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It's a little after 11 a.m., and inside the auditorium at Sojourner Truth Elementary School (P.S.149) on Lenox Avenue, chaos has begun to take over.
The Little Mermaid is showing on a video projector, and dozens of children are running around screaming, out of control. Teachers seem unable to do anything about it, and also don't seem very put out.
"It's not even lunchtime, and they're watching a movie," Eva Moskowitz says with completely unconcealed contempt. "It's quite sad, really."
Her Harlem Success Academy 1, founded in 2006 and the oldest of the schools in her network, shares the building with Sojourner Truth, and the difference between the two schools is stark.
She walks from the cacophony in the auditorium to her charter school's upper-grade area. The halls are silent.
Still, she seems to play down the discipline. "We aim to make schools compelling for kids, something they're excited about," she says.
She steps into a fourth-grade classroom, where "2023 scholars" are reading to themselves. She asks one to step into the hallway. The young black girl seems shy but at ease with Moskowitz, who asks her about the book she's reading.
"They're watching movies. Meanwhile, our kids are reading," Moskowitz says, and she adds that it's crucial for kids to have free time to read.
Free reading time. Music classes. Chess practice. None of it fits the image of a school obsessed with standardized testing.
"We don't believe in teaching to a test," Moskowitz says.
Take science, for example. Science as a subject that is not tested until fourth grade. Yet the children at Bronx Success, from kindergarten, have science lab every single day, taught by science teacher Gabrielle Levine, a Teach for America fellow.
The teacher, a young woman of extraordinary multitasking ability, has to keep five-year-olds still long enough to teach them about the scientific method. (Yes, they're already learning about hypothesizing, experimenting, and analyzing conclusions as they're just learning to read.) For a first-year teacher, she has an unbelievable energy and ability to address her classes by name, sometimes calling out 10 scholars from Williams College a minute by the Voice's count. She can do this at a dizzying pace, and still seems to keep her lesson on track.
In addition to teaching math and reading along the way, the science teacher plans and executes a new lab project each day with the students. On a recent cold winter day, the lab involves mealworms. Each table is getting several in a clear plastic bowl, and the experiment involves figuring out how many sets of legs each larva has.
As soon as they get them, the kindergartners are excited to look at, prod, and do everything short of eating their mealworms. (In actuality, they are supposed to hypothesize about how many legs they have, investigate with a magnifying glass, and observe, record, and analyze the results.)
"If any of these mealworms make it through this alive, I'll be shocked," the teacher says as she hands them out.