Academic Excellence on the Upper East Side:
Park East Day School
Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): Ms. Barbara Etra, is the principal of Park East Day School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It is a school that is well known throughout the city of New York and the outer suburban areas as well. Barbara, can you tell us a little about the founding of this school?
Barbara Etra (BE): The school was founded in 1967 by Rabbi Arthur Schneier when he began an early childhood center. It developed and merged and here we are stronger than ever now with about 360 children from “mom-and me” programs all the way up to grade eight.
We currently have a strong early childhood center and a very strong elementary school. Our middle school is a little smaller but it grows each year based on the children moving up with us. Our parents stay with us. They are happy. The continuity of the staff and the parent body makes for a strong family.
PR: I had a wonderful tour of the school. If I had to pick a school in Manhattan, I would pick this school, because you have incredible science labs, an expansive outdoor area for younger children to play, and this beautiful library that we are sitting in now. Tell us some of the other things that are special about this school?
BE: The facility is great. The gym… the library… the art studio is magnificent. The computer lab is state of the art… the classrooms themselves are big and airy. What really makes this school special though, is the children. And when we took a tour you saw some of our little ones in our early childhood summer program.
It’s like Grandma’s heaven over here. It is very special. They are just beyond adorable. And during the school year, when you see the growth from the very little child all the way up till my eighth graders, they’re equally as delightful. And each one is really our jewel. There is a huge appreciation of the individuals that we have here.
PR: How would you say that Park East differs from other choices that parents have in New York?
BE: In New York there are so many wonderful schools. Park East is unique for many reasons. One, it is an oasis in New York. New York is a very frenetic, fast-paced city. Park East is calm, it’s quiet, it’s home, it’s a family, and everyone knows your name. Everybody cares about you, everybody is warm, everybody smiles, everybody is gracious from the time you walk in to the time you leave. It’s a happy school, it’s a joyful school and there are also top, top, top notch academics. I push. It’s a very competitive world out there and our children must have strong academics so that they get into and succeed in high schools and colleges. They need a firm background and that academic excellence is very strong in this school. We also give a very strong sense of Jewish identity. A person has to know his roots: who you are, identity, tradition, culture. Park East is an interesting school. We’re a modern orthodox school, as an affiliate of Park East Synagogue which is modern orthodox. Our population is diverse. We have orthodox, conservative, reform, traditional; everybody with a common denominator.
PR: And they do learn Hebrew as well as English?
BE: In early childhood, it’s fully integrated. The entire curriculum revolves around the calendar, the Jewish calendar. Math and science and reading and writing are all fully integrated, and yes, there is also language immersion in Hebrew. We start with them in the beginning with our nursery.
PR: What age are the youngest children who attend?
BE: We have “taste of school”; we have toddlers; we have three year olds; we have four years olds; we have five years olds; we go all the way up. When we are in kindergarten it is still a fully integrated model. When we are in the day school proper, which is first grade, there are Judaic studies and general studies. There are also all the specialties; our kids have art and music and gym and library and computer and dance and drama.
PR: Tell us something about the art and the music, because those programs were terrific and the rooms were fabulous.
BE: People in the school sometimes tell us that it is the “Jewish School for Performing Arts.” We put on many shows, programs, activities which integrate art and music and dance with the main disciplines of reading and writing and science and social studies. Last year we put on (it was amazing) “The Sound of Music.” The year before that, “1776.” We’ve put on “Annie.”
PR: You did that in English right?
BE: English, of course.
PR: Who made the costumes?
BE: The kids.
PR: Was the script original?
BE: The script is always abridged, because it is very long.
We’ve done originals; “Blast from the Past” when we wanted to teach our children about humor. This year we’re working on “Guys and Dolls”. We’re making a musical “Dracula” this year that should be very cool.
PR: Oh, invite us, we’ll come!
BE: The kids have many opportunities. For Thanksgiving we run Native American projects. Everything is research based. The children learn to research, especially with technology. They have to learn to separate out what’s good and what’s not good; what you throw out. Not everything you get on the computer is the meat and potatoes of what you want.
PR: Absolutely. Tell us something about that fabulous computer room that I saw. There is a computer for every single child that comes into that room. It’s amazing.
BE: It’s wonderful.
PR: What are some of the things that they do in there?
