Streams

Opinion: My Risky School Choice is Paying Off

Friday, March 14, 2014 - 04:00 AM

WNYC

One year ago, I was worried about the middle school choice process in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Admissions interviews for my son and other fifth graders were about to begin and anxiety ran high.

The thing is, I never could have imagined how well things turned out.

This realization hit me recently when I was in the audience for a student show at Park Slope Collegiate, a combined middle and high school in the John Jay building. There was an earnest middle school glee club that sang “Stand By Me,” as older teenagers waved their arms back and forth, snapping their fingers and dancing in support. Then, a senior girl belted out a stirring rendition of “I Am the Highway,” with a group of younger guitar students playing back-up.

As I watched, a hand from behind reached over for my camera. The physical education teacher offered to videotape the show for me - she knew she had a better angle to reach the guitarist in the second row, a new sixth grader who happened to be my son.

Park Slope Collegiate was never on our list this time last year. I had taken note of Principal Jill Bloomberg’s impressive presentation at a middle school forum but the uninspiring statistics on achievement levels hampered my curiosity. But then, sometime in the early spring, a fellow parent at P.S. 321 shared a vision she felt passionately about: bringing together students of diverse academic levels, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds in a small setting that celebrated difference, maintained a tight-knit community and sought out parent voices to help shape the school.

A few months later, we decided to join the group spearheading a plan for students from the highly regarded P.S. 321 to move to this largely overlooked gem. It was an unexpected outcome to a fraught middle school search process, one that ended with a hopeful nod but also with new questions.

Were we helping open up an important world of diversity to our son? Contributing to much needed social change and equity in education? Or, on the down side, might he miss out on the valuable learning opportunities offered by the top schools in the district? Moreover, despite Principal Bloomberg’s amazing talent, the physical plant left much to desire. During a school tour in May, she challenged children and families to count the electrical outlets in a particular classroom that had only one. (New construction improvements are underway this year, thanks partly to the energy and tenacity of new sixth grade families.)

Overall, we have been heartened by what now feels like good fortune. My son is proud to wear his PSC t-shirt. When I peek over homework assignments, I learn new things. I attend meetings in which the principal provides simultaneous Spanish interpretation, and enjoy the camaraderie of bake sales. I try to count up all the countries of origin of students and their families in this year’s class photo. In November, I presented to high school students on their Career Day, and marveled at the school’s warm and welcoming feel.

At the recent musical performance, I was glad to sit next to fellow sixth grade parents who had invited me to join them. We had met the week before at a PTA meeting, speaking in both English and Spanish together and sharing our hopes for our children’s education at PSC. Perhaps most gratifying, the sense of trust and collaboration among students and faculty seems to protect against the more competitive challenges to a social pecking order that can characterize middle schoolers of this age, at least for now.

From my vantage point, my son and his peers are notably comfortable with themselves and each another. And yet, as someone who has followed trends in school diversity, I know that for every hopeful step toward equity, a multitude of factors can hold back progress. I know that educators can get caught between wanting high academic expectations on the one hand and fostering an inclusive learning environment on the other.

My son recently accused me of being “mean” and “strict” after I had questioned his approach to a persuasive essay assignment. Despite my concern about his seemingly weakly supported statements, he argued that his teacher had already approved them. I wondered out loud whether friends in other local middle schools would be allowed to submit similar essays. But his answer, that at PSC they go “step by step,” quieted me.

One year ago, I worried about how he would answer questions on middle school interviews. Now I want to learn about the other schools in New York that have managed to get the right mix of inspired leadership, passionate educators, school-family partnerships and a diverse student body. I fear that there are not many but, for those few, it’s a potent and promising recipe.

Contributors:

Nancy Workman

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Comments [2]

ruby from clinton hill

great piece, and interesting to see some park slopers now discovering the values and terrific experiences that many of us have long found in our district 13 elementary schools!!

as for Brooklyn Prospect, it sounds like a nice place but it doesn't really seem to be comparable with the experience of the writer. a cursory glance at insideschools shows that the writer's school is 8% white, 78% low-income, and 11% English language learners, whereas BK prospect is 41% white, only 33% low-income and only 2% ELLs. that's pretty different, to me.

also, I don't think that comparing average test scores when schools are so diverse (and especially when admission practices are so very different across schools) really helps to understand what's going on in a school. unless it's a test prep factory (which you guys don't really seem to have at D15 middle schools), it's more about the levels where the kids come in. that's probably why, according to the new York city charter center data, BK prospect didn't actually do that well on the tests - it's basically on par or only slightly above district averages (and seems even to have underperformed district averages in a couple of areas), despite that it has far fewer ELLs and a much more affluent population.

to be clear, I'm not knocking BK prospect, just saying that looking at static test scores can't really tell you much about how much the school is actually doing on the "effectiveness" part of things. the rest of what you wrote is much more helpful!

Mar. 15 2014 07:56 PM
Carmela Federico from Brooklyn, NY

Add Brooklyn Prospect Charter to the list of schools that work for a wide variety of kids. My education and experience make me wary of charter schools. They can concentrate problems in neighborhood schools and promise in the schools of choice. They can find ways to cherry-pick their students by selective recruiting and unfair expulsion policies. They can become bastions of privately-funded luxury for easy-to-educate students. They can be for-profit entities bilking public resources, delivering false hope and few results to poor communities. Freedom from the AFT, clearly delivering some benefits, leaves teachers, like all non-unionized workers, too vulnerable.

That said, I am entirely happy with Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, where my son is in 7th grade. To list a few good things:

*The teachers are extraordinarily qualified, motivated, and happy.

*Education there is based on data and sound research. Students are acutely assessed, by teachers and peers, not only for "right" answers, but for persistence, thoroughness, curiosity, and their ability to contribute to group work.

*Discipline is strict but warm and fair.

*Classes are small.

*While the school has some upper-middle-class students, free-lunch recipients receive extra chances for seats in the lottery. The student body is both academically and racially diverse. Students in need of support get it via office hours and support classes they attend in lieu of study hall.

*There is enough challenge and open-ended project work for even very quick learners and informed students to grow.

*Without test-prep, the school did very well in state-wide tests, and did extraordinarily well for the income and ethnic makeup of its student body.

*The school goes out of its way to provide support and conflict resolution, and has expelled very few students.

*While not a perfect social environment (these are middle school kids, remember?), bullying is nonexistent and teasing is rare and rarely truly ugly.

*The school is "International Baccalaureate." The IB approach is enlightened, effective, and practically useful in an increasingly international world.

My son is not sailing through middle school. Learning comes easily, but he has real issues of organization, persistence, impulsivity, and focus -- but he is being judged fairly and given consistent support to grow. The school valorizes many positive attributes and honors diverse role models with various skills and traits, rather than always trotting out the same 3 kids who ace every test.

Hold charter schools to high standards of effectiveness, inclusiveness, and fairness -- but allow those that prepare all kids well, developing and diversifying their talents and skills, to exist and to inform the DoE's "in the box" schools. Being in such a school makes me very happy to be a Brooklyn parent of a Brooklyn pre-teen, and makes me glad that success and growth can still come from working and living together rather than standing apart.

Mar. 14 2014 03:29 PM

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