The last time you read about PS 191 in the news it probably wasn't a happy story. Over the past year, the school has been at the center of a neighborhood in turmoil over rezoning and all the community angst that comes with it. But last Friday, as Principal Lauren Keville and a PS 191 pre-kindergartner cut the ribbon to the school's new pop-up library, there were only smiles as staff and families joined with parents from schools throughout District 3 to celebrate something beautiful they had built together.
"Our parents have done a tremendous job," said Keville, praising not only swiftness of donations that poured in for the project, but also the months of manual labor and planning involved. "We have a place to engage with our kids about books and hold literacy workshops for parents. This really fits in with all the changes we're making in our school."
Several years ago the school's previous library was remade into a state-of-the-art media lab, and while families and staffers embraced this exciting new opportunity, the void left by the missing library was always felt. "Every other school in this neighborhood has a library," said PTA President Kajsa Reaves, "Why not us?"
The Bed-Stuy Parents Committee is a group of about 250 neighborhood parents who are choosing to work together to help improve the district's schools where they hope to enroll their children. Shaila Dewan, one of the parent organizers, shared advice for those looking to do the same in other parts of the city.
Join parent listservs
We connected primarily on the parent Yahoo listservs in our neighborhood. We put up fliers before meetings—we would send out a link so people could print the fliers themselves and post them. We printed little business cards with our web address to hand out at playgrounds. We built a mailing list using MailChimp. We asked DNAinfo to do an article. Eventually, we found a surprising amount of traffic was driven by word of mouth.
Survey members to gather ideas
We came together without a specific agenda and we explored various options. We listened to what people wanted. One of our members conducted a large member survey and we browbeat people into filling it out until we had almost 90 completed—it's still invaluable to us.
Listen & learn from success stories
Our first few meetings were devoted to listening and learning. Speakers talked to us about subjects of interest, like progressive education. We identified PS 11 in Clinton Hill as a successful model for what we wanted to do in a similar gentrifying neighborhood and we had a panel discussion where PS 11 parents and administrators spoke. We invited the District 16 Community Education Council president and the district superintendent do a Q&A. We closely followed debates over rezoning in Dumbo and the Upper West Side.
It seems like every day I read another account of persistent segregation in public schools. They point to one conclusion: No political system or bureaucrat is going to integrate our schools for us. In the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Bed-Stuy Parents Committee did not necessarily start out to solve that particular problem. Rather, beginning last year, a group of new parents simply got together to talk about what we perceived as a lack of acceptable public school options in our neighborhood. We started off angry about the state of our neighborhood schools, and we came to realize that we are just as responsible for them as anyone.
Our district—District 16—had the reputation of being one of the city's worst by several measures, and it lacked options such as gifted and talented or dual language programs. For decades, parents had been "trading up" to public and private alternatives in other neighborhoods, or to charter schools. Many of us were prepared to do the same—but, we wondered, was there another way?
by Rachel Howard, Lori Podvesker, Albert Martinez and Todd Dorman of INCLUDEnyc
All 8th-graders have a rough time applying to high schools in New York City, but for the 15,000 8th-graders with disabilities—out of 270,000 total students with disabilities—the application process is even harder. Information in the high school directory can be misleading, and parents of children with disabilities don't get much help at fairs or open houses. Families hear the same mantra: “This school will provide students with disabilities the supports and services indicated on their IEPs.” Too often, it’s just not true.
Students with disabilities, especially those from high-need neighborhoods, are at the highest risk for placement at the city’s lowest performing high schools—or at schools that are unprepared to support them. Through our work at INCLUDEnyc, we’ve seen kids choose underperforming schools over better ones because they were close by; we’ve seen others apply to schools that they weren’t qualified to attend, or that were geographically inaccessible to them. Too many students with disabilities make uninformed choices about high school—and it shows. The graduation rate for students with disabilities is 36.6 percent (about half of the city average), and the dropout rate is especially high during 9th grade.
Students who meet the criteria for one of 13 federally defined education disabilities are legally entitled to an Individualized Education Program, known as an IEP. An IEP outlines the services, supports, and educational strategies that must be provided so the student can learn and graduate ready for a job or college. The IEP is both a legal contract and a working educational map. But the capacity of any school to fulfill a student’s program—which is different for every student—is all but ignored in the NYC high school application process.
If your child was born in 2011, it's time to be thinking about kindergarten for 2016. You may apply online, on the phone or in person at a Department of Education Family Welcome Center between Dec. 7-Jan. 15.
If you're wondering where to start, Insideschools can help. We're offering a workshop for parents of rising kindergartners.
Join Clara Hemphill and the staff of Insideschools as we help you navigate the kindergarten admissions process.
We'll tackle these questions and more:
- What should I look for in a school?
- What's the difference between progressive vs. traditional?
- How do I know if the school is right for my child?
- What if my local school doesn't offer tours and open houses?
- What about gifted programs, charters and other options?
- My child has special needs. What do I need to know?
We'll offer a short presentation and then open it up for a Q&A session to answer all your questions.
Register here! The workshop will be held at The New School in Manhattan.
