Thursday, October 2, 2008

P.S. 81 principal Melodie Mashel hints at change in math curriculum

by John DeSio
Riverdale Review 10/02/2008

For the first time since she took the reins of P.S. 81 five years ago, Principal Melodie Mashel met with the community-at-large this past week to discuss her vision for the school.
Mashel sat for about one hour for an informal chat with the members of the Community Board #8 education committee last Tuesday, during which she discussed school successes and failures, curriculum and her ongoing overcrowding problem.
Mashel noted that P.S. 81 students use the "Everyday Math" curriculum, a constructivist or "fuzzy" math curriculum that has been heavily criticized in recent years as leaving students unprepared for the traditional math that appears on the SAT.
Mashel said that she has seen some problems with "Everyday Math," and supplements it in the classroom with other material.
"There are a lot of holes in it. There are a lot of gaps," said Mashel. "So we've been toying with the idea of switching over. However, we really haven't found anything that's comparable."
Mashel was asked if being an empowerment school meant she could pick and choose her own curriculum at will. She said yes.
"It's a wonderful sense of freedom, in the sense that we can take a look at our curriculum and design it to meet the specific needs of our student population," said Mashel. "We can also select our own material at this point."
Mashel said that she is looking at several other curriculums, including the much-heralded "Singapore Math" traditional math program, but has not come to any decisions yet.
"We were looking at five different programs, none of which were really that thrilling and exciting," said Mashel, who added that she is holding off to see data and progress rates from other schools.
The principal was also asked if she felt that "Everyday Math" contributed to poor math scores in the sixth grade class at the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy. She said no, instead blaming the poor student performance in sixth grade on the shock of leaving elementary school for middle school, something she said could be "horrific."
Last week the Department of Education announced that P.S. 81 had scored a "C" on its annual progress report, down from a "B" last year. Mashel explained when the grade was released that her school is busting at the seams, and that her overcrowding problem is seriously affecting school performance.
At the meeting Mashel repeated those concerns, noting that her school is above cap in grades two and three.
"And we still have students trying to register, and unfortunately we have to turn them away," said Mashel.
Up until 1993 students in the southern portion of the current P.S. 81 zone were zoned for P.S. 7. Right now, P.S. 7 has hundreds of empty seats, while P.S. 81 is filled to capacity. Mashel was asked if she would push the DOE to return to the old zoning, to which she replied that she had engaged in discussions with Councilman G. Oliver Koppell about such a move. At this time, she said, it was not feasible.
"Until those lines are drawn to meet the need of every community member, I would be reluctant to do that," said Mashel.
Mashel was also asked if she would be interested in using portables to relieve her overcrowding problem. "Absolutely not," she said, adding that it was important for the entire community to keep the schoolyard open for neighborhood use.
As for the future of that playground, Mashel noted that she had received a City Council grant that will allow for the creation of some new features, such as tables and chairs suitable for reading or chess.
She added that her school has created a number of new after-school clubs and activities, including bookmaking, debate, designing board games, and drama. Mashel is also looking to bring a mock-United Nations program to the school. During lunch, students can now take advantage of chess and math clubs.
The principal said the new offerings were all designed to let kids be kids.
"Quite candidly, I feel that children need a break from testing and assessment," said Mashel. "And I think they need time just to be children and veg out."