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How P.S. 171 Became America’s Best Urban Schools Gold Winner, Twice
New York City, NY
Very few schools across the country can claim the title of America’s Best Urban Schools gold award winner. Even fewer can claim that title twice. P.S. 171, a public preparatory school in East Harlem, however, can make that claim — and they’re sharing their secret to success.
“One of the things that makes our school really special is it's a family,” said Principal Dimitres Pantelidis. “There's a very strong sense of community. I think that's the key to the success.”
Along with winning the America’s Best Urban Schools gold award in 2018 and 2023, P.S. 171, also known as Partick Henry Preparatory, has earned several awards and accolades over the years. The school has also seen a continued increase in math scores every year for the past decade, even through the COVID-19 pandemic. And in 2022, students performed 42 percent higher than other New York City public schools on the mathematics state assessment tests.
Dimitres and his colleagues credit their continued growth to the passion and dedication of a well-connected school community; teacher and administration collaboration; frequent student data analysis; and high-quality teaching resources, such as enVision Mathematics from Savvas Learning Company, that engage and provide students with just enough rigor to give them that productive struggle.
“When you visit every classroom you're going to see the love, the care, and most of all you're gonna see the belief,” said Dimitres. “The belief that the students know they can do it, and the belief that the teachers know that their students can do it.”
Building a Strong Sense of Community
Educators at P.S. 171 make it a top priority to build a strong sense of community by connecting with their students and their students’ families. From an initiative they call “coffee on the corner” — where they encourage parents and teachers to meet up outside of the school at a coffee truck — to family movie nights held at the school, they are always working to bring the school community together.
“Everyone is a stakeholder,” said Instructional Coach Carol Panagiotidis. “Everybody feels like they have a part in our school.”
Recently, P.S. 171 shifted to a community school model where they partner with City Year, an organization that partners with schools and districts to “provide students learning environments and resources they need to thrive in school and in life” according to the City Year website. Mallory Locke, an instructional coach, and Carol, said that this partnership has been extremely helpful in building relationships with members of the community.
“Now we have much more of a presence from families and students in terms of activities outside of an academic space,” said Carol. “There are opportunities for enrichment and for school to extend out into the city at large in a way that we didn't have before.”
One of the benefits of the new school community model is that the City Year team helps organize events for P.S. 171 that offer students and families activities outside the classroom, such as movie nights, festivals, classes for learning CPR, and even flamenco dancing. And because of these activities, families have become much more involved with the school.
“The parent voice is more prevalent now,” said Carol. “I think we've created such a safe space for parents that they feel free to email and voice their opinions regarding instruction.”
The Importance of Data
Both teachers and administrators at P.S. 171 frequently share student data with each other, which has been extremely helpful in guiding teacher collaboration sessions and instructional decisions. Dimitres, however, stresses that in order for data analysis to be effective, educators need to have a system in place.
“Develop a data system that works for you that’s simple for your staff,” the principal said. “There’s so much data around them, so you have to filter the data.”
He cautions against giving teachers too much data at once because it can be overwhelming. So, the administration at P.S. 171 gathers student data at the schoolwide level and simplifies it by breaking it down in digestible terms for teachers. Then they train teachers to know how to use that data to inform daily instruction while also training them how to incorporate frequent data analysis into their instructional planning.
In turn, Carol and Mallory, the two instructional coaches, filter the data collected from teachers in the classroom back to the school’s administration to help them gain better insights into what is happening at the classroom level.
“A lot of our job is helping administration understand what's happening in classrooms,” said Mallory
The Power of Collaboration
In order to effectively share, analyze, and apply the data collected, educators need time. So, the administrators at P.S. 171 make room for their teachers to have that time.
“The highest level of respect that you can give to teachers is providing them time to collaborate with one another, time to learn from one another, time to learn about their students, time to dive into the data,” said Dimitres.
Teachers regularly collaborate through professional learning communities where they meet and share ideas on everything from creating a scope and sequence to making adjustments to their instructional core.
As instructional coaches, Mallory and Carol are frequently collaborating and meeting with teachers. They learn from them about what’s working in their instruction so they can then share those ideas and strategies with other teachers. But they also communicate teacher feedback to the administration so they are aware of the successes and challenges as well.
“I see myself as a teacher helping out another teacher,’ said Carol. “We do observations and we provide feedback in order to help them grow as educators.”
High-Quality, Engaging, Rigorous Math Curriculum
While most schools across the nation are seeing a drop in math scores, mostly due to setbacks from the COVID-19 pandemic, P.S. 171 has only seen growth. Since 2013, student scores have been steadily increasing, but Dimitres believes that it was the school’s adoption of enVision Mathematics that saved them from losing that upward momentum seen by others in the last few years.
“We started enVision right before the pandemic,” said Dimitres. “And it was phenomenal from the early get go.”
Since enVision includes a robust online learning management system, the school was able to more easily transition to virtual learning and do it quickly. But not only did the program have technological benefits, the lessons also aligned well to the schools’ instructional philosophy of providing students with rigorous lessons that allow for a “productive struggle.”
Not only does enVision provide rigorous instruction, but it also comes with engaging lessons, videos, and activities that get students talking about the math they’re learning, which is a big benefit for Kindergarten Teacher Maria Mendez.
“I love the videos that go along with it,” she said. “They’re concise and to the point. It's like a nice little video to get them understanding.”
Maria also likes the structure of the lessons and how they’re designed to provide a gradual release of responsibility — the “I do. You do. We do.” model. “It just makes sense,” she said.
Mallory and Carol have seen a shift in discourse around math in the classrooms. They see more discussion and a willingness of students to ask questions when they don’t understand.
“It's creating that safe space around math where it's okay to fail,” said Carol. “And it's okay to say, ‘I don't get this.’ I think that's the piece that I love the most about enVision … they are facilitating their own learning.”
Educators at P.S. 171 know they are in a good place now, but they will always strive for more.
“We're never allowing ourselves to be stagnant,” said the kindergarten teacher. “We're always evolving. We’re always being open minded to try different things.”
Dimitres says that the educators at P.S. 171 will never stop looking for ways to improve student achievement.
“That's the spark that keeps us alive,” he said.