Science Ed. Thrives for Brooklyn’s Dual Language Children
By JODI BROADWATER
As the second-grade students filed into Erika Dagress’ science lab one recent Tuesday morning, the air hung thick with excitement. The day had come — they could feel it.
Knees jiggled and hands shook at their sides, as the 7- and 8-year-olds at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, waited for the news. “Guess what?” asked Dagress, standing before her students who were gathered on the rug. “Your flowers have bloomed!”
Two weeks before, the future flowers were little more than minuscule seeds. Today they bore the fruit of the kids’ labor: planting, watering, exposing to sunlight.
“Now we need to pollinate,” Dagress said. Instructing them to touch their flowers with the flower from another plant, “Gently, almost as if they’re giving each other a little kiss.” The class broke out into a unanimous “Ewww!” And with that, the moment was shattered.
But for Dagress, this is what science education is all about. It is captivating students’ interest in such moments, lighting a spark under their natural curiosity, and giving them the freedom to question, test and engage.
She didn’t need the City Department of Education’s introduction of a standardized science curriculum two years ago to impress upon her that science education was important. Nor did she need to hear that message reinforced by the recent federal promise of stimulus money, or the introduction of a new city standardized test in science.
Though the recognition, and certainly the money, is nice, said Dagress, she and the other teachers at P.S. 24 have known it all along.
Since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2002, many of the nation’s school districts have sidelined science and other subjects in order to focus more intently on math and reading, the two subjects in which children must be tested. A 2007 study by the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., reported that nearly half of the school districts surveyed cut time in elementary schools for non-tested subjects like science, social studies, art, music and gym by an average of 30 minutes each day.
But at P.S. 24, the Dual Language School for International Studies, science has never been off the agenda for the 780 kindergarten through fifth-graders.
“We try to look at what we ourselves as parents would want for our kids,” said the principal, Christina Fuentes. “Chances are it’s not going to be test prep.”
Instead, P.S. 24 has devoted additional attention and resources to science education, employing four expert science teachers for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. For Fuentes, it’s all about using science as another exciting way to teach reading and math.
Science not only engages kids’ natural curiosity, Fuentes said, but it also creates a unique opportunity for enriching vocabulary and supporting language development among the school’s large population of English Language Learners. “Science creates purposeful learning,” she said. “You need to learn a second language because you’re engaged in something that’s compelling.”
Each science lesson is infused with writing. “Word walls” highlight new English vocabulary such as “petals,” or “botanist.” Kids learn the fact that “leaf,” when plural, strangely does not become “leafs,” but “leaves.” Children write and draw their questions and observations in their daily journals. One second-grader from Ecuador wrote: “Today we are polantating a flower. Our plant growed with 4 petals. Our flower is 22 days. It’s as big as my pinky.”
For English Language Learners, “science is one of the best ways to teach a second language,” said Nydia Mendez, a first-grade classroom teacher. “Science has such an appeal in kids, so right away I see them transferring the skills they learn from one language to the other.“
Dagress, who worked for three years as a first-grade teacher before switching to science four years ago, said: “On the early childhood level, it’s just a wonderful and motivating way to learn language. I’ve had so many total newcomers come in to science and pick up the language, just boom, boom, boom.”
The students are encouraged to reflect on their observations, whether they are studying the plant process in the English-based second-grade classes, or “los insectos,” like mealworms, walking stick insects and butterflies, and “los animos,” in the English as a Second Language first-grade and kindergarten classes. The school’s own animal collection is populated with everything from bunnies to hermit crabs.
The school follows the city’s first-ever standardized science curriculum for grades K-8 that was developed two years ago in response to a 2004 report by the City Council Committee on Education. The report found that “the most striking aspect of science in elementary schools is how rarely it is taught. Students are fortunate to get 45 minutes of science once a week for half the year.”
Beginning in 2007, schools across the city were provided the choice of following textbooks, using a hands-on “kit” approach or a mix of the two in following a “scope and sequence” curriculum based on state standards. Agreeing with the Department of Education’s emphasis that a “hands-on, inquiry-based approach to learning” is best, P.S. 24 opted for the kit approach.
Last year, the school scored an “A” by Department of Education standards for school performance, making the No Child Left Behind benchmark of adequate yearly progress (AYP) in all required areas of English, math and science. Of the 119 students who in 2007 took the required science test in fourth grade, 97 percent passed.
This score was on par with students in the surrounding Brooklyn district, even though 15 percent are children whose home language is not English, compared to 45 percent in P.S. 24 alone.
Three science units are mandated by the new curriculum in the lower elementary grades; four units are mandated in the upper grades.
Each unit comes with a kit that includes teacher preparation tools and materials for hands-on study. Students learn about trees and animals in kindergarten, insects and weather in first grade, plants and balance in the second. Third-graders learn about measurement and motion. Fourth-graders study food chains and magnetism, while fifth-graders learn about landforms and nutrition. The four science teachers, who teach each class of students twice a week, cover either two or three of the units, while the classroom teachers focus on one.
“I know the demands on classroom teachers are many, and many feel like science is an added burden,” said Dagress of the collaborative teaching. “We just want to make sure that these kids are being exposed to science as much as possible.”
For years, said Mendez, the classroom teachers at P.S. 24 acknowledged the importance of science, yet they struggled with how to fit it into the curriculum. Most tried to incorporate the subject by choosing books to read aloud that were about science. “But that’s not inquiry,” said Mendez, “and the heart of science is inquiry.”
That’s what led Mendez and seven other teachers at the school to begin taking inquiry-based science education night classes through a program with Long Island University last year. Though grateful for their science “cluster” teachers, they felt the need to also emphasize instruction within their own classrooms.
“Science sets students up for the kind of thinking they need in all other subjects — predicting, comparing, inferring,” said Mendez. “It’s a shame that it gets pushed to the side, especially in poor neighborhoods. That’s the pressures of testing.”
Yet for P.S. 24, where 91 percent of students are Hispanic and 86 percent qualify for the free lunch program, such is not the case.
“We’re more concerned with kids getting real experiences—not so much covering everything in the city’s curriculum,” said Daisy Carusillo, the first-grade science teacher.
“We want to keep scientific sensibility alive in kids,” added Fuentes. “We don’t want to kill that” — even if it’s not on the docket for school testing.
But when the city rolled out the new standardized curricula in 2007, it also promised the introduction of periodic and annual assessments in science subjects. Beginning in 2008, the plan was to gradually add tests for grades 2 through 7, not just the state science tests given to students in fourth and eighth grades.
Yet so far not a test has been created. The delay is a mixed blessing for teachers. They relish the attention, time and resources for science education that comes with testing, but not necessarily the act of taking the tests.
“It seems the way we measure importance is through tests,” said Dagress, thankful for P.S. 24’s support for her subject despite a lack of city-sponsored accountability. “To me, the positive side of the promise for testing was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to test science, that must mean that science is now important.’ And I didn’t need the city to tell me that — I know that.”
As for the rest of New York City? “If in our society that’s the way we recognize what’s important, then, well, test away.”