Set back on the wide sidewalk of West 97th Street are the pale bricks and primary colors of a minimalist mid-century school. Though you’ll find PS 163 wrapped in scaffolding these days, it’s been a cheery presence on the block since 1958, bringing with it a collection of bright murals, tended gardens, and, of course, enthusiastic students. 

Also known as the Alfred E. Smith School, PS 163 is a public elementary school that serves students from its Manhattan Valley neighborhood. It’s become known throughout the city for its highly regarded Dual Language program, offering fully bilingual instruction in English and Spanish to at least one class in each grade beginning with kindergarten. Students participate in a range of clubs and activities, including offerings from the National Dance Institute and Wildarts. It’s also a longtime partner of Landmark West!, having offered our Keeping the Past for the Future (KPF) enrichment social students program since at least 2015. Suffice it to say, the students of PS 163 have a uniquely wide range of talents and interests.

Cynthia Castro, an award-winning 2nd grade teacher, has seen those students come and go for more than two decades. She’s been at PS 163 since 2000. 

“I always had this sweet spot for elementary school,” she says, reminiscing about the transformative impact her own teachers had on her young life. After studying journalism, she soon realized that she wanted something different with her life. Remembering how important her own schooling was for her, she decided to make a change. 

“I volunteered at a school for about a year,” Castro explains. “I thought, ‘You know what, maybe I would like to do that!’” She taught for four years in California before moving to New York City, where she interviewed with several schools. 

But PS 163 quickly stood out from the pack. “I really liked the principal. And I really liked the local community,” she says. Its diligent administration and strong ties to the local neighborhood encouraged her to stay, and the rest is history. 

These days, she’s settled into an expert routine with her own students. “Second grade, they’re just very loving and sweet, and really eager to learn. They’re at a sweet age where they’re happy to be in school.” That sweetness is reflected in her classroom, where it’s not unusual to see artwork strung up on the walls, or dioramas of different kinds of communities decorating free desks. 

You’ll also see a large and prominent map of the NYC transit system, because Castro is a teacher who cares deeply about fostering a sense of engagement and pride in the city’s culture and geography. “I feel like social studies is a lost art at times,” she explains. “I think it’s important for kids to know what an amazing city that we live in,” noting that students who grow up here can easily take for granted that they live in one of the world’s largest and most important cities. For Castro, local history helps provide context for her students’ homes, and helps them see differently the sights they pass every day. “I feel like when you give them that background, it also inspires them to want to learn more and have more curiosity about the city.”

That’s KPF’s goal, too. Our programs hope to foster a similar sense of engagement in students’ local communities by showing them that fascinating histories and beautiful architecture exist all around them. Luckily for us, we have a strong partner in Casto. “It’s so nice to have this program,” she says. “That goes in addition to just teaching social studies in the classroom because it enriches the curriculum, it helps [students] to have a deeper understanding of the neighborhoods that they live in.” Seeing our efforts begin to pay off is a rewarding experience. Castro explains that she sees the impact that such classes have on students. As she points out, “just to notice that they’re really inspired about looking at buildings and looking at them in a different way” is a victory in and of itself. Students are able to identify the “architectural elements of a building. And being able to draw them and create their own buildings – it’s really great for them. That’s why I’m always coming back every year!”

That’s a request we are more than happy to take on. Castro’s classroom is a special place, and so is PS 163. Its investment in its local families and communities is clear. It’s even going through a transformation of its own–when the scaffolding eventually comes down, its gardens and murals will be as bright as ever, decorating a fully restored building filled with students ready to take on the world.

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