Navigating the SMART Board Jungle

I went to every Montclair Elementary School tour this year even though my oldest child won’t be entering the system until 2012.  Since I’ve given open-school tours over many years, I know how the guide(s) can affect the perception of a school.  I wanted to see each school twice so I could compare notes from one year to the next.

So much goes into the decision of how to rank our Montclair Choices, and with choice comes stress.   Whether location, a particular program, a school’s size, or a building’s condition is a top priority, there is a lot to consider.  I went into the tour process with personal preferences, ideals, and prejudices, but I was open to being pleasantly surprised.  I came out of the tours much more relaxed, and with a feeling that wherever we end up will be just fine.  And I really mean that.  Really!  

The bottom line?  The cliché is true:  The schools are all good.  They all have wonderful aspects.  Did I see things that were less than stellar?  Of course.  This is real life, after all.  However, all the schools seem to be well-organized, clean, filled with happy kids, and technologically savvy.  They also all provide the same basic services for children who need remediation or who can tackle extra challenges.  There is before and after care from the YMCA in all the buildings, and the PTA sponsored after-school classes all look amazing.  Each school seemed eager to utilize parent volunteers, as well.

Apparently, district protocol called for schools not to compare themselves to other schools.  Some school tours were better at upholding the “We Are All One District” value than others.  Personally, I think preserving a unified code is important.  A “We’re Better Than the Rest!” attitude breeds ugliness and divisiveness.  We’re all one township, right?  We’re all neighbors.  We want all of the schools to succeed, don’t we?

For more concise and clear and diplomatic impressions of the School Tours, check out BaristaKids part one and part two.

CAVEAT:  These impressions are incredibly subjective.  And I may have mis-heard some of the facts about different schools.  Please feel free to assist with missing or incorrect objective information in a constructive manner by leaving a comment.  I’ll very happily look into it and correct errors.

Some handy links:

**  The PTA site with the video you’re supposed to watch before going on the tours **  SAILS **  STARS **  Lucy Calkins **  Everyday Math **  Silver-Burdett Math **  Philosophy for Children **  FUNdations ** Renzulli ** Montessori ** SMART Boards **

In reverse alphabetical order (because I was always at the end of the line):

Watchung Elementary

This was my first tour, so I was very conscious of trying not to draw any conclusions about how great the classrooms looked and how wonderful the art on the walls was.  That said, there are some pretty cool murals to admire.  My son would go gaga for the new space mural near the lobby entrance.

I found the principal very impressive, both in presentation style and content.  We were seated in the auditorium (which doubles as the music room), and he was eager to answer the many questions from parents about a variety of topics ranging from bullying to the math program to the typical school day.

The Greenhouse and the Greenhouse Teacher

Part of the Science and Technology magnet, the Watchung Greenhouse is a fantastic space.  The Greenhouse teacher gets the kids once a week.  Each science class is split into two for visits to the Greenhouse and/or science lab.  The students also go to the technology lab once a week.  Additional instruction in keyboarding, as well as Excel and PowerPoint, begins with the 3rd grade.  They are exposed to both Macs and PCs.  The library is small, but there are different reading nooks that make it feel cozy rather than cramped.  The K-2 students go to the library once a week, and the 3-5 students go as needed, depending on the curriculum (research, book projects).

Watchung uses the Silver Burdett math program (supplemented and adapted by the teachers) as opposed to Everyday Math.  They have a “Problem of the Day” for each class, each day.

One of the Kindergarten classrooms

Watchung also has a broadcast studio, and each student gets a chance to do on-air announcements during the Morning Meeting program called “Wake-Up Watchung!”  It’s perfect preparation to take over for Regis Philbin.

A question I wish I’d asked:  Do you see yourself investing in this school for the long-term?  Watchung has had (I think) a high turnover in principals, and it would be great to maintain someone solid for several years.

Northeast Elementary

Northeast was one of two schools to which I went with some prejudice (see Edgemont below).  It is the only elementary school at which I don’t personally know anyone enrolled.  However, it was also the first school I saw when we started looking for a home in Montclair.  And come on, how could someone not think it’s the most adorable school ever?  Still, I’d heard rumors about PTA members who nudge-nudge-nudged everyone into participating and contributing and donating.  Thankfully, just as with other prejudices, this one was put to the test by first-hand experience.  I found the staff and parents very welcoming, and a couple of parents made good-natured remarks about the stereotypes they’d heard about.

