School Harmony and Melody at P.S. 368

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Sing-a-long Fridays helps keep Hamilton Heights together

By Ellen Keohane

Students at the Hamilton Heights School gathered in the cafeteria for the weekly sing-a-long on a recent Friday morning. As the children plopped onto the red, blue and green linoleum floor, more than half a dozen parents and younger siblings watched from the sidelines.

Principal Alva Buxenbaum. Photo by Andrew Schwartz.

“Shake hands around the world down by the riverside,” sang 1st-grade teacher Kristin Taylor into a microphone in front of more than 200 students. The children echoed the lyrics back while moving their bodies along with the music. One teacher played a Casio keyboard, while other faculty members sang and danced along. Another teacher roamed the crowd with a microphone, which she shared with various students.

Started by parents in 2002, the school first opened as Hamilton Heights Academy. Since then, the school has grown, and in 2007 it was granted full school status and changed its name. After sharing space in multiple buildings for years, the school, also called P.S. 368, relocated all grades to the second floor of 1750 Amsterdam Ave. at West 147th Street this September. “This is the first school year where all grades are together,” explained Alva Buxenbaum, who came on board as principal in 2007. About 250 students attend the school, which has two sets of classes for kindergarten through the 5th grade.

Later that morning, Buxenbaum walked through the yellow and green hallways of the school and pointed to various writing, art and science projects displayed on bulletin boards. One project posted in the hallway consisted of a 1st-grade project called “What is it? It’s air!” Experimenting with feathers, cotton balls and paper with air blown through straws, the students recorded what they discovered about air. “You can trap air inside a bag,” wrote one 1st grader named Alysha.

Buxenbaum described her school as “progressive,” but clarified that this does not mean that “everyone does their own thing.” The goal is to create an educational climate where everyone respects one another, she said. The teachers encourage students to explore and actively participate in their education.

The school is diverse—just over half of the students are Hispanic, about one third is black and nine percent is white.

In the school’s mission statement, family involvement is described as the “heart” of the school’s program. As they say, it takes a village to raise a child, Buxenbaum said. “Parents and staff work together to get the job done,” she said. “Parents are welcome in our school.”

“We have a lot of parental involvement,” said Beth Venn, one of the founding parents of the school, who attended that Friday’s sing-a-long. Venn’s daughter graduated from Hamilton Heights and her son is in the 5th grade there. “Parents are really engaged.”

“We try to do a lot of community activities where all the grades get together,” added Tom Wood, co-president of the school’s parents’ association. The older kids often mentor the younger ones, he said. Wood’s daughter and son both attend Hamilton Heights.

Earlier that morning in the cafeteria, Buxenbaum weaved between and around the crowd of parents, teachers and students. A few cafeteria workers also lingered nearby to hear the music. “Ever since the beginning of the school, we have a community sing-a-long on Fridays,” Buxenbaum said.

Many of the songs taught on Friday mornings are incorporated into the curriculum. This Friday, for example, the students learned a song about the Freedom Riders, a group of Civil Rights activists who challen ged segregation laws and customs on buses while riding through the South in the early 1960s.

“We come together every Friday to celebrate our togetherness and our differentness,” Taylor said as she introduced the lyrics of the Freedom Rider song to students. “But there were times when people were kept separate,” she said. “Come on over to the front of the bus, because I’ll be riding up there,” she sang.

After a few more songs, including one in Spanish and another about a chicken who laid an egg, the students started filing out of the cafeteria class-by-class. “When they get back to class, they’re ready to work,” Buxenbaum said.

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