School That's Cool
By Kate Santich, Florida Magazine , Vol. 43, No. 6
Page 1 of 6
On a Friday afternoon, when these kids could be kicking a soccer ball
around or chattering over pizza in the lunchroom, they have opted instead
for front-row seats to a tense chess match.
It features Alex Sandor athletic, charming and 12 years old against a
pair of rivals.
Alex, it seems, has conquered every solo opponent, including his teacher,
and now they are ganging up on him.
"Ladies, what is your goal here?" teacher Karen Halbfinger cautions the
challengers. "Don't bring out your queen too soon." She turns away in mock
dismay. "Oooh, it hurts my head to watch. He has psyched them out, and
now they're not playing chess anymore. About three moves ago, they gave
up playing chess, and they started playing Alex."
By this point, a throng of schoolmates huddles around them in the classroom.
Spectators giggle and whisper. One girl moans in agony. "They shouldn't
have done that," she gasps.
"You missed taking his knight," a boy taunts.
"They got his bishop," counters another.
"Yes," says the first, "but it was a sacrifice move."
Alex grins coyly. "Checkmate," he says, restraining the urge to gloat.
The girls stare in stunned silence. It happened so quickly.
"Alex doesn't always win," someone offers.
But the truth is, Alex wins most of the time. A natural jock who plays
soccer on two teams and competes in golf tournaments, he could coast on
his physical gifts (he also works as a model). It used to be he never cared
much for academics. He never liked English, never wrote the once-upon-a-time-stories
a lot of kids do, never read much if he could get by without it.
"My grades weren't so hot," he admits.
But here at New School Preparatory-founded on the provocative theories
of a Harvard professor-getting by isn't good enough. Using his given talents
to build a passion for learning, teachers have nurtured Alex's analytical
skills through chess, lured him into reading through drama, and boosted
his math skills through such tasks as charting the stock market. Now he
is performing Shakespeare and carting around paperback novels in his book
Says Halbfinger, "Its like the students are little treasure chests and
we're looking for the key."
The non-profit school, opened last Fall, was launched by six teachers
who sat around one day dreaming of a place that could become a prototype
for education-a place where children of any culture, any religion, any
socio-economic class, could discover the joy of learning in a way far removed
from the one-subject-at-a-time, is everyone on page 47? conventional classroom.
They were former colleagues who wanted the chance to make their own rules
even if doing so meant a hefty sacrifice. No one would get a paycheck for
at least a year.
They were faithful to an ideal and a leader: Morris Sorin, the former
Director of Maitland's Hebrew Day School and Halbfinger's husband. The
67-year-old educator took a $5,000 grant and a chunk of his would-be retirement
nest egg and sank it into two old houses on Irma Avenue, near downtown
Orlando. Sorin, the other teachers and a pair of handymen then ripped up
old carpet, tore out walls, enlarged doorways for wheelchairs and installed
bathrooms and electrical wiring. They created a small kitchen, a sun porch
and a playground, and they joined the two homes with a breezeway that now
serves as the lunchroom, rehearsal area and site of tae kwon do lessons.
"In February (1995), this place was just an idea," Halbfinger says. "In
May, it was still a post office address. The week before school opened,
a hurricane was headed our way, and we didn't even have the doors up yet."
On Aug. 28, they opened with 33 students, from pre-kindergarten through
8th grade and an invitation from Harvard to join a two-year pilot project
to test a lively approach to teaching. Halbfinger, for instance, will teach
history via the poetry, music, art and film of an era. The students will
be videotaped and their writings sent to Harvard for study.
"Rather than learning facts chronologically, as is often the way in history
class, were going to approach it from another door," Halbfinger says.
Like the rest of the six, she has yet to earn a dime for her work.
"We kept saying, 'Well, of course we have to have computers. And of course
we have to have a library. And of course we have to have dance and music,'" says
Jaine LaFay, a former school principal who teaches math and social studies
at the New School. "Unfortunately, once we put all our philosophies into
practice, we ended up not making anything for ourselves."
In fact, until a generous contribution from some of the parents came in,
the teachers even doubled as janitors.
"The reality came to me on the Wednesday after school started," says Diane
Goldsmith, an early-childhood education specialist who teaches kindergarten. "I
had my hands in the toilet, scrubbing, and I thought, 'At this very moment,
I'm paying a cleaning woman to do the same thing at my house.'"
"Halt! Who goes there?" 10-year-old Keely Johnson bounds across the room
and blocks the door. Her classmates race to the chalkboard, obscuring their
elaborate notes from the probing eyes of would-be spies. They take this
exercise in problem-solving rather seriously.
Challenged to come up with a way to fish small pieces of wood from a big
circle without using any fishing equipment, this team of fifth- and sixth-graders
hatches an ingenious plan. It employs a shovel, a remote-controlled car,
a rake, communicating in secret code and distracting their opponents with
wild dancing and shaking maracas. It is astonishing what competition will
This is education disguised as a game. Indeed, it goes to the heart of
the New School's teaching philosophy: the theory of multiple intelligences.
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