A Crown Heights School's Fall From Grace

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In 2002, when Joel I. Klein was a first-year schools chancellor and most of the city's eighth graders were failing state tests, a Crown Heights school distinguished itself. That year, every eighth grader at Public School 161 passed the math exam.

Now, nearly a decade later, students at P.S. 161 The Crown, a K-8 school, are among the lowest-scoring in Brooklyn's District 17. About 40 percent of its third through eighth graders received a proficient score in math last school year, and 38 percent passed the English exam. Over the last three years, the school has gone from getting an A on its annual progress report from the city's Education Department to getting a C and then, this year, a D.

Now, city officials are considering phasing out P.S. 161's middle-school grades and possibly opening a new district or charter middle school in the same building.

How did a school go from headlines like "Success at Poor Schools, Despite the Odds" to being among 20 city schools that could be closed next year? The answer, say parents, teachers and others who have been involved with the school for many years, lies partially on its changing admission policies, formal and informal.

In the late 1990s, P.S. 161 was categorized as a zoned school in its elementary grades, meaning it would admit students within its neighborhood boundaries regardless of their performance. But in fact, the school was selective.

Demetrius Lawrence, president of P.S. 161's Parent Teacher Association, remembers showing P.S. 161 school administrators his son's report card from another school before they permitted him to enroll. His son made the cut, as did Mr. Lawrence's two younger children.

"The school was top of the line," Mr. Lawrence said. "We knew how competitive it was. And even when we got our last two in there, we were still excited."

In those years, students who applied to P.S. 161's middle-school grades had to be interviewed and take a test to get in.

"Children were coming from all over the neighborhoods based on their scores," said Cynthia Gombs, a former P.S. 161 teacher who retired last month. Ms. Gombs said that after Irwin Kurz, the school's principal for 13 years, left in 2000, that practice was ended.

Today, entrance to the middle school is determined strictly by lottery. Elementary students are admitted if they live in the zone, not based on their grades or behavior. The school still has a gifted and talented program, but the days of intense competition to win a seat in a regular class are long gone.

"The whole thing fell apart when we got a different demographic of children," Ms. Gombs said. "We were overwhelmed with the students' behavior problems."

Families began to retreat from the school. Enrollment declined to 866 students in 2010-11 from 1,222 during the 2001-02 school year. City officials cited the population decrease in the middle school as one reason for possibly phasing out those grades. Though most of the school's enrollment decline has occurred in the elementary school, the middle school was down to 120 students last year from 172 in 2002.

Michael Johnson, P.S. 161's new principal, arrived this September and is determined to keep his school intact. He knew the school was struggling, he said, but he found out only in October that the middle-school grades might be phased out.

"I want the whole school K-8 to remain open," he said. "If we do the things I know we're capable of doing and bring it back up and not give them more reasons to close us, we’ll be fine."

Already the school's hallways are less chaotic, he said, and he's planning to start an afterschool program for students in grades three through eight — the grades in which the state tests students annually in math and English. There will also be a Saturday school and he is working to start a flag football team.

"My goal is to take it back to where it used to be," he said.