New School Preparatory

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 bag.

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 inspire.

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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Quick Takes

The non-profit school, opened last Fall [1995], 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.

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