The Scarsdale Inquirer – Hometown newspaper of Scarsdale, New York 10583


Choice students on their annual overnight trip to Clearpool Education Center, where they engage in teambuilding and bonding games.


The 48 seventh- and eighth-graders who have currently elected to spend two years together in the alternative learning Choice program at Scarsdale Middle School “are proud to be here. They are proud to be Choiceys,” Popham house counselor and Choice English teacher Deena Paradiso told parents at an informational meeting Tuesday night. The event, held in Scarsdale Middle School’s chorus room, was open to all interested parents of this year’s sixth-graders, some of whom are applying to the Choice program. Longtime teachers Paradiso and Choice math teacher Cindy Parrott, who is also Choice’s teacher-in-charge, led the talk, which included a video and a PowerPoint presentation about the special attributes of the program.

An alternative learning environment for a self-selecting small group of middle school students, Choice has been around since the 1970s as a pilot program for interdisciplinary team teaching. Former Choice head Susan Taylor (now head of the Scarsdale Teachers Institute) was at the school from 1980 until 2002.

“The founders were guided by various theorists on social and character development, including Robert Kegan and Lawrence Kohlberg, to establish a program that would foster teacher-student and student-student relationships as well as to provide decision-making opportunities for students in their academic lives and the life of the Choice community,” wrote Taylor in an email to the Inquirer. “Choice went through some growing pains in the early years. Lots of alternative programs knew what they were against; the ‘establishment’ and authority were two favorites, but not necessarily what they were for. Lots of those programs are no longer in existence. Over the years, Choice found its identity.”

The success of Choice encouraged the expansion of team teaching to the three traditional houses of the junior high school, Butler, Cooper and Popham, and influenced the changing of the school’s name to the Scarsdale Middle School. Another house was added to accommodate increased enrollment, called Fountain after Elizabeth Fountain, the first woman member of the Scarsdale Board of Education. The Choice program is located 100 feet away from the main building in a former estate carriage house.

The application deadline for next year’s incoming Choice class is Monday, May 7. Parrott said there is again lots of interest and students will be selected by a lottery system because there are more students than the available 24 spots.  

Twenty-four seventh-graders and 24 eighth-graders are enrolled this year, with an equal number of boys and girls. Choice administrators also make sure there are not too many sixth-grade applicants coming into Choice from any one middle school house.

Parrott said applicants are generally “tech-savvy kids,” which fits in perfectly with Choice, as it is the pilot program within the district for one-to-one technology. Five years ago, all Choice students used an iPod to enhance learning. This year, half of the students use MacBooks and half use iPads. Next year, all students will have iPads. Parrott said there have been many benefits of this, including no more lost homework papers, “nothing left behind on the floor in the classroom,” and much lighter backpacks, as students carry their binder and the iPad only, lightening their load considerably from when every subject required textbooks and notebooks.

“The way material is delivered to the students is different because it is digitally delivered. But what I am saying is the same as before but technology has changed how we get the information to the student,” said Parrott. Parrott said the technology makes it easier for students in many ways. In her math class, for instance, lessons are posted at least a week in advance.

The program incorporates a community element similar to the Scarsdale High School’s Alternative School, another “school within a school” offering a smaller learning experience. Both schools have won educational awards for excellence, and in the case of the A-School, national recognition as a “School of Character.” Students who go through the Choice program do not automatically go into the A-School, but Parrott said several have elected to do both programs. “Whatever other kids’ perceptions about Choice students, they are really proud to be here,” Paradiso said.

A decade ago, parents widely felt Choice students were considered more “science types” and the A-School students more “artsy,” but enrollment has risen at each, every year is different and there is no way now to pigeonhole either school. The A-School this year had 100 applications for next year’s 26 spots, said A-School director Howard Rodstein in a phone interview with the Inquirer. “We are thriving,” he said.

Parrott said in the early years of Choice, many students who had difficult social situations in sixth grade applied to Choice, and “students were in and out, moving from the main building to Choice and back again,” Parrott said. But that was when enrollment was low and in the past six or seven years, Parrott said, “there has been a nice turnaround. The only students who have left us to go back to the main building were two students who had trouble with the academics in Choice and needed the main building for support.”

