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The Story of PS161: The Crown School & How to Fail/Fix NYC Public Schools

February 7, 2012

by Fred Baptiste, PTA Vice-President of PS 161

As a parent of children at PS 161 – The Crown School, a resident of  Crown Heights, and a taxpayer, I am strongly against the proposal to truncate of the 6-8th grades at the Crown School and the policy of school closures in general, because it hasn’t shown be a policy that improves student outcomes. As parents and taxpayers we are entitled to access to a quality education right here in our community. I believe as many other parents do, that PS 161 is a good school and that given the appropriate resources our children can achieve and the school can give them the education they need to succeed. This is an issue not specific to just the Crown School.

For many years, PS 161 was considered the ‘Jewel of Crown Heights’ and was a top-rated school. But in recent years there has been a steady decline in test scores. The question that has to be asked is why did the school fall so precipitously? The DOE has presented data to rationalize its decision but to truly understand what is at work, we must take a holistic look at how the school came to this position. It is only by looking at this big picture can we begin to understand where things have gone wrong, and what we need to do to make it right.

In Crown Heights, many longtime residents talk about how great the school used to be. There are numerous stories about all of the graduates of the Crown School, including former New York City Comptroller, Bill Thompson. But we are now are living in a different time – the neighborhood has changed, there are different demographics and there have been specific policy changes that have directly affected PS 161. In the not too distant past, the school was a selective school where high-performing students from different parts of the district and Brooklyn were screened and invited to attend. So intuitively, it made sense that there was a cohort of high-performing students and that they performed well given a nurturing environment.

But there did come a time when the community took a look at this and said that it was unfair that there was a high-performing school right there in your own neighborhood but your own kids could not attend. This too makes sense – as a parent you believe your kids deserve access