P.S. 39 Henry Bristow
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Great community, active parents and focus on the arts in high-performing school
Kindergarten waitlist, quirky old building with low ceilings and bathrooms in the basement
Housed in a 19th-century building with a brick exterior and an elegant mansard roof, historic PS 39 has a peculiar interior that resembles a railroad flat. Tiny classrooms are connected to one another without any hallways. Tall teachers need to duck to get into some classrooms and the children's bathrooms for grades 1-5 are in the basement. It's a bit awkward, but the unusual layout adds to the sense of community and intimacy at this small school and leads to some innovative practices.
To make the most of the small, connected kindergarten classrooms, one is dedicated to reading and writing, its walls lined with books; another to math, where puzzles and small blocks called manipulatives abound; and a third to "center time" and social studies where children happily learn through play at different stations throughout the room.
Anita de Paz, principal since 2005 and a 1st-grade teacher for many years before that, has deep roots at PS 39: As a child she would tag along with her mother, a teaching assistant at the school.
Even the smallest children are encouraged to follow their own interests. Pre-kindergartners visited a hair salon to interview the owner and had an animated discussion about the difference between barber shops and hair salons. Children spoke to a chef at a neighborhood restaurant, then set up their own restaurant in the classroom's play kitchen.
Second-graders were designing their own communities and made town maps with keys for the local businesses "so people will know which places are there," a student explained.
For their end-of-the-year social studies projects, 5th-graders choose to research a current event or a topic from history. One group made a board game about Aztec life; another followed the issue of whether rock climbers should be able to climb cliffs without ropes. An articulate bunch, they happily discussed their projects and had plenty of praise for PS 39.
"I love this school. You get to know everybody," a girl told us. "Teachers are very understanding. None are very strict or mean."
There is no gym. Children go across the street to Camp Friendship for physical education and performances. There is an art studio and a science lab, complete with egg-laying crayfish. Students were making twirly birds out of paper. First they made one according to a set model, and tried modifications to see what would happen. The principal stepped in to show one girl that her twirly bird actually would work when it was dropped from the principal's much taller height.
The largest room in the 1877 building is dedicated to music. PS 39 students work with musicians from the New York Philharmonic, learning to compose and play their original music, which they performed to a standing room-only audience of families at Camp Friendship.
"We get to listen to the orchestra and learn with teachers who play in the orchestra," a 5th-grader said. "It lets us express ourselves in meaningful ways."
In bad weather, the ground floor music space is used for indoor recess.
As the neighborhood's population has changed, so has the school: Ten years ago nearly 70 percent of the students qualified for free lunch; in 2016 only 15 percent did. Parents actively fund raise to pay for arts partnerships and an assistant teacher; on the day of our visit, a group of parents sat at a table outside the building selling remaining items from a recent auction.
The school works to maintain its diversity; in 2012 in the midst of a rezoning of neighborhood schools, PS 39 fought to keep the westernmost blocks going down to 4th Avenue.
Popular middle school choices are MS 447, MS 51, New Voices and MS 839.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: There are ICT teacm-teaching classes on every grade, with two teachers, one trained in special education.
ADMISSIONS: Neighborhood school. In 2015 and 2016 there was a waitlist for zoned students in kindergarten who instead were sent to other district schools--most to PS 124 in 2016 but hae the right to return in 1st grade (space permitting). There are occasionally a handful of seats in the upper grades for students from outside the zone, the principal said. That's because some families come from Europe for a year or two and then return to their home countries; others move out of the increasingly expensive neighborhood as their families grow, she said. (Pamela Wheaton, June 2016; updated August 2016)