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Off-Topic: Personal thoughts on our local (District 17) public elementary schools

Visitors to the store are always asking me about the public elementary schools in our neighborhood, Prospect Lefferts Gardens. I'm very far from an expert; my kid is only 3 and I have little direct experience with any of the schools. But I thought it might be helpful to jot down what I do know, in the hopes that it might help a few parents who are interested.

I'll be frank: District 17 isn't exactly known for having great schools. Few college-educated professionals in our neighborhood send their kids to the local zoned schools; they either go to private school or to public schools outside not only the zone but the district. There are many parents in the neighborhood who are interested in putting in time to help improve the schools but the movement lacks the organization to reach critical mass. Without that critical consensus, parents continue to fend for themselves, finding spots in schools all over Brooklyn. But if a bunch of parents decided to roll up their sleeves and commit to a school, what are their options? Here are my highly subjective thoughts below.

601 Parkside Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11226 (map)

I toured PS 92 a couple of years ago with two other moms. It was a difficult time for the school, which had just lost a battle to keep the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Charter School from co-locating in its building. Most of the charter school supporters were white (80% of PS 92 is black; 0% is white), and some had made pretty insulting (read: racist) remarks at the public hearing. Thus, the administration was understandably defensive when a trio of white moms asked to come tour the school, so you should take what follows with a grain a salt.

And what follows was that the school administration was - duh - extremely defensive. We were given a few minutes to look in a classroom and ask questions. A very sweet teacher's aide who wasn't busy came up and joined our circle to help but when I tried to talk to her, I was interrupted by the admin and told that I should only talk to the admin. A  few weeks later, when I tried to attend a parents' meeting, I was approached and told to leave because I didn't currently have a child at the school.

The school and its classrooms were neat and orderly; the building is nice and large, with lots of natural light. But I left feeling strongly that I would never send my kid to the school. Even chalking the defensiveness up to the current politics,  the school culture is very traditional: top-down, rules-driven, with teachers positioned at the head of class and children seated to listen and soak up all of the knowledge. The most important thing that *I* want in a school is a progressive educational philosophy (more on that in a second), and this sort of traditional model -- the kind of schooling I grew up with -- is 180 degrees from it.

601 Parkside Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11226 (map)
I was on the steering committee to form LGCS but, like many people on the committee, ended up resigning out of frustration with the board dynamics (specifically, the head of the board). That's not of interest here. The key lure of LGCS, as I see it, is that is has a progressive philosophy. For me that means educating to encourage a love of learning; it's encouraging students to ask questions and giving them the skills to help identify answers. Progressive education privileges critical thinking over exercises requiring rote memory. It stimulates not only students' intellectual development but their sense of responsibility to others and to their community. It's hard to do this with the standard public school curriculum, with its heavy focus on standardized test results, so a charter school offers a potential  alternative. And LGCS's particular philosophy, with its emphasis on environmental science and getting kids outdoors, has a lot of promise.

(Not that anyone asked but I agree strongly with Diane Ravitch that charter schools generally are more part of the problem rather than the solution. If it were up to me, we'd do away with them all and focus on  improving all public schools. But I'm judging LGCS on its own merits here, and feel that parents shouldn't be blamed for seeking out a charter if that's the best option for their children.)

LGCS has, however, had a rough patch during its first couple of years. Most parents I talked to were happy the first year, though acknowledging that, like any new school, they had their share of challenges. This year, though, some of that optimism has waned. One class was missing a teacher due to illness the first semester and, with only subs to fill in, the classroom devolved into chaos, a problem that left several parents seeking schooling elsewhere. What's more, the school leader, Marc Magnus-Sharpe, has recently resigned and the school needs to find a replacement for next year.

Of all the free schools in PLG, however, LGCS holds a great deal of promise. It is not at all unusual for new schools to go through hardships and many parents are sticking by it, knowing the potential for patience and hard work to pay off. And if the school brings in some stellar new leadership, who knows, it could become PLG's own Community Roots.

46 McKeever Place, Brooklyn, NY11225 (map)
Back when I toured PS 92, we also visited PS 375. I liked what I saw. The administration was open and welcoming. The assistant principal allowed us to visit as many classrooms as we wanted and to stay as long as we wanted, without looking over our shoulder. In fact, he went back to his office while we hung out. We were able to talk candidly to several teachers, all of whom I was  impressed with. They were bright and committed. When we asked what they thought of principal, Marion Wilson, they had positive things to say: she's taking the school in the right direction. To encourage teachers to teach what they care about, for example, she implemented "Passion Fridays," a designated period each week that teachers dedicate to teaching something that they feel passionate about. (For the teacher we talked to, that was yoga.) I never talked to Wilson, but the school philosophy as stated on the website seemed to reflect some progressive ideals. The teachers said their biggest struggle was the school's lack of resources: almost all the students were in poverty (99% qualify for free lunch), many didn't speak English (several came from various African countries - the teacher didn't even know what language they spoke!) and there was next to no ESL support.

If I were going to get 10 of my fellow yuppies to attend a neighborhood school, this is the one that would get my vote. The problem that some people have is that it is co-located with a middle school, which makes it a tough sell to some parents (though I could live with that).  Having all those bigger kids around makes it less of an intimate elementary environment.

60 E 94th St. Brooklyn, NY 11212 (map)
Here's one you should definitely check out: it's a public magnet school (not a charter) with a progressive agenda, partnered with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A mom was in the other day who told me that of all the open houses she has attended, this was her favorite. I've never been to this school but have been very impressed by its mission and the founders' vision. Like the charter school, admission is by lottery. Also like the charter, the Academy has had some rough spots in getting off the ground. Initially it emphasized trilingual education (French, Spanish, and English) but they had difficulty getting teachers good enough to pull it off. As a result, they have placed less emphasis on language immersion this year but hope to get more skilled teachers for next year and resume the program.

I wrote more about NAA back when it was first starting, so you can read that here

On the down side, NAA is not particularly close to PLG. A free public bus is available to the school in East Flatbush but the pickup in our neighborhood is very early (6:30? 7 am?). If enough parents decide to go, a private bus could cut down the commute time significantly at an affordable price.

18 Marlborough Road, Brooklyn, NY 11226 (map)
A friend of mine, a university professor, sends her daughter here. Of all of the nearby schools, this one has the best reputation on Inside Schools. It has a traditional school model, which - as mentioned earlier, isn't my cup of tea. But my friend and her daughter are happy with the school. The school has a Spanish program that higher-performing students can test into, with no Spanish-language background necessary. The school currently only runs from Kindergarden through third grade but there is talk of expanding up to grade 5.

330 Crown Street, Brooklyn, NY 11225 (map)
When touring public schools two years ago, I never even considered this school. It had relatively high marks on Inside Schools but several local moms have called to arrange tours and been told "we don't do tours" or "the school is full." In the same way that tradition educational philosophies are a dealbreaker for me, school administrations that aren't open and that fail to actively enlist parental involvement are as well.

And then there was this 2010 story about a 5-year old girl who got beaten and had her hair cut off in the school bathroom. The principal's response? Denial and disinterest. She told the Daily News: "I know that Jazmin isn't mistreated in the classroom. We have all the other kindergartners in the school and they're fine... Is it a loss of hair because of sleeping or something else?...There is a light spot, but there is not a cutting spot..."[The mom] feels that a teacher should see every little thing..."   The school has a new principal this year, however, it's been targeted for closure.