The Turnaround School PS 84 / A Ship Is Only as Good as Its Captain

By Brooke Parker

PS 84 Jose de Diego’s first PTA meeting of the 2012 school year was, by all measures, well attended. And after listening to impassioned speeches by parents (translated into Spanish and English by the PTA co-presidents), one hundred of those parents and teachers, from a variety of economic and ethnic backgrounds, joined teams to work on a range of activities, from fundraising, to advocacy, to outreach.

This is a stunning contrast to the PTA meetings I remember attending when my oldest daughter attended PS 84 in September 2006. At that time the school was rife with racial tensions, and there were regular shouting matches and a volatility that necessitated constant police presence. What happened at PS 84 six years ago, and how the school was transformed into a working model of diversity, we can all be proud of. It’s a story of the gaping wounds of gentrification, the ills of the New York City Department of Education (DOE), and the vital importance of strong leadership skills in a school principal to steer communities together for a common purpose.

I was part of the first early wave of “newcomer” parents having babies in Williamsburg. While we were scattered around Williamsburg and Greenpoint, we shopped at the same store (the now long-gone Sam and Seb) and went to the same few playgrounds that were kept up. When the topic of schools arose, there were only two options for us: going to PS 132, which was making efforts to attract “gentrifying” parents by holding “mommy & me” groups; or taking the L train to one of the four progressive elementary schools in the East Village. Our neighborhood schools had a reputation for being very traditional and out of touch with new movements in pedagogy, but the East Village schools represented our ideals in public education: diversity in the classroom, meaningful curriculum, hands-on learning, collaborative projects, field trips, and lots of art programming. But the beginning of a movement to give our neighborhood schools a try was afoot.

In 2005, several Williamsburg parents organized a town hall event to discuss the state of our neighborhood public schools and encourage new families to enroll in them instead of trekking over the bridge or out of district. The key speaker was Carmen Farina, a champion of public education and former superintendent of neighboring District 15, which included the successful PS 8. Only a few years earlier, it was suffering from profound lack of enrollment and headed for closure. The transformation of PS 8, a Brooklyn Heights public school that turned around under the leadership of principal Seth Philips and their fabulous parent coordinator Precious Jones-Walker, was used as the shining example of what was possible if parents, teachers, and administrators put their energies into our neighborhood schools. We were told that nearby PS 84 Jose de Diego (and PS 132, PS 110, and others) could be the next PS 8.

PS 84 had just received its federal magnet grant of one million dollars to become the Magnet School for the Visual Arts, an effort to end the longstanding Latino isolation in the school. PS 84’s charismatic Principal Patricia Jelen, instrumental in designing the magnet grant, was much loved by students and faculty, and provided inspiring tours of the school. But Jelen was ill and set to retire, no longer able to walk up the three flights of stairs at PS 84. No one in Williamsburg could have anticipated the effect the gap in leadership would have on the school.

At the time, parents of young children were not aware of undercurrents involving DOE politicking that would impact their experience at PS 84. The DOE was systematically erasing local voices and local control of neighborhood schools through a variety of education reforms, including mayoral control and standardizing a new “progressive” curriculum in our district schools (remember the citywide “math wars”?). Response to these reforms may have been less embittered had they gotten buy-in from local educators and community members, but they were foisted on all schools, willy-nilly. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had appointed Joel Klein as Chancellor of Education, and plans were in the works to create a business model of standards and accountability between teachers and schools. Klein needed new school leaders who would implement these standards, so he created the Principal’s Leadership Academy, modeled after General Electric corporate training centers. The graduates of the Leadership Academy were not homegrown and did not rise through the ranks of neighborhood schools through recognition and development of their skills and talents. They were young and green, with minimal actual classroom and leadership experience.

The principal trainings were designed to implement teaching standards and silence teacher opposition, not to develop community or engage parents. PS 84’s new principal, Stefanie Greco, was a Leadership Academy grad.

The 2006 school year started with a bang as two very different cultures came together at the first PTA meeting, with no seeming common ground except that we had children in the same building. The PTA hadn’t been strong in previous years, so it was easy for the very small minority of new parents to take it over, although none of us saw it that way at the time. For the Latino parents at PS 84, it must have been shocking to have a largely white PTA in a school that was all Latino above the kindergarten level. After all, PS 84 was named after Jose de Diego, the “Father of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement.” As the neighborhood was becoming rapidly more expensive, with signs of new construction abounding, multiple failed promises of affordable housing, and the closing of Latino restaurants and shops, Jose de Diego’s Latino heritage mattered more than ever.

Every initiative the new parents tried to implement, from writing grants for more arts in the classrooms, to ending the sale of ice cream during school hours, to soundproofing the cafeteria, to renovating the library, was seen as a hostile takeover rather than bettering the learning conditions for all the children in the school. Meanwhile, the Latino parents were dealing with their own issues involving the interim principal, including trying to get a new computer room opened. The computer room had been secured by the previous principal through City Council Member Diana Reyna’s office.

