sizing things up

New Dorp students redesign their campus for small communities

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
In students' rendering, a freestanding Law and History Institute at New Dorp High School would have the Constitution emblazoned on one outer wall.

If students at New Dorp High School could redesign their campus, the interiors would feature theme park-sized slides instead of stairs and glass and movie screens instead of walls and ceilings.

They would make those changes to reflect the themes and character of the school’s eight “Small Learning Communities.” SLCs — essentially small schools-within-schools with different academic focuses —  are gaining traction as a model for structuring large high schools, and the city is laying groundwork to introduce the model to several of those slated for “turnaround” this year.

Proponents say breaking the schools down into smaller units gives them a small-school feel without requiring closure or more drastic changes. But the small learning communities can struggle to define themselves in a space that often looks and feels just as it did before they were created.

This issue has been the focus of a collaboration between architecture students at the Pratt Institute and a handful of students from New Dorp High School, which restructured its classes into Small Learning Communities in 2005. Students from several SLCs joined up with teams from Pratt this year to imagine how each SLC might look if they were redesigned as standalone wings of the Staten Island campus.

The joint project began this year, through a partnership between New Dorp teachers and Radhi Majmudar, a structural engineering professor at Pratt and a 1986 New Dorp graduate. The partnership was organized by PENCIL, a growing non-profit that facilitates relationships between principals and local business leaders.

The building designs, which the groups presented to teachers and peers last week in New Dorp’s auditorium, ranged from fantastical — a building with colorful slides that students could take to move from floor to floor in lieue of stairs — to practical: glass walls and doors that would increase light and ventilation, in contrast with the school’s dark hallways.

Some of the groups designed their buildings to reflect the academic subjects that would be taught within. For example, some students suggested plastering the Institute for Health and Nutritional Careers with images of diseases caused by smoking, which they said could discourage students who sometimes smoke near New Dorp’s entrance. The Law and History Institute could have a copy of the United States Bill of Rights etched into its glass façade, and the Math and Science Institute could be shaped like an atom, they said.

“It came out looking like a flower, but it’s really supposed to be an atom,” Steve Mathai, a tenth grader in the Health Administration SLC, said as he waved at a slideshow of design images for the Math and Science Institute. “It has the nucleus, the DNA helix as a staircase and we put that into a concept for each floor.”

Pratt Institute and New Dorp High School students share their designs for a hypothetical Math and Science wing.

Edward LaForte, a ninth-grader in the Academy of Fine and Dramatic Arts, said he wanted to create a Law and History Institute with entrances so students could pop outside for fresh air between classes, and special iMax-inspired classroom environments.

“This is a dome-like structure that would be right in the middle of school. It could project anything you want for that subject whether it’s a science ecosystem or a law room,” he said, pointing to a drawing. “And the hallways would more have ventilation and more room just to move around.”

The school has no plans to expand its campus or fund new building projects. But Angela Carannante, a longtime assistant principal, said the projects still raise interesting ideas for improving the school environment.

“My favorite was the slide — we could expand it with extensions that go right into the classroom,” she said, to laughter from the auditorium. “There are so many ideas that we can get from this with really not going to that level. Seriously, this makes the kids realize that dreaming is the first step.”

Enes Sinan, a junior in the Math and Science Institute, said the project deepened his interest in engineering and architecture.

“This helped me understand civil engineering, how to work with people to design schools,” he said. The SLCs “Segregate kids, but not in a bad way, it’s in an influential way. Our curriculum is based around what we want to do.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”