Arts Education and Civic Engagement Polish a Public School’s Shine
Edwin Markham, born Charles Edwin Anson Markham in 1852, moved to what is now known as Westerleigh on the North Shore of Staten Island in 1901. He founded the country’s first poetry society in 1904, and his house became a central gathering point for the era’s literary elite, with well-received readings performed by notable figures from the home’s second-story porch.
“The Markham House was a distinctive residence and gathering place in its heyday, when the area was known as Prohibition Park,” notes the President of the Westerleigh Improvement Society, Michael Morrell (Richmond College ’70, MSEd). “It stands today as a distinctive crown jewel of Westerleigh, representing the incredibly rich literary history and architectural style of the neighborhood.”
In his day, Edwin Markham’s April 23 birthday was a local school holiday on which students gathered and covered his lawn with flowers. On his 80th birthday, President Herbert Hoover and prominent citizens marked his accomplishments as an artist and literary figure with a notable party at Carnegie Hall. According to American National Biography, Edwin Markham “managed to fuse art and social commentary in a manner that guaranteed him a place among the most famous artists of the late nineteenth century.”
Although known primarily for his poetry, Markham was a community-minded civic leader. His book Children in Bondage: A Complete and Careful Presentation of the Anxious Problem of Child Labor – Its Causes, Its Crimes, and Its Cure (1914), was a landmark publication in the crusade against child labor.
With a noble history, it is fitting that Edwin Markham Intermediate School 51 was the first junior high school built on Staten Island. Today it serves the communities of Port Richmond, Graniteville, Westerleigh, and Mariners Harbor.
A NEW ERA
Nicholas Mele graduated from the College of Staten Island in 2000 with a BA in History and again in 2005 with an MS in Adolescent Education. He became Principal of IS 51 on January 3, 2011.
Before taking over as Principal, many people warned Mele that Markham was a “tough” school and that he had his work cut out for him. From the moment he walked into the building, he realized that what he heard could not have been further from the truth.
“The children were great and the teachers and staff took such pride in their work and their school. Perhaps most importantly, I was impressed by the teachers’ and staffs’ dedication to our students and the student experience,” Mele reflects.
As he began integrating into the community, Mele learned that many parents who lived in the neighborhood did not consider IS 51 an option. With declining enrollment, he was fearful that the future was not bright. After a week of observations and many consultations, he immediately put key changes in place and began to look at ways to make the school more attractive.
According to Mele, “the first course of action was to prioritize the visibility of myself and the staff, both in and out of the building, and to hold the students accountable. To date, we have had great results improving our student’s behavior and enhancing our community relations since I took over.” He began a series of tours and orientations for perspective parents and students during the school day to allow them to learn firsthand of the Markham experience. These activities have been highly successful and well received.
The academic success of students also became quickly evident. In 2011, no graduates were accepted into specialized high schools. In 2012, there were six, including two to LaGuardia. The school is also seeing an increase in English Language Arts (ELA) scores after tireless work with the students with disabilities population and English Language Learners, and consistently received a grade of “B” on the NYC Progress Report.
“If you look at our Learning Environment Survey in which parents, students, and teachers get to chime in about what they think of IS 51,” Mele notes, “we have increased in every category each year from 2006. That is an ongoing testament to the dedication of our teachers and staff, and our entire community is extremely fortunate to benefit for their efforts. My successes are rooted in theirs.”
After consultation with students, staff, and parents, Mele soon changed the themes of the learning academies he inherited to Fine Arts, Performing Arts, and Media/Technology.
This change “tied into what students were interested in and into what programs our feeder schools had,” according to Mele, “such as the band at PS 30 and the Chorus at PS 22.” In addition to implementing practical curriculum for each academy, enrichment-track classes were developed to benefit the students during their three years at Markham.
The lifeblood of a public middle school is a rich mosaic of teachers, staff, students, and parents, and Mele is proud of the synergy of their efforts.
NUMBER ONE IN THE COUNTRY, ONE DOLLAR AT A TIME
“We collected over $30,000 this past year for the March of Dimes and that makes us the number-one school in the country” for the March for Babies Campaign 2011, touts Mele. This national distinction, which encompasses all K-12 schools throughout the country, is especially poignant as Markham is classified as a Title 1 school.
“We do not receive big donations…” Mele adds, “we raise our money mostly through the children and staff, one dollar at a time.” Mele is quick to acknowledge Andrew Cataneo (CSI MS Ed. ‘93, Sixth-Year Certificate ’95), Assistant Principal of the Performing Arts Academy, as the primary architect of the event and its ongoing success, adding “We are proud that anyone who visits the school in the springtime is welcomed with hallways covered with March of Dimes donation cards.”
In true Markham tradition, Mele knows that a cornerstone of building tomorrow’s leaders includes instilling a deep sense of social consciousness and civic responsibility. IS 51 participates in the Penny Harvest and Bread for Life, their chorus brightens the rec rooms of local nursing homes, and the school produces a spring musical production and puts on free performances for local elementary schools.
Students are quick to point out the emotional significance that their middle school experiences. One first-year chorus student beamed “We get to visit seniors and make them happy through song! That’s so much better than bringing them cookies!” Also, a recent graduate admitted to a summer of crying after leaving her school behind.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
As a History major, Mele knows that knowledge gained in the past is critical to building a better future.
“CSI prepared me to become a great teacher,” said Mele. “I remember a course that went over the nuts and bolts of lesson planning, aims, and objectives with Professor Goldstein. It provided me the structure I needed to be successful, and if I was not a successful teacher, I would have never made it to this point in my career.”
Mele also says he discovered “the purpose of education and our system with CSI Professor Armitage,” adding “It’s funny… in 1998 I was in her class, and today she comes to IS 51 with an excellent crop of student teachers from CSI.”
“I have many fond memories of CSI and I am excited to be in a position where I can give back to the institution and the community that helped shaped my career,” Mele notes.
This academic year, the IS 51 renaissance continues. With more families in the community believing in IS 51, enrollment in the honors classes has doubled and the PTA has increased its role and strengthens the community involvement and academic trajectories.
Tirelessly dedicated to the student experience, Mele doesn’t rest on his success when he notes “there is still a great deal more we have to do, but thanks to the teachers, the staff, and the volunteers who believe in our school, I believe we are on the right path.”