Where Kids Never Stop Learning


“We provide our students,” says Mary Ann Fagen, principal of P.S.110 on Delancey Street, “with an approach to education that affects the entire school environment. The climate and culture of the school are conducive to innovation.”

This is not the usual public relations spin. At the school, for example, I saw a bookmaking club. These kids create their own books, and one of them was so impressive it now resides in the Library of Congress.

I saw models produced by the fifth- and sixth-grade architecture club. At Boston Public Latin School, my classmates and I were forced to tediously construct a bridge described by Caesar in his Gallic Wars. At P.S.110, it was clear that the kids—having learned about elevation and scale—were taking great pleasure in inventing their own projects.

That club has remodeled the security officer’s desk at the entrance to the school as well as a concession stand for parents’ bake sales, and this year they redesigned the principal’s office. Each year, as a parting gift to the school, the sixth graders decide which part of P.S.110 needs enhancing and go to work.

Tony Alvarado, the most perceptive schools chancellor this city has ever had, used to assure me he could tell a lot about a school and its principal as soon as he walked in and looked at the bulletin boards. If they were sloppy, dirty, and cracked, he’d figure the kids were also getting shortchanged elsewhere in the building.

At P.S.110, the clean, orderly bulletin boards—mostly created by the kids—are filled with student artworks that are as lively and often as witty as a Dizzy Gillespie solo.

A sixth-grade bulletin board brought back memories of an elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, whose students were largely black. A bulletin board there offered a list of distinguished black Americans—W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, Whitney Young, and many more.

I asked the principal, who was black, whether the names of Duke Ellington and other creators of America’s world-recognized indigenous classical music were in some other part of the building.

The principal was shocked at the ignorance of my question. “Of course not,” she said. “They were just entertainers.”

At P.S.110, high on the list, along with Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansberry, there he is—Duke Ellington! Abovethe list is the question: “Who Am I?

Those kids know. They even know who the first published black American poet was. The list includes Phillis Wheatley, captured in Senegal and brought to Boston at the age of eight as a slave. Her work during the 18th century was used later by abolitionists to counter the customary racist claim that blacks were innately inferior intellectually.

For P.S.110’s annual science fair, the lower grades work on class projects in which they must follow the scientific method. The upper classes engage in individual and small group projects.

Visiting the fourth grade, I saw a precise, complex science project, originated by the students, that had won a district-wide first prize. While studying ecology in preparation for a state science test, the fourth graders had gone on a three-day camping trip to Harriman State Park, where the principles of ecology really come alive.

Coming down from that fourth-grade floor, Mary Ann Fagen and I met a student on her way up. Calling her by name, the principal asked the girl how her sick brother was. The news was not good.

P.S.110 has a very active parents’ group. “Proactive,” says the principal admiringly. There’s also a workshop where parents learn how most effectively to assist their children in homework—and many of the parents volunteer to help in the school.

It being near the end of the school year, I was interested in seeing how the first graders had come along in reading. Those from public-school kindergartens arrive in the first grade with some skills. Those from day-care centers usually do not, the principal told me.

But by May, when I was at the school, the first graders, with their three notebooks—a workbook, a journal, and a spelling book—were justly pleased with themselves. They do independent work—writing their own stories and reading them.

I’ve visited a number of private schools, and these first-grade kids could hold their own in those places.

I asked Mary Ann Fagen how the students from P.S.110 do when they go on to middle schools and high schools. “They do okay,” she said, “because here they learned not only skills, but the very love of learning.”

In the May 5 Education Week, S. Paul Reville, a lecturer at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, wrote, “Systematic reform that produces high achievement is a complex, long-term undertaking. This complexity is far removed from the rhetoric of quick, silver-bullet solutions that so many administrators and politicians put forth.”

Like the “magic” solution of vouchers. But reform of public schools need not be complex if it starts at the beginning of learning. That’s why I hope the mayor—rather than “blowing up” the public school system—spends time at P.S.110. More than 80 percent of the school’s students are from minority groups, and many are from low-income families. But they’re all learning.