Se habla español. Spanish translation will be available.
A multiracial group of parents in Harlem is working to reinvent their neighborhood school — with none of the rancor that has pitted newcomers and longtime residents against one another in other parts of the city. If you want to see the school for yourself, go to an open house Wednesday, Nov. 25, at 9 am, at 425 W. 123rd Street.
The work by Black, Latino, Asian and White parents at PS 125 shows that integration is possible — and that parents working together can improve a school, even in a district with few good options. Insideschools spoke to three parents about the changes at their school.
“For a long time, it was all Black children here — nothing else,” said Kim Clinton, whose grandson is in the 2nd grade and whose children attended the school. “Then all of a sudden, the whole neighborhood is changing. We have White neighbors, we have Chinese, Japanese. I like it! It’s good to know about other people, other cultures.”
PS 125 has long had a popular pre-kindergarten program, but many parents chose other schools for kindergarten. That’s partly because the upper grades had a traditional approach to education, not the play-based or child-centered approach that many parents said they wanted. “There were so many parents looking for a progressive choice, but one didn’t exist in the district,” said Daiyu Suzuki the father of a 1st- and 3rd-grader.
“I remember parents would get together in the park and talk about ‘Where do we go?’’’ said Tomoi Zeimer, mother of a kindergartner. “Either it’s a super-expensive private school or a really low-rated public school. We thought, ‘Is there a way that we can go into a school and make it better?’”
Over the past two years, parents lobbied the principal and superintendent to adopt a more progressive approach to teaching. The principal, Reginald Higgins, agreed, and enlisted Julie Zuckerman, the principal of Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights, to serve as a mentor. Higgins worked with Borough of Manhattan Community College to help revise curriculum and coach teachers. The new approaches seem to be working, and this year more pre-k parents opted to stay for kindergarten. Enrollment is inching up, from 193 in 2013–14 to 230 this fall.
The parents have succeeded in getting kids more access to the gym, and have reclaimed a community garden near the school. They are working to raise money to build a new library.
“We haven’t seen a final product yet,” said Suzuki. “We’re a community in the making.”
“We have so many different people from different backgrounds. It’s nice to hear from the other side and try something different for a change,” said Clinton.
“You know, when we work on something together it becomes a really nice community,” said Zeimer.
Parents and community leaders said Wednesday more time is needed to consider the city's proposed rezoning of P.S. 8 and P.S. 307 — a plan that does not adequately address issues of race and class that exist within the communities.
The Department of Education is seeking approval to redraw the two schools' zones, which would affect future District 13 students living in DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights and Vinegar Hill.
At a town hall meeting Wednesday evening, many locals pushed back against the city's plan because they said it neglected the needs of P.S. 307, a school with a high minority population, including children who live in Farragut Houses.
Based on 2014 records, P.S. 307 is 93 percent minority whereas P.S. 8 is predominantly white, according to the DOE's presentation, which also suggested that rezoning would integrate the schools.
For years, central Harlem's public schools have been among the worst in the city—and parents have felt powerless to do anything about it. Now, activist parents in District 5 are organizing to demand change.
Community Education Council meetings in District 5—once sleepy, sparsely attended events—have become a forum for parents' anger over the state of their schools. "Parents realize that they have a voice," said Rashidah White, a District 5 parent and former president of CEC 5.
A majority of the newly elected District 5 CEC members, who took office in July, are vocal critics of longtime superintendent Gale Reeves. And, while their role is largely advisory, council members hope that casting light on long-standing problems will force school officials to act.
When I describe my personality as a parent, I like to say I'm half hippie, half Type-A. The way I approach summer is a prime example. I want my kids at one with nature, bare feet in the dirt and a Hudson River breeze in their hair, while organic popsicles melt on their faces. But, school is never far from my mind. I want my boys to have fun, but I don't want two months of unabashed play to undo all the hard work they accomplished this past year. During the course of 1st grade, Noodle jumped nine reading levels. Studies show that many kids regress over the summer if they don't read. My Type-A side cannot bear the thought.
In June, when Noodle's teacher mentioned the New York Public Library's superhero-themed Summer Reading Challenge, I thought it sounded too good to be true, better suited for a docile child who likes to sit and color all day. "He'll never do it," I thought of my strong-willed, soccer-obsessed kid. Still, I decided to give it a shot. Turns out it was the best decision I ever made (in June, at least).
It's a particular fact of life in New York City that parents in possession of children must be in search of a school.
Talk of where to send your kids often dominates parental conversation—even pre-conception. And it tends to go on all the way to high school—except for the elite minority who get into and thrive at some of the city's highly coveted pre-k–12 private schools that can now cost close to $43,000 annually.
In my family's case, both for financial and philosophical reasons, neither suburbia nor private options were considered. So when my first child was born in 1995, and there was no popular elementary school or publicly funded pre-k in my neighborhood, the search began early—and often.
Fast forward 20 years. If my youngest son manages to pass gym (please don't ask how one fails gym ... it has to do with showing up), I will be the proud parent on June 24 of two New York City public school graduates.