As legendary NYC Educator, Irwin Shlachter, took over at the venerable Alexander Robertson School (ARS) near Central Park on the Upper West Side, he immediately introduced plans to open up a new Pre-K class and an expanded Kindergarten program for the 2014-2015 school year.
But the availability of more spots at ARS isn’t the only good news for parents still looking for a highly-regarded and nurturing school for their child. Equally impressive is Shlachter’s plan to infuse ARS with STEM-based and age-appropriate learning, beginning as early as nursery and Kindergarten.
STEM education, science literacy, computer science, pre-engineering—in preschool, really? How’s an interested parent to judge whether a school touting its STEM expertise can really engage young children in fun and compelling ways, launching them toward a future in which they’ll be comfortable with—and hopefully excited by—the rapidly evolving wonders of science, technology, engineering and math?
“Look to the curriculum,” Shlachter, who is known to many Upper West Side families as the Head of the Rodeph Shalom School for over two decades and to downtown Manhattanites as the leader of the former Claremont Prep, advises. “Ask the school leaders how they settled upon their science and pre-math program and how it is integrated into the curriculum as a whole.”
ARS can boast that it is the first school in New York State to be selected by the Smithsonian Science Education Center to teach its Science and Technology Concepts curriculum.
This seamless Pre-K through grade 5 curriculum helps children cultivate “scientific habits of the mind,” as Shlachter puts it. “The students use problem-solving methods just as real scientists would,” he explains. “It leads them through steps of discovery and inquiry, demonstrating that asking the right question can be as important as having the right answer. And this way of thinking isn’t used solely for science- and math-based subjects—it informs the way they learn in all subject areas.”
Indeed, the great challenge in English Language Arts is teaching young students how to be analytical readers and then bring that same thoughtful mindset to their writing. But it’s no surprise that students who benefit from STEM-based learning are usually quite proficient in reading and writing as well. Their all-around success, in fact, dispels the common myth that a child is either a science and math kid or an English and arts kid. Why can’t all children be both, especially early on in their educations?
Unfortunately, most schools—private and public—still don’t do a good job of exposing children to science and technology learning at a young age. And that, more than anything else, explains the low percentage of American kids pursuing careers in science and technology, even though that’s where many of the best jobs are.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves! The educators at ARS know that the foundation of a great education begins at the beginning. And one of the key reasons Shlachter favors the Smithsonian’s Science and Technology Concepts curriculum is that, in his view, it does “a really good job of building from one grade level to the next in smart and meaningful ways—as well as across disciplines.”
He also likes that it’s created by people who really understand the material, and know how to make it interesting to children. “It’s not enough that a science program is written by educators,” Shlachter says. “They need to be scientists too.”
At the Smithsonian Science Education Center, of course they are. The Center is the only educational unit of the entire Smithsonian Institution—the world’s largest museum and research complex, including 19 museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park. The Science and Technologies Concepts curriculum draws upon the expertise of scientists working in areas as varied as Air and Space, Arts and Industry, and even the National Portrait Gallery.
But as keen as Shlachter is about introducing STEM to his new school, and introducing STEM’s benefits to prospective families, he also knows ARS is the kind of school whose appeals are evident to any parent (or child) who simply walks in the front door and tours the school. Though ARS is opening a new Pre-K for 3s and 4s, and expanding the size of its Kindergarten for the fall, it will still always be a “a small school by design,” with all the appeals of a school where the teacher-student ratio is low, and the faculty takes a deep interest in the success and well-being of every student.
As Shlachter explains, a K-5 school like ARS isn’t as in vogue right now with parents who prefer to send their children to independent schools that go all the way from Kindergarten to grade 12. But schools like ARS remain very popular with parents who like the idea of beginning their child’s education in a nurturing co-educational environment with strong academics that goes up to grade 5, and then making a change to a new academic environment when they understand their child’s needs much better—and when, frankly, many children are ready for a change of school.
“At our school, students get to be little kids for a lot longer without the pressure of having to live-up to how older children behave,” Shlachter says. “Everything about this institution is geared towards where they are now not where they’ll be going on to college.”
Originally, ARS was founded in 1789 by the Scots Presbyterian Church to educate the children of farmers and “common folk” so that they could become active and engaged citizens. It’s now run as a nondenominational school where education, empowerment, and ethics go hand in hand, and where parents and children of all ethnicities, family configurations, and religious traditions are welcome.
While the school’s new STEM-based curriculum will help ARS students become more analytical in their thinking, the school’s old ways of raising good friends and citizens will always be as vital to their experience.
Parents interested in learning more about ARS, including its new nursery school and expanding Kindergarten, should visit alexanderrobertson.org or contact the admissions office at 212-663-2844 or firstname.lastname@example.org.