P.S. 81 Thaddeus Stevens
BROOKLYN NY 11221 Map
P.S. 81 Thaddeus Stevens
PS 81 is located in the heart of Bedford Stuyvesant, directly across the street from the Eleanor Roosevelt Houses. Nearly all of the school's students live in these projects or in one of the neighborhood's homeless shelters. While the school is not chaotic, teachers and administrators tend to speak firmly with the children to keep their behavior in check.
The school struggles to deal with the social and academic needs of its students. Many come from difficult home situations, said Principal Cheryl Ault. Still, said Ault, who has been the school's principal since 2003, she is determined to move the school forward. "There's no 'We can do it, but,'" she said. Instead, she said, the school's view is that it can educate the kids "in spite of" the problems they bring from home.
In 2004, the school was placed on the state's list of "Schools In Need of Improvement" for math, and this has put it in a bind. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, a school on the list is considered failing, so students there are allowed to transfer. But the federal government does not provide additional funding to improve the school until it fails for a second year in a row. "The option they are giving me is that my best children can go, but they don't give us any [resources to improve]," says Ault. "They want the school to fail, and then give extra help."
And extra help would be welcome, according to Ault, who says the school would benefit from smaller class sizes and from more resources, such as books, supplies, and more guidance services. We noticed that kindergartners were reading from ragged-looking books, and the school's computers are outdated. Class sizes of 32 or 33 students in the 5th grade make for very cramped classrooms.
While a number of teachers are succeeding "in spite of" the school's challenges, others are not. We visited some classrooms where lessons were productive. But in others, such as a class where students who were supposed to be doing independent reading were, instead, sitting empty-handed and getting little work done, lessons floundered.
We did see bright spots. We were impressed by the school's art teacher, who incorporates science into his art lessons. On the day of our visit, kindergartners were making picture books that depicted the life cycle of a butterfly. (Unfortunately, not all students receive art instruction.) And all students do take gym, although some gym classes overlap with part of the students' lunch period. The school also benefits from parent volunteers, and an active PTA.
Another plus: Two of the school's teachers have started a guidance group for 5th grade girls called "YESS," an acronym for "Young Elegant Sisters of Substance." The group does volunteer work and focuses on self-esteem and good decision-making for the girls as they head into middle school. "Middle school is a tough transition, and there's a lot of peer pressure on these girls," said a 4th grade teacher who helped found the group.
Struggling students get small-group instruction in a "Read 180" program, which pulls the lowest performing students from their classrooms for 90 minutes at a time.
Special education: The school offers "resource room" services for students who need extra help. PS 81 shares its building with a school operated by District 75, a citywide district for students with severe disabilities. (Deborah Apsel, December 2004)