P.S. 21 Crispus Attucks
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Consistently high performing school in a mostly low-performing district
School losing population to charter schools which offer longer school day and year, limited after school program
PS 21 is an orderly, cheerful and relaxed place with a clear sense of common purpose. A Bedford Stuyvesant community institution, it's a traditional school with consistently solid test scores in a neighborhood where most of the schools have low levels of student achievement. The principal's high expectations translate into academic success for the school's pupils, despite the fact that most of their families are poor enough to qualify for free lunch.
Like her predecessor Harold Anderson who was principal for 10 years, Leslie Frazier grew up in the neighborhood and attended PS 21. And, like him, she credits involved and caring families for the success of the school and its students. "Success is the buy-in of parents and the commitment of parents," said Frazier, "and us trying to build relationships with our parents."
Students learn the importance of conversation and discussion, while parents are encouraged to read with their children every night. The principal hosts morning teas with parents on topics such as the Common Core standards. Teachers share learning strategies with parents that they can use at home.
Frazier, who taught in District 2's progressive PS 40 before coming back to her alma mater as teacher, assistant principal and, in 2012, principal, believes in an eclectic approach to teaching.
There are lots of hands-on science and math lessons including a robotics program. Children use little plastic blocks, or "manipulatives," to learn to count in groups of 5, 10 or 20, instead of the old-fashioned way of adding and subtracting individual numbers. Students spread out on the floor using the manipulatives, games and dice to learn math skills. A 1st-grade teacher used a puppet to introduce vocabulary to children who chanted different letters and word sounds including rhyming words and those that sound similar.
A sense of tradition and order plays an equally important role in the school. Girls wear burgundy plaid jumpers. Boys wear gray trousers, white shirts and burgundy plaid ties.There are also regular assessments to determine children's progress. Even kindergartners take midterm exams. Friday is the weekly test day, when desks are arranged in rows and students do fill-in-the-blanks quizzes and other tests.
"Assessments are important," the principal said, noting they help teachers learn which students need intervention services where children are pulled out in small groups. "That's been a strength, knowing the kids. Not having a high turnover of teachers, is a stabilizing factor."
Despite its popularity, the school could use more students, the principal said, as its population has dropped from 706 in 2009 to 648 in 2014. The drop in population has mirrored the rise in charter schools in District 16 which compete with district schools for students. Parents are attracted to charters by the longer school day, a school year that starts in August and two teachers in every classroom, Frazier said.
"Every year there is a new one opening up," she said. "They do a lot of press and knocking on doors. Parents are constantly inundated with mailings." Still, some families find the charter environment too punitive and the communication with parents lacking, says Frazier, and many children end up returning to PS 21.
Fifth-graders learn about the justice system with a group called Legal Lives, setting up mock courtrooms and visiting actual courtrooms. A STEM grant from the Brooklyn Borough President's office allowed the school to start a robotics program and brought new technology to the school, including a computer station that incorporates engineering programs.
Brooklyn Children's Services runs an after school program from 3-6 pm that can accommodate only about 140 students. There is a Boy Scouts troop and a mentoring program for boys. Children learn the fundamentals of social interaction in a group called Bailey's Club that meets twice a week. Intramural sports teams play in the gym.
Special Education: PS 21 has both small self-contained classes for special needs children only, and Integrated Co-Teaching classes; about 14 percent of the students qualify for special education services. Children from a District 75 program in the building are included in PS 21 classrooms when possible, the principal said, as are those in self-contained classrooms. As of September 2014, the school begins an ASD program for high-functioning students on the autism spectrum.
Admission: Neighborhood school. There is usually room for students from outside the zone and sometimes even the district. School tours are held regularly. (Pamela Wheaton, January 2014)