Kindergarten Class

Of all the Montclair Elementary Schools, Northeast looks most like a “typical American” elementary school on the inside.   In the spacious library (with Purell pumps), the principal gave a talk about the basics, and we were shown a “back-to-school night” slide show of life at Northeast.  To assuage the fears of new Kindergarten parents, the principal emphasized the school-sponsored play-dates and ice cream social during the summer.

Northeast received some attention recently because of the additional Spanish language acquisition classes brought in through Montclair State students.  So, in addition to the SALSA and Rosetta Stone programs that each school utilizes, each Northeast class gets an hour a week of Spanish with a live teacher.

The school’s magnet is Global Studies, and each grade looks closely at a particular continent.  The kindergarten focus on North America.  A lot of the learning is demonstrated through art and music.  Each class followed the Iditarod sled-dog race, and they learned geography by following their team as they raced.

Lactose-Free COW in the classroom.

The iPads at Northeast are used especially for the STARS and SAIL programs, and the entire Northeast building is wireless.  I don’t know if that’s true for all the elementary schools.  Also, in addition to the technology lab, Northeast has their COW program.  I *think* it stands for Computers on Wheels.  The laptops travel where needed.  I believe my parent guide said there are  now six of these COWs around the building.

Second through fourth graders get a double period of Art, and fifth graders get a double period of the technology lab every week.  Also, fourth and fifth graders can choose between individual lessons in music or joining the band, if they desire.  I also happened to be there on Steve Urkel Day for the 5th Grade.  Quite the to-do!

A question I was glad I asked:  How often are teachers rotated?  In the principal’s presentation he said that every teacher should be able to teach every grade, and so they are rotated to different grades.  Basically, he made it sound like it happened regularly.  My parent guide answered my question by saying that it has happened, but not necessarily often.  It happens when needed, not regularly.

Nishuane Elementary

So Nishuane has been my “favorite” choice since about the second month we lived here.  It’s for one major reason: K-2.  Have you seen the size of some of those fifth graders?  I just want my kids to extend their comfort zone a couple more years whether in the hallways or on the bus.  So really, it has nothing to do with the content or offerings or start time or building or anything but the K-2 status of the school.  All right, onward.

Since Nishuane is large, classes are divided into “houses” for a smaller feel.  As the principal described, they are able to deal with just “little people problems” since they don’t have the older grades in the building.  On the playground, the Kindergarten classes are split into groups, and the Kindergarten children are only on the playground with children their own age.  I think that’s also the case for most schools.

The 1st and 2nd Grade Mandarin classroom

A difference between Nishuane and other schools is that they have two “live” Mandarin teachers.  The grant that enables the program to continue has been renewed for another three or four years.  So, at least another generation of students can take advantage of the program.  If a student is not in the Mandarin program, they take part in the SALSA Spanish system, like the rest of the district.  The Nishuane presentation was the only one that mentioned a specific nap/quiet time for the Kindergarten classes.  I think all schools have to offer that, but it wasn’t mentioned anywhere else.

All students go to Art and Music twice a week, more than all other schools except Edgemont.  Nishuane is the only school in the district to use the “Fundations” phonics model in the K-2 grades.  They also have Echo the Owl in each classroom to help the children with the phonics program.  They do a Digital Reading Assessment three times a year to help keep children on track and challenged in their abilities.  Nishuane utilizes Renzulli’s three-tiered-system that focuses on differentiation and enrichment.

To supplement science, Nishuane has a “Grow Lab” – I believe run by the PTA – that introduces children to botany.  A school-wide production, prepared during SNAP classes, includes plays developed completely by the children.  The auditorium is an impressive size, and it is a dedicated performance space.

The auditorium can fit the entire school AND the parents.

The “Aesthetics” classes are taught in the last period of the day, and kindergarteners have a modified program of less choice and more guidance that takes them through classes developed for multiple intelligences.  Students in the first and second grades have a wide variety of choices ranging from physical movement to art and music to traditional academic classes.

A question I wish I had asked: How do the children cope with travelling home during winter?  If they take the PTA-sponsored enrichment courses, they don’t leave school until it’s dark.

