Wednesday, October 31

Middle School Muddle: So, what about the academics?

So, what about the academics at MAT? And how can a school turn around so quickly?

Fifth-graders in New York City who want a say in where they'll go to middle school spend a lot of time schlepping through buildings and listening to speeches.

They don’t always know what to make of what they see and hear, but they certainly notice and covet extras like web design, fields and sports teams that were on display at a tour we took in Chinatown last week of MAT, also known as the Manhattan Academy of Technology.

“We want to give you what kids in New Jersey and Westchester have,’’ John De Matteo, MAT’s energetic physical education teacher, told parents and kids. “And if you want a sport we don’t have, we’ll try to get it here.’’

As a parent, I’m looking for a balance. Track teams and activities like play production and robotics are great, alongside a strong academic program that pushes kids to succeed and encourages them to think. I prefer small schools where my children are well known. I also want to make sure there is extra help and support if kids are struggling. And I really like hearing that staff enjoys working with awkward, unpredictable and sometimes impossible middle schoolers.

MAT, which moved to its new site after merging with PS 126 in 2003, appears to meet these requirements. It has about 300 kids in grades 6-8, with four classes per grade. The school’s newfound stature as “hot’’ reminds me of a fringe city neighborhood whose reputation soars with the arrival of Starbucks and FreshDirect home delivery.

On our tour, Principal Kerry Decker told us MAT has become “a rising star’’ – an honor bestowed by Manhattan Media to highlight noteworthy schools.

Success hasn’t been instant, though, and there is still plenty of trial and error. The school’s track record is just getting established. By many accounts, math, science and technology are already strong at MAT, with language arts and social studies improving rapidly.

“I think we are a somewhat eclectic school, with lots of strengths,’’ Decker told parents during the tour. She described her biggest challenge: “Hiring great middle school teachers, especially in math and science.’’

The staff seemed young and enthusiastic, and the art teacher impressed many of the kids on the tour, with her large, well equipped classroom filled with “way cool’’ projects.

Decker spoke of priorities I strongly agree with – lots of professional development, which translates into training to help teachers do their job better. “I’m in the classroom all the time,’’ Decker said. That signifies a strong instructional leader -- an issue I’ve learned about from the Wallace Foundation.

MAT has an honors program, although the tour left some of us a bit confused as to how it works and who is eligible.

I’m particularly struck by the transformation of MAT because I spent many hours in the building (which also houses the elementary school PS 126) as a journalist, detailing an astonishing turnaround that took place during the tenure of former Principal Daria Rigney.

Rigney, now community superintendent in District Two, pushed hard to raise test scores and infuse a culture of literacy at PS 126. Her success did not go unnoticed: she was featured on PBS and promoted.

Six years later, parents in Battery Park City, Tribeca and elsewhere are choosing MAT over more convenient neighborhood schools or even private education. A friend of mine chose MAT over the middle school in her building.

I asked Rigney if she believes the academics match the amenities, which she wishes all middle schools could offer. She does, crediting principal Decker with maintaining a culture where teachers constantly want to improve. “They aren’t satisfied with just doing okay,’’ she said.
Success at any school depends largely on the quality of teachers and the continuous training they get, she noted.

When Rigney headed the school, teachers met every Thursday at 7:30 a.m. to discuss best practices and how to improve instruction. They still do.

What is happening at MAT, Rigney said, proves that with hard work, commitment and the right team, a school can be transformed.

“MAT is going to get even better,’’ Rigney said.

Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle


katsmom7 said...

Liz, I'm so happy to learn more about your touring experience with your 5th grade child. I went through it myself two years ago, although we did not tour MAT, it seems as though I may have been missing out. As a parent of a middle school student myself (prefer that myself and the school remains anonymous) I'm curious as to how MAT, being that it is such a small school, is able to offer so much in terms of afterschool athletics to it's students? Our middle school is in district 2 but it doesn't offer much in terms of physical education or afterschool sports, although the parents here dearly wish that could change. A big part of my middle school experience was being able to participate in a wide variety of sports, although I did go to middle school in the Midwest. Do you have any information on how MAT created their program and exactly what steps were taken to maintain it? Is there a way I could receive more information from the physical education teacher or principal at MAT and see if we could implement the program there in our school (or at least SOME of it). I would love to hear more about what is going on there and relay that information to OUR principal and physical education teacher. It just doesn't seem fair that the children of MAT are able to have the opportunity to play on so many interscholastic teams while the rest of the schools that are located in the very same district have virtually nothing.

Roberta said...


I think that MAT has all these physical education programs for three reasons:

1. Because of its location, it has access to playing fields outside, plus the Alfred E. Smith Recreation Center directly behind the school. (Of course not every District 2 parent wants their kid to go to a school nestled in among the Lower East Side projects, tucked away between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge overpasses, but there it is.

2. Because Kerry Decker, the principal, is willing to spend money on afterschool gym programs.

3. Because John DeMatteo, the middle school gym teacher, is willing to spend an awful lot of time coaching.

So talk to the principals of the other schools.

mom to a MAT 6th grader

inthemiddle said...

Thanks Roberta. However they did it, and continue to do it, MAT has put together a really impressive phys ed program. I do wish I could see this at all middle schools. Because MAT was our first tour, and because the academic program seems so strong as well, we'll be hard pressed to find its equal! One positive note -- the principal at Clinton is committed to starting a soccer team.