Sunday, March 17, 2013

The School at Columbia - New York City

Serving in equal numbers the children of employees at Columbia University and the families in Harlem and the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, The School at Columbia enrolls 500 students in grades K-8. Located in a state-of-the-art, 75,000 square foot campus on W 110th street, within easy walking distance of the Columbia campus, the school occupies a unique niche in the independent school world. Subsidized in part by Columbia University, the school has access to university faculty and graduate students, and a wide range of resources. Admissions is by random lottery, meaning that the racial, ethnic and socio-economic range of students is one of the highest among independent schools in New York City. My colleague Amani Reed, with whom I graduated from the Leadership Academy at Teachers College, is Head of School and hosted my visit.

Cooperative group work
cultivates student voice
My tour of the School at Columbia began with a visit to three fourth grade classes to hear students present to the Head of School and Head of the Lower School their plans for re-designing the rooftop playground, which is undergoing a face-lift. Officials from the school went directly to the students to seek their ideas and input for the new design. It was impressive to see the school philosophy and curricular approach of the school emerge through this fully integrated activity. Not only were the students asked to develop ideas for the design, they were required to carefully measure and calculate how their ideas would materialize. Working in small cooperative groups, the students were asked to write up their proposals, create a large display poster with illustrations to visually represent their design, and plan for an oral presentation, giving each member of the group equal air time. The students clearly felt that their ideas were being respected and would be considered for the final design.

Amani Reed
Head of School

Head of School Amani Reed connected this activity to the school's progressive teaching practices. First, including student voice as the school considers institutional changes, is fundamental to a student-centered curriculum. The program should be a meaningful reflection of the real lives of students. This particular unit of study  combined elements of design-thinking, student collaboration, mathematics, language arts, and visual arts. The math department visited the classrooms to help frame the problem, and the school took seriously the ideas of the students.

Amani is excited about recent meaningful professional development activities which engaged the faculty and the school community. Earlier in the year, for instance, the faculty fanned out on a staff development day to visit 30 schools around the city for the purpose of discovering how schools are approaching gender and sexuality. Teachers returned with a wealth of ideas and activities that will be considered by the faculty. One of the primary level teachers traveled to Reggio Emilio in Italy to discover how the pedagogy plays out with older children. The school recently sponsored a TedX Youth symposium, which brought together talented young people from all over the city.

Now in its tenth year, The School at Columbia is a well established progressive school in highly competitive New York City. I felt a serious-minded climate of teaching and learning at the school in my all-too-brief visit. I loved watching the kids present to the school administration, and how respectfully the school responded. With the continued support of Columbia University, and the enthusiastic vision of it's new Head of School, Amani Reed, the future of the school seems bright indeed.


  1. My friends' son and daughter attend this school and love it. :)