Edgemont School

I went into the Edgemont tour with a prejudice about the “fluffiness” of a Montessori program.  Like most prejudice, it was uninformed and shallow.  I didn’t understand how a public school could utilize the Montessori style, and I was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

The school definitely has a smaller feel; it seemed warmer than the other schools.  The principal has been there 20 years, and she came across as approachable, knowledgeable, and in-touch with the students and parents.  She also gave a very brief introduction to the school and then left us to the school tour.  I didn’t feel slighted, and I suppose leaving us in the capable hands of our tour guide fits in with the Montessori style.  Am I right?

A Kindergarten classroom sufficiently blurry to hide children’s faces.

Our tour was able to see a Kindergarten class in action, using different stations individually and in groups.  It was eye-opening, to say the least.  And I was reassured to see that the children were productive on their own and felt free to approach the teacher whenever they needed guidance.  In the two Kindergarten classes, I was impressed with how the children were self-directed and focused on their own lessons.

Montessori Beads

Like Watchung, Edgemont uses the Silver Burdett system.  It also uses the TERC investigations program.  There were Montessori beads in the classrooms that provide a tactile method of learning addition, subtraction, multiplication, and so on.  A math specialist travels to each classroom instead of doing pull-outs.

To supplement the science curriculum, there is the Cosmic Studies Lab with a dedicated room to focus on different scientific subjects.  For example, the Kindergarten class made plastic bag greenhouses for March.  Children go once a week to the technology lab, which is part of the library.  Edgemont also has a class set of iPads available.

The Cosmic Studies Lab

One general difference at Edgemont is that Music and Art are a twice a week event for all the students.  They have “Art in a Cart,” which allows the art to come to the students and frees up classroom space, I’d imagine.  The 4th and 5th graders get extra music as well, particularly with the popular Orff instruments.  The music class we visited was playingThe Hills are Alive on recorders.

A question I wish I hadn’t bothered to ask:  How has the stress of the potential closing affected the parents and teachers?  The parents were very gracious, and definitely convinced me that Edgemont families were forging ahead positively.  I mean, what the heck were they supposed to say?  What a silly waste of breath – unless I was willing to really “go there.”  Sorry, ladies.

Charles H. Bullock School

I was really curious to get inside the new $35 million Bullock.  I was not disappointed.  It has a lot of natural light, and the hallways are wide and accessible.  The lobby is open and bright, and the classrooms are spacious and have a place for everything.

Hanging and shelf cubbies are inside each Kindergarten classroom.

Since the building has been in use for under a year, everything just looks new and fresh.  The Kindergarten hallway, with four K classes, has a gathering space outside the classrooms with blocks for tactile learning as well as one of the several “grow labs” around the school.  The kindergarteners leave their classroom once a week for classes like tech, art, library, music, gym, and they have recess twice a day.

The math program, like most of the schools, except for Watchung and Edgemont, is Everyday Math, and it is supplemented with basic drills and Singapore math problem solving.  (Apparently, all textbooks in Singapore are printed in English.  Now I know.)  The principal also mentioned that she has data on each child in the building and can pull it up to make sure everyone is on track.

The language arts program includes a partnership/project with the Teachers College at Columbia University.  Bullock (previously Rand) is in its third year of the writing program and the second year of the reading program. The principal said that the teachers feel it’s making a great difference.  As with the other schools, the Lucy Calkins writing program is also utilized (also developed at Teachers College).

Bullock is the “green school,” and besides having an environmentally friendly building in structure as well as a prominent recycling program, they focus on topics having to do with all definitions of “environment.”  The students are guided to learn about the impacts on and roles they play in family, school, community, and our planet.  There is an annual Eco Fair, and Earth Week is filled with school-wide projects.

The PTA has sponsored an Artist-in-Residence program that brings in dance, theater, the written word, music, and photography to the students. Kindergarteners, for example, produced a play with a local dancer and drummer.  Related, the music teacher was very excited for us to see the two-part music room.  One half is used for the full-bank of keyboards, while the other half is a large space for classes.

The Kindergarteners also do a neighborhood study that results in a very cute “map.”  Here’s an example:

When we entered the library to close out the tour, the woman next to me leaned over and said: “I feel like I’m in a Barnes & Noble.”  That’s exactly it – in the best sense.  First of all, it’s huge.  Second, it has loads of books.  Third, there are several large but cozy reading

Bullock’s Library (or half of it, anyway)

and meeting spaces around the library.

