BROOKLYN NY 11226 Map
PS 245 is a tiny school whose active parents and high test scores have earned it a reputation as "District 22's private school," as one proud parent told us. In 2006, the school got both a new principal and new building (in a former Roman Catholic school) to replace the cramped converted warehouse it had outgrown. Unfortunately, the school also got the growing pains that go along with major changes, and recent attention has focused as much on mending rifts in the school community as on improving instruction.
Founded in 1998 with the support of the community group ACORN, PS 245 has a long history of involvement by neighborhood parents, most of whom are of Caribbean ancestry. Parents were used to spending lots of time in their children's classrooms and often made decisions about matters such as how the school budget was spent or how the after-school program was run. Because the school had a large number of children eligible for free lunch, it received extra federal funds under Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
In fall of 2006, the school lost its Title I funding because the percentage of students who are eligible for free lunch declined slightly. Struggling with a smaller budget, the new principal, Patricia Kannengeiser, cut popular parent workshops and special events. Moreover, she curtailed parents' role in decision making. Parent involvement is good, she said, but major decisions about the school ultimately should be made by the administration.
She made some popular changes, such as giving teachers more supplies. But she also clashed with some parents over her decisions to cut back the hours of an after school program and to restrict the amount of time parents are in classrooms. The resulting tension made for a rough first year for Kannengeiser and many unhappy parents. The parent leaders we spoke to all said children were not affected by the friction and that both administrators and parents are committed to moving past the problems to focus on improving the school. "Everything is done in the best interest of the children," said Alexander Colombon, secretary of the Parent Association and organizer of the school's "Learning Leaders" program, which puts parent volunteers in classrooms. Still, some parents remain angry: Medge-Lee Dorsinville told us the school is "not a welcoming environment for parents" and noted that Kannengeiser does not always consult with the School Leadership Team before making decisions.
For the most part, children were in uniform and seemed happy, although we did see one child complaining that another slapped him and a few kids running in the halls. In both cases, adults intervened immediately. The school is so small that adults know every child; it has only one class in each grade, although that is changing as the school slowly grows to fill its new space.
The small size is usually a blessing, Kannengeiser said, although it also means that kids whose personalities clash with their teacher's must stick it out for the entire year. In addition, staff members must wear multiple hats; the literacy coach, for example, is also the testing coordinator and supervises intervention services. And the school's students who do not speak English at home get special instruction only two days a week because the school enrolls too few of them to support a full-time English as a Second Language teacher.
Much of the instruction is highly traditional and oriented toward success on standardized tests. Third graders had written vocabulary words three times each for homework. Second graders were doing math worksheets and practicing bubbling in answers on standardized test forms. Fifth graders were doing worksheets about fractions even though some kids appeared to have no grasp on the skills they were being asked to use, while others zoomed to the finish.
We saw some good teaching by experienced teachers. The 2nd grade teacher departed from the standard worksheet to ask students thoughtful questions, such as how to turn addition to subtraction. The 1st grade teacher spoke to her students with respect and enthusiasm. We saw patient, friendly teachers in the school's special education class and pre-kindergarten teachers who knew how to direct their students' play to maximize learning. A dedicated science teacher showed off research projects that allowed students' to apply science creatively, as with an older child who investigated the chemical properties of various lip gloss brands.
While the building is big enough for all the kids and classes, including a math resource room, it's still not the school's own; the Department of Education rents it from a Catholic church, which has access to the building, after 7 p.m. The Department and church are in negotiations to repair the windows, which are stuck closed, and to add a science lab, but neither is eager to pay for those projects.
The active Parents Association has organized to get a new kitchen installed. Parents also want to add a second security agent and give kids access to the yard, which the church restricts.
Kannengeiser is supporting those plans and has more of her own, including adding a fulltime counselor and building a character education program. She also hopes to expand extracurricular offerings in the arts, which are currently limited to violin lessons that are available only to a small group of kids. She would also like to put in place an after school program that can accommodate all the families who need spaces (unlike the existing one that serves only 25 students) and that has an academic component in addition to a healthy amount of play.
Special education: The school has one self-contained class only for students with special needs. (Philissa Cramer, May 2007)