P.S. 56 Lewis H. Latimer
BROOKLYN NY 11238 Map
P.S. 56 Lewis H. Latimer
In a low-lying, cream-colored brick building on the Clinton-Hill/Bedford Stuyvesant border, PS 56 has a bright and inviting entryway, its walls lined with artwork done by students working with visiting artists. The principal, equally warm and welcoming, makes sure her door is open to the hallway so "kids and teachers know it's open to them." A staff developer and assistant principal at the school before she became principal in 2004, Deborah Clark-Johnson knows her population well and is responsible for bringing in many innovations.
PS 56 is a well-run school with test scores that have been steadily inching up "a slow but steady climb" the principal called it. The school also emphasizes the arts, offering classes in dance and visual arts (taught in its own room), as well as a school band and a music room with keyboards. Some arts teachers start their day later so that the programs extend into the after-school hours. Art is also incorporated in core subjects.
Children dress in traditional uniforms of white tops and blue bottoms, but in teaching style, the school is more progressive. Clark-Johnson introduced "balanced literacy," a curriculum that eschews textbooks in favor of novels and picture books, before it became required in the citywide curriculum in 2003.
A former biology teacher, the principal is particularly proud of the way-cool, fully-stocked science lab, where, on the day of our visit, two gigantic gerbils were chomping away at huge carrots, a rabbit chewed contently in its cage, and a snake slithered from underneath its shelter to greet a visitor. There was even a tarantula. and a red-eared fiesta turtle was sunning himself on a rock in the terrarium. Each animal's habitat had a corresponding book, such as Runaway Bunny atop the bunny cage. Fourth grade students, sitting at brightly colored lab tables, were testing buoyancy and density by examining whether, and which, different clay shapes would float. The results of an earlier experiment posted outside the door showed that fluffy Three Musketeer candy bars would float, but peanut-laden Snickers would not.
The library, though pleasant, is poorly equipped, so Clark-Johnson intends to refurbish it, using money from parent fund-raisers. Classrooms are mostly inviting. Many feature bright-colored tables, others have desks pushed together to form groupings. Some teachers are reluctant to give up the structure that the desks provide, the principal said. The pre-school room is particularly appealing. On our visit there, children played in centers with water, dolls, and blocks, and made play dough. There were several nice touches in other classrooms, such as subway maps naming each center a way to weave geography into the curriculum and doorways painted bright, primary colors.
PS 56 hosts a weekly food co-op in "Le CafÃ©," (what the school affectionately dubs its cafeteria) which brings in neighborhood residents - many of them new to this quickly gentrifying corner of Brooklyn. Little by little, they'll no doubt begin to bring their children to the school as well.
Parents are welcome. On our visit we saw several in the computer room working on their own, others helping to make phone calls. Some parents participate in a parent/child chorus. They declare PS 56 "a well kept secret." PS 56 shares its building with a middle school, Satellite III. The schools' administrations collaborate closely and share facilities.
After school: The many offerings on weekdays and Saturdays include a Virtual Y program of academics and recreational activities including dance, basketball, and arts.
Special education: There are team-taught classes in 1st and 5th grade and several "self-contained" special education classes for children with special needs only which are indistinguishable in tone and layout from the general education classes. We saw attractive rooms, clearly laid out with centers, lots of books, and students' work posted. (This school is featured in New York City's Best Public Elementary Schools. Pamela Wheaton, November 2004)