Too often, education stories focus on the failures. In our new feature, we are highlighting the successes, the schools and programs that should serve as models for other NYC schools. We welcome your input — if you know of an innovative or high performing school — elementary, middle or high school, public or private — let us know. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alan Zwirn’s students at work. Photo: Lisa Pines
Mayor Bloomberg wants to reform middle school, and some districts are eliminating middle schools altogether, folding them into K-8 schools, or 6-12. But there are many middle schools that are thriving. One such program exists at M.S.51, the William Alexander Middle School, in Park Slope, Brooklyn (which my oldest daughter, now in 10th grade, attended). This gifted and talented arts school has concentrations that include vocals, drama, dance, art and photography. ‘Vocal talent’, which has been led by Alan Zwirn for over 20 years, attracts a dedicated group that rehearses before, during and after school, and performs on weekends.
Zwirn demands a huge time commitment from his students, and produces incredible results, a chorus for the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, and a ‘show choir’ that performs — and rehearses — even more frequently. A former Broadway dancer choreographs the shows, and parents who have worked professionally as set designers and costumers contribute their time. But it is the students, who are at that ‘hard to reach’ adolescent stage, who work the hardest. Zwirn requires that students maintain a B average to stay in the show choir, which means the hardest working students work even harder. Soloists who skip rehearsals are denied their moment in the spotlight.
A measure of Zwirn’s success is that graduates return to sing with the current choruses. At chorus shows, high school students volunteer to usher, and join in on some songs. Zwirn is even starting a teen chorus for graduates. How many middle schools boast graduates who return again and again, not to torment younger students, but to continue learning with a favorite teacher?
But it is not just the vocal music program that shines at 51. There is an excellent drama program, where students perform, and write their own plays. The photography and studio arts programs have strong teachers and engaged students, and newer disciplines, including dance and band, are growing in popularity.
Engaging middle schoolers in something beyond academics is key, making them feel a part of something and wanting to come to school. But M.S.51 doesn’t stint on academics; its graduates go on to top high schools, including Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, Beacon and Bard.