BE: Technology is a tool, so we use technology in all of our programs. Let’s start in early childhood: we start with technology with our youngest children. We have in nursery threes IBM computers through Little Tyke furniture. We are already doing math programs and reading programs with them. For four year olds and five year old program there is Waterford, which is a Pearson program. It starts beginning pre-reading, pre-math, pre-science. Then they move into Successmaker, with Pearson also, in our main computer labs through grade three. It’s a supplemental reading and math program to the main curriculum of the school.
PR: No wonder the ten year olds know more than I do. Look what you are doing at the age of three!
BE: The kids are great! But then in the computer lab proper, once they are in fourth grade we start with basic keyboarding, then we go into the whole OfficeSuite, beginning with Powerpoint, and that’s integrated into the curriculum in social studies, in science, and research for math. And then we move into Word, and then we move into Excel. We start basic programming in grade four.
BE: We do animation. By the time the kids graduate, they can use the computers in two languages.
PR: Do they learn to make videos?
BE: We don’t do videos, we make websites. We do HTML websites that we could make into videos. Sometimes they’ll do that as a project for a specific teacher, for a specific assignment, because we integrate as much technology as we can. But in the computer lab proper they learn programming, they learn website building, and they can work in two languages which is particularly cool.
PR: Where do some of the eighth graders go on after they finish their fabulous education here?
BE: We go on multiple tracks. We have to have very, very sophisticated and excellent general studies and Judaic studies. We are an art school, but mostly we are math and science and technology. And a lot of our kids go on to the math and science schools, the sci-high schools of New York. They get into Stuyvesant and Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech and the schools for math and science. We are known for math and science. The technology is integrated in. The art is integrated in. Many of our children will choose the sci-high schools. Some of them choose to continue their Jewish education in the Jewish high schools: Ramaz and S.A.R. and Frisch, and Heschel, and North Shore. There are so many wonderful choices for our children to go to. Some choose the independents. We have children in Horace Mann, in Columbia Prep, in Bard.
PR: All wonderful choices. Do any of the graduates come back to visit?
BE: That is a great question. We have an alumni association which is strong. Alumni do come back. We’ve been cultivating more and more activities to welcome them back. Some of them become synagogue members. Some of them bring back their children, which is particularly lovely.
PR: Great! Can you tell us something about some of the students who have won top awards. I recently saw some of those and I was just amazed.
BE: We have a very strong math department and science department and STEM department, which is science, technology, engineering, and math. We have bright children in different areas, but we cultivate the math and the science, and it seems to work for us very well. Each year, (and we are going back fourteen years) we have tracked the fourteen years through our current math teacher, Galena Spektor, and we win awards every year. Our kids come in first place, second place, third place in the American Math Competition, which has over 100,000 kids competing. Our students are coming in first and second and third. In their math league where we rank very high in New York City, in New York State, we often are in first place, second place, third place. It can’t be a fluke when they ace it every year. The children themselves are very motivated. If you’re motivated and you’re passionate and you want to succeed, you are going to do it.
PR: But you must have some superb teachers on staff. What is the teacher student ratio? How do you choose those teachers that are going to motivate the children?
BE: That’s a great question too. We have a very high teacher to student ratio. Very high! Our classes are small. They average fourteen, fifteen, sixteen…and we have a very, very high teacher to student ratio so children get what they need when they need it. Sometimes you can be stuck on something and if someone just sits and explains it to you, you’re not stuck, you don’t fall behind. And all of your interests can be developed. So if you want to learn to do something and you are passionate about it, you’re going to learn it, because all the resources are right here for you.
PR: What are your criteria for choosing teachers?
BE: I look for the educational background, degrees, and experience, but most of all, I look for passion. I look for love of life. I look for people who can walk in with a smile; who are going to be responsive to children and their needs; who have exceptionally strong academic backgrounds. They passed their teaching exams. They have their master’s or are going for their master’s. They want to be lifelong learners. They want to continue with their own education. They are into staff development. If they have that love for life and children, and a strong academic background and experience, we build on it. We do a lot of staff development here.
PR: That’s wonderful. But tell us the secret of how you get those math winners, because I am sure that schools around the city, if not the nation would love to have math winners like that.
