Streams

For Two Queens Schools, More Money and No Strings Attached

Friday, February 10, 2012 - 04:45 PM

Children at P.S. 161 Arthur Ashe in Queens, recipient of a $100,000 grant, wait to enter the lunchroom. (Hiten Samtani)

What would you do if you were given an extra $100,000 to spend on your school?

Two public schools in the city are finding out.

The Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy VI (Kappa 6) and Public School 161 Arthur Ashe, both in Queens, were awarded $100,000 grants by the Target Corporation, as part of a competition promoted through "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." The money comes with no restrictions, giving the principals and their staffs a little breathing room at a time of austerity budgets.

Both schools were able to convince the Target folks that their schools were special enough -- and needy enough -- to be chosen from all the submissions. In the end, 48 schools and 2 school districts from across the nation were given $100,000 grants.

Gary DuMornay, the principal of Kappa 6 -- who is known as the "commandant" at this military-style middle school -- said that the grant money would mainly be used to improve the students’ reading ability. The school will invest in an upgraded reading selection and new reading programs, he said, and improvements to the school's computers.

“The current computers were donated just under six years ago,” he said.

Jill Hoder, the principal of P.S. 161, said that the grant’s flexibility was a first in her eight years running the school.

“You have to understand, most grants will state things like '3.6 teachers have to sit in the Northeast corner of the building,'" she said. "Or they will say you have to buy this kind of desktop, that kind of laptop.”

Ms. Hoder said that the grant would allow the school to breathe new life into its arts program and bring back a myriad of activities that have disappeared during tight budgets, including ballroom dancing, theater, and capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial arts-inspired dance form.

Out of 756 children at P.S. 161, 96 are designated as English language learners and receive special support. But 38 percent of the school's 131 immigrant students are from English-speaking countries like Guyana and India, so are not eligible for those services. That doesn't mean they don't need them, Ms. Hoder said.

“We’re making every effort to offer them academic intervention services and strong support through one-to-one adoption programs, where many of the cluster teachers adopt a child and spend time with them every week. It would be nice to have a little bank for them,” she said.

The competition ran from Nov. 25 to Jan. 4. Schools were asked to submit a compelling story that illustrated why it deserved a grant. In making their decisions, Target took into account factors like Title 1 eligibility, the percentage of students who qualified for reduced lunch and the unique needs of the school. The initiative was part of Target’s pledge to donate $1 billion in education-related giving by 2015, said Jill Hornbacher, a spokesperson for Target.

“We’ve reached out to the winning schools and hope that they will keep us updated us about their progress,” she said.

At Kappa 6 the students have a special story to tell. According to Inside Schools, the school, which is in Far Rockaway and has 250 students, is modeled after the Air Force philosophy of leadership training.

The sixth through eighth-grade students, who are called cadets, wear blue uniforms. They march into classes, which are called squadrons and named after space missions: Atlantis, Apollo, Endeavor. The school received an A on its last city progress report.

Mr. DuMornay said the school's entry was prepared by “members of our community who care, including two teachers,” and that the parents were among the first to hear about the win during a PTA meeting.

“We’re really unique in that sense, he said, adding that the parents are very involved through the school leadership teams and the PTA. "They were very thrilled. They were also very proud. We are all certainly proud of our kids.”

P.S. 161, in Richmond Hill, has an 84 percent poverty rate and is dealing with overcrowding, its principal said. It also was given an A on its last progress report.

The school librarian, Barbara Friend, took the initiative in submitting the nomination.

“I’ve been teaching for 28 years,” she said. “It took me 21 years to find a school like this, so my nomination was based upon this way of thinking. We had 2,400 characters for the nomination, and you can be sure I used 2,399.”

Ms. Hoder said that the school should receive the money by mid-February. Her budget, she said, has “really been cut to the bare bones."

“This is crazy," she said. "We pray every day, we’re constantly looking online for grants. I asked Target ‘What are the parameters?’ They said, ‘none.’ I said, ‘What should I do?’ They said, ‘spend the money.’ I’m still flabbergasted.”

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