Outstanding Public Middle School
Robert F. Wagner Middle School, M.S. 167 has always been one of the city’s better-regarded middle schools. Now, in an expanding landscape for middle schools, Wagner has taken the lead as a dynamic, supportive and rigorous place—a large middle school with a homey feel and stellar academics.
In recent years, under the leadership of Principal Jennifer Rehn, the school has beefed up classes while simultaneously opening even more lines of communication between parents, students and faculty. Rehn, who arrived at the school as an assistant principal eight years ago and became principal five years ago, says the academic program has been enhanced. The school now has two honors math classes on each grade level, an honors English class in the 7th and 8th grades, a Regents science and math program in 8th grade, and several chances for students to take Regents and Proficiency exams at the end of the 8th grade, thereby earning credit for high school graduation and eliminating future stress. The guidance department and
faculty offer extensive preparation for the high school application process, whether students are taking exams, auditioning or just choosing where to go next.
Despite bordering some posh boutiques, Wagner’s zone is a wide swath of the Upper East Side—from 97th to 59th streets, bordered by the park and river. The school draws from an incredibly diverse and vibrant student body, a fact immediately apparent from walking down the halls.
“They are the most amazing children,” Rehn said.
One source of pride is the music department. More than 450 students participate in music in some way during their time at Wagner, and a substantial number successfully audition for LaGuardia Performing Arts High School. With two dedicated band teachers and a treasure trove of school-owned instruments, anyone who has the desire can play. There is also a general music teacher who leads a chorus.
“Students come in not knowing how to open a music case,” Rehn said. “At the end, they’re playing at awards ceremonies, a winter and spring concert and graduation—and they’re invited to play all over the city.”
The process starts with the basics. On a weekday morning in September, a group of students sits in a basement classroom, wind instruments in hand, waiting for the chance to play their first note. Their dedicated teacher holds off that exciting moment as she instructs them on every detail: the proper posture, holding and breathing techniques. Finally, they sound one note before the bell rings.
“What makes Wagner so special is the adults that work here,” Rehn said. “They’re smart, they’re dedicated, and they’re really creative. They think outside of the box, go the extra mile, and do whatever is necessary.”
The staffs, she said, tends to find a home at Wagner as she did, staying late to plan, grade, and help students with homework.
One of the ways the school tries to make its size—1,300 students—seem more accessible is by having a “house system,” in which students take all their core subjects together and move from classroom to classroom in close proximity, rather than trekking all over school. Each grade has its own lunch period.
The assistant principals and guidance counselors at Wagner move up with each middle school class, fostering strong relationships between students and administrators for three consecutive years. New 6th graders meeting their assistant principal and guidance counselors at an assembly were greeted by a cheerful pep talk and common sense information about resources; there was even an American Sign Language translator for the hearing impaired.
To ease the stress of the sometimes-dicey middle school years, administrators aim for a disciplinary system that’s proactive rather than reactive. They focus on anti-bullying, peer mediation and host a program called “Enact,” which uses role playing and acting to help kids talk through typical adolescent situations.
Wagner has a range of options for students with special needs. The school’s fourth assistant principal is entirely in charge of special education and academic intervention. “Collaborative Team Teaching” classes pair a special education and a general education teacher in a classroom with both general and special education children.
Wagner’s solid school building has been improved in recent years, with enhanced music and art rooms, an auditorium, four outdoor tennis courts and a full-size gym, home to sporting events and dances.
Thanks to a grant from City Council members Jessica Lappin and Daniel Garodnick, the school has been able to take its technological offerings to the next level. There is a state-of-the-art media center and several computer labs stocked with sleek Apple desktops. The classrooms are home to 18 electronic smart boards, which are constantly in use by enthusiastic teachers. “It’s an update to make us part of the 21st century,” Rehn said.
The school even sends announcements home to parents via an email listserv. It is a particularly effective way to communicate with the parents of middle school students, who may not be thrilled to hand notes or newsletters to their parents.
The school also does its best to make parents feel at home, with orientation in June and a welcome potluck dinner for 6th grade parents in the fall. The parents association is also very active. The organization raises funds through bake sales and other activities to sponsor and run an extensive after-school program that includes everything from competitive sports to homework help to arts, music and drama programs. The school is part of Oprah’s “O Ambassadors” program, and students are raising money to build a school in South Africa.
It all makes for a communal-minded, challenging environment that’s as fulfilling for administrators as it is for students.
“I don’t ever want to leave,” Rehn said. “It’s an incredible place to work and a great place to be.”
M.S. 167, Robert F. Wagner
220 E. 76th St.
New York, N.Y. 10021
Jennifer Rehn, Principal
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