The district’s website boasts that Choice “reflects the world of today’s students, who are interdependent, interconnected, linked by technology and communication. In this smaller-school atmosphere, students and teachers can work together to create a positive, supportive community.”

The Choice curriculum includes mathematics, science and the humanities, which incorporates English and social studies. Mathematics students follow the advanced mathematics curriculum that prepares them for high school math in eighth grade. Science classes emphasize hands-on laboratory learning and science applications. Both courses emphasize the development of critical observation and thinking. The humanities program focuses on historical turning points. Students take other courses, including world language, physical education and “specials” like art, technology and health, in the main school.

“I think that Scarsdale's support of schools within schools, whatever you want to call them, is evidence of the community's support for education and an underlying belief that one size does not fit all,” continued Taylor. “Many, maybe most, early adolescents thrive on the mix, the variety, and the size of the middle school, and there are those who grow best by being part of a small community, by being noticed, taking part in the life and work of the school house. Those are the kids who belong in a Choice-type program, and the district serves their needs, as well as the larger group.”

One downside to the physical placement and age of the Choice building is that there is no bathroom. “Well, there is running water and a sink but no toilet bowl,” said Parrott. “The pipes under the parking lot to the street would need to be replaced. Students have to walk to the main building to use Cooper House’s bathroom,” she said. Paradiso said the distance is no farther away than within the main building in Popham House, where Popham girls have to walk from the first to the second floor of their house in order to get to a girls’ bathroom. Parrott agreed that the students are used to it and the teachers themselves do not consider it a hardship.

Choice offers its own student council group, and Choice students can also participate in the main building’s student organization if they wish. “Student council organized a nice party recently for two Choice students who are returning to Japan to live, and they did a great job,” said Parrott.

At the meeting last week, Parrott said Choice offers field trips to Boston and Washington, D.C., and an overnight trip to Clearpool Education Center each fall for teambuilding. “It helps the kids get to know each other and they bond. There are no tents, though, as we are pretty high maintenance,” Parrott joked, referring to herself and Paradiso. “We have comedy night and talent night while we are on the overnight and the kids have fun,” she said.

The two grades have also been to the New York Stock Exchange for a special, behind-the-scenes tour on the floor of the exchange itself, and to see “War Horse” at Lincoln Center and “Romeo and Juliet” at SUNY Purchase. Partnerships with the New York Botanical Garden and Yale University’s Pier Program, which brought students to the university to meet with students, have also been part of the curriculum over the last five years.

Choice has a third teacher position as well, filled by humanities teacher Marci Rothman. Rothman is moving back to the main building for next fall and her replacement has not been named as yet.

Parrott said Choice’s small size also makes it an easier transition for eighth-graders headed into the high school. The teachers take eighth-graders for a tour of the school in the spring, and “Choice students also know the ninth-graders from when they were in Choice together,” said Parrott, who added that the ninth-graders come back to Choice to visit with eighth-graders and talk with them about the high school.

Over the years, enrollment has ebbed and flowed for the program, and the school was on the list of potential cuts two years ago during the worst of the economic downturn. Parrott said SMS principal Mike McDermott is extremely supportive and the program was saved due to its recent high enrollments, and in addition, support from the Scarsdale Board of Education. Some board members’ children went through the Choice program and “this helped, too,” Parrott said. “We have had lots of good support.”

“This is an important decision for students. It is a two-year commitment. We felt the meeting went well,” said Parrott. “While attendance was solid, there had been standing room only the past two or three years. The rainy evening may have deterred some. Applications are coming in at a good rate and we do anticipate a lottery again this year. There has been a nice increase in enrollment as we are at capacity where four or five years ago, there were only 12 to 15 students per grade.”

Applications for next year’s Choice program are available in the middle school’s main office.

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May 4, 2012

Deciding on Choice

Scarsdale’s longstanding alternative educational program for middle schoolers is oversubscribed again this year

The Scarsdale Inquirer  • P.O. Box 418, 14 Harwood Court, Scarsdale, NY 10583  • (914) 725-2500  Fax (914) 725-1552 •

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