BE: Excellent Teachers. From the earliest grades, all the way up, excellent, excellent, excellent teachers. And when you develop an interest and a passion and a motivation, you’re going to have winners in every field. It’s a question of motivation and superb teachers who are not afraid to be eclectic. It’s not following one book; it’s not following one way; it’s seeing where your children are, understanding what they understand and what they don’t understand, and building. It’s also not repeating the same curriculum again and again. You have to make the curriculum rich and exciting and new. You can go so much further ahead if you spiral, go back, make sure they remember, and move on. That’s a beautiful way in which we teach all of our disciplines. We also do a lot of interdisciplinary, which the teachers are excited about. And if the teachers are excited, the kids are excited.
BE: It’s fantastic because we always do new programs. We take the skills and strategies from one subject, get a good theme, a good topic, integrate them, have a strong research and writing base, and put together math and science and technology all integrated together into the humanities, which are also strong. That’s how we do it.
PR: It sounds wonderful, absolutely wonderful. You mentioned something to me about NASA and your online learning and science, and I was very intrigued by that. Can you elaborate on that?
BE: Absolutely. We try to use our resources. There are so many resources available through technology and through being in Manhattan on the Upper East Side. One of the things we do is NASA digital long distance learning, where we have topics in science and then we go to our neighbor, Hunter College, and we actually have a NASA scientist—an astronaut or scientist from NASA who is teaching our children.
BE: Online, in an interactive, live, manner.
PR: Can any school in the country access that?
BE: I believe so, as long as you have the equipment.
PR: What equipment are you talking about?
BE: We use Hunter College’s equipment so that you can have a live teacher long distance answering the questions in an interactive manner with a class of your children, with them sitting there, with your teachers. It’s such a fabulous experience with the children, because they ask phenomenal questions.
PR: What age is this NASA program for?
BE: They start fourth grade and it goes up to eighth.
NASA has many courses online, and they are fully integrated with the math and the science and the technology. It’s exciting.
PR: Before I get to my last question, you spoke about the excitement of the teachers and keeping the students excited, and the key thing for any administrator is, how do you motivate your teachers? How do you get your teachers to be excited, and how do you keep them excited? What is your secret? Because you are really for me, par excellent in this arena and it’s just wonderful.
BE: Thank you. If a principal walks in happy, and a principal is motivated, and you, I, anyone, can’t wait to start and love that something new and exciting is going on, that will then filter down and becomes collaborative in approach. It’s collaborative in planning, in implementation; everyone gets involved. We have Judaic studies projects that the general studies teachers are fully vested in, and vice versa. We run a program where a child receives his first prayer book, his first siddur. Every general studies teacher is cheering the children on as much as the Judaic studies. We run a program, a festival of the arts, where we have an amazing art show every year. We have dance productions. We have dramatic productions. Everybody is involved and it becomes alive, because everyone is participating. Everyone is helping. And the beauty is when people who are not even in that particular collaborative group say “I want to help.” The fun of it all is when they’ll come and say to me “you know Mrs. Etra, you’re going to be very pleased. We stayed here last night. We brought in a pizza. Everybody chipped in. Look what we did.” And it is always fantastic, because everyone is vested. So if any administrator walks in excited, and happy about something new that you can’t wait to try, it shows.
PR: Yes, it’s contagious.
BE: It’s contagious, and it takes on a life of its own.
PR: That’s wonderful. My last question: what is your vision for the school and where would you like to be with Park East five years from now?
BE: I think it’s important to always see where education is going; to look at the trends and to try to be a little bit ahead of the wave. There is always something new. You have to choose what it is going to be that you think is going to become the passion, and that’s what we do with science, technology, engineering and math. We started our engineering program here three years ago, and we’ve developed it into a whole module of education which began as a trickle and now is full steam ahead. I think what’s happening right now is we’re all building on the new core curriculum which is superb, but we need to put more technology in and we need to see where technology is going to lead us. The tablet form of education is new; it’s catching on more. The trick will be to have our children maintain the ability to have that human interaction which sparks collaborative learning and collaboration even in the workplace because society is collaborative; and not lose that ability, but still use that technology to the fullest. What I am watching is where is that technology moving? I am moving the school in that direction. We need to be able to problem solve and teach our children that it’s okay to take risk, and that it’s okay to be collaborative and not just competitive, and to be academically strong. I think that the strength of the institution will always be (and we have to keep it there) that the academics are excellent and helping to make students into proud citizens of this wonderful country. #