We were told that classes often come to the library to have particular lessons in addition to choosing books.  There was a large sea creatures mural created by the students on one wall.  I spoke briefly with the librarian, who also serves as the Reading Specialist.  She seemed very enthusiastic about the library and the school community.  This was also the only library I saw that had someone actually shelving books!

A question I wish I had asked:  How does the school maintain a close-knit community in such a spacious building? Someone on the tour mentioned that a few staff members have said that it’s been a tough transition.  Moving from the Rand building to this one meant spreading out considerably, and the physical proximity has been diluted somewhat.

Bradford Elementary

I went to the Thursday Bradford tour, and it was a busy day there.  There was a definite energy in the school due to the Science Fair going on, the Book Fair going on, and a bunch of anxious, possibly in-coming parents wandering around.

Bradford, as the University magnet, has a close partnership with Montclair State University. Each class has (at least) three MSU “experiences” per marking period.  These can be attending a concert, visiting the forensics lab, or going to a Field Day at the MSU campus.  They also have MSU faculty facilitate weekly Philosophy for Children discussions.  These focus on moral/ethical dilemmas, and they often use a piece of literature as a jumping off point.  Most of the classes have these discussions, but not all.  The principal mentioned that they are working on instituting it in all classes next year.  MSU Faculty members also participate in various enhancements to instruction, such as a History professor talking about African-American history in Montclair.

Bradford utilizes a push-in system instead of a pull-out system for children who need

Bradford Library

Resource Room time.  However, it does pull-out for advanced students.  All classes use guided reading groups based on ability.  As with the other schools, Lucy Calkins is used for Language Arts, and Everyday Math is used at Bradford for mathematics.  There is a technology lab with PCs, and most classrooms have Macs.

Fourth and fifth students are able to take dance and guitar as extra classes, and all students choose a mini-enrichment course for during the school day as part of the “University Experience.”

Perhaps because of the various activities going on that day, the students were very enthusiastic and friendly.  I was told I should “buy stock” in one teacher, and students cheered and clapped as their science teacher was

Celebrating Peacemakers

introduced.  This was also the only school for which students assisted on the tours.  Bradford has a major emphasis on encouraging positive behavior, called Bradford CARES.  There is a weekly group of Peacemakers that are honored, and students are actively rewarded and encouraged to uphold the values in the acronym: cooperation, acceptance, respect/responsiblity, empathy, sharing.

There are three Kindergarten classes.  Two are in the newer wing of the school, while one is in the older wing of the school.  The newer classes have bathrooms en suite, but the older classroom does not.  Those Kindergarten children have “bathroom buddies” when they need to use the facilities.  Bradford was the only school where I noticed hall passes in use.  Another difference I noticed (and I wouldn’t mention it except that the other couple I was touring with noticed it as well) was that the K classes in the newer wing had computers in the classroom while the older classroom did not.  Or at least, none of us on my tour noticed them.

A question I wish I had asked: How do the children travel back and forth to the MSU campus?  Walking on a nice day seems obvious, but what about the time issue and what happens if students are not physically able to walk that far?


About That Unique* Weblog

Adjusting to car culture, dealing with leaving a career I loved, and spouting off along the way. Do The Most Good.
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6 Responses to Navigating the SMART Board Jungle

  1. This is a great post! You have to let us link to it on Barista Kids. 🙂

  2. This is a wonderful post, and even though my kids are well beyond grammar school, I enjoyed reading your perspective of the schools!
    My kids attended Edgemont. It is (I still know kids who attend) a ‘warm’ school environment. My kids left Edgemont well-prepared for middle school at Mt Hebron (also a terrific place). If you ask my rising college junior and high school senior they will tell you that their love of history, literature and reading is a direct result of the positive influences of their Edgemont teachers. My kids are both articulate young adults who have great memories of their grammar school.
    I will now step off of my soapbox! Thank you!

    • So good to hear. Thank you for adding your 1st hand (and 2nd hand) experience.

      Still a year away from hearing about where we’ll be going, I really feel like it’s more too much to choose from rather than not enough.

  3. Deirdre says:

    Kristin, this is AMAZING. Thank you for posting it on the group.
    Hope you don’t mind if I link to it on bklynorbeyond! And I’ll be following your blog from now on…

  4. Pingback: Glad I Saw It: Edgemont Silhouette | This Weblog is Unique. Just Like They All Are.

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