Other options include continuing Spanish education—mandatory in early grades—and music.

Lukas Yurasits, a 5th grader who recently helped give a tour of his own for prospective parents of new children to the school, said he enjoyed all the opportunities for independent learning.

“I really like that all of the special activities are really fun,” he said.

Lukas, who has spent more than five years at the school now, said that although he was excited to continue touring middle schools he will potentially attend, he would miss his elementary.

“I’ve been in this community and I love it so much,” he said. “I’m kind of sad that I have to go middle school now.”

Third-grade teacher Laurel Nyeboe said the school had a real “spirit of camaraderie,” which lingered among many students who have graduated to middle school and their parents.

Nyeboe has spent the past seven years at P.S. 40—three years as a mentor for new teachers and then four more as a classroom teacher. That bucked the trend of her colleagues, she said, who found work as school principals after mentoring.

She said she has no intentions of leaving, and she credited Felder for her dedication to her job.

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