However, most of the new parents weren’t even aware there was a computer room that the new principal wasn’t opening, let alone that we were seen as intentionally ignoring this issue, which was so important to parents of children in upper grades.

That the white families in PS 84 were only in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten ensured that none of us were talking to each other.

Misunderstandings and tensions were brewing between parents, and our hopes of PS 84 becoming the next PS 8 were quickly dissolving. It must be said that none of us had complaints about our classroom teachers. Our children were very happy in their classrooms. The problem was with the larger school community. It was clear that successfully integrating PS 84 wouldn’t happen just by bum rushing diversity in the lower grades, because we now had families with very different expectations of their roles. Our PTA meetings, the only opportunity for both communities to come together, were mayhem. There was no one steering our ship of diversity and we were sinking. We could all agree on that.

Why should a school rely on the police at PTA meetings to build community? Wasn’t that the principal’s job? Where was Principal Greco?

She was doing what she was trained to do: implement standards and keep teachers in line. Where were the speeches from the DOE now that we were enrolled in the school? Parents on either side were far from complacent, but we discovered that, after Carmen Farina retired, the DOE had nobody standing up for integrating schools. We complained to the DOE’s new Office of Parent Engagement multiple times, meeting individually and in groups, but to no avail. We warned the DOE that if this interim principal were to become the permanent principal, the school would suffer. And that’s exactly what happened. When the interim principal became the permanent principal, the new parents left the building, took their kids, and didn’t look back. Including myself.

It took another three years and another principal to come and go before PS 84 got the leadership it needed to retain families from diverse backgrounds beyond pre-kindergarten, let alone kindergarten. Finally, Principal Sereida Rodriguez, an assistant principal and longtime teacher from PS 250, a well-regarded neighborhood school deeper in Williamsburg, took the helm in 2009. Principal Rodriguez opened the doors to PS 84 Jose de Diego both literally and figuratively, creating a warm and welcoming environment where issues that parents raised were recognized as important and addressed promptly, and where power was dispersed throughout the school with equitable access. I can say with confidence that if Principal Rodriguez had been our principal six years ago, few of us would have left.

PS 84 teachers describe our school not as a melting pot, but as a salad bowl, where our different cultures are acknowledged and respected, shared and celebrated, rather than dissolved; where our cultural differences bring more to the table by virtue of being different. For example, our student body is 28% English-language learners, considerably higher than the city’s 14% average and not generally considered an asset in the classroom. However, with PS 84’s dual language program, Spanish speakers get to be experts as much as native English speakers, with the hope that our students become bilingual and bicultural.

This year PS 84 launched the ASD Nest program, where children on the autism spectrum are responsibly mainstreamed with small class sizes designed around social learning and a kindness curriculum spread throughout the school. Neighborhood schools that host the ASD Nest program are chosen because of their commitment to adopting a schoolwide approach to embracing this diversity. It is a testament to how far PS 84 Jose de Diego has come that our school was selected.

The hard-won lessons learned at PS 84 are very far-reaching. On the heels of the DOE’s brutal insensitivity in phasing out PS 19 Roberto Clemente, the new PS 414 Brooklyn Arbor School, a neighborhood elementary school, is experiencing a great deal of diversity in its kindergarten classes. PS 414 has a PTA that shares power between the Latino and white communities.

Telling the story of PS 84 matters, especially now, as the city DOE, the New York State Department of Education, and the federal government have abandoned their pursuit of desegregating public schools in favor of promoting privately managed charter schools. Desegregation is vital to developing well-rounded, educated citizens; vital to ensuring equity within and between schools; and critical in building sustainable communities in our neighborhoods. Our district has eight magnet elementary schools that have achieved varying degrees of success, depending on where they are located within the district. It is important to stress that our neighborhood schools that don’t have white families are just as good as our schools that are diverse. I strongly encourage parents to tour PS 120 Carlos Tapia or PS 147 Isaac Remsen or PS 380 John Wayne to meet with the teachers or talk to the principals. There’s no reason why these schools can’t be the next PS 84.

My older daughter would have been in the fifth grade at PS 84, had we stayed, and I wistfully recognize some of her classmates and their parents at drop-off and pick-up. They wondered where I had gone, but warmly welcomed me back. I’ll see them at the next PTA meeting.

Update on last month’s article:

In late October, 350 WAGPOPS! members launched a lawsuit against the SUNY charter school authorizers and the city DOE. The DOE is pursuing colocating the Citizens of the World Charter School to MS 126 John Ericcson. A co-location hearing will take place December 5, 2012, at 6pm at MS 126 John Ericsson Middle School, 424 Leonard Street.

Differing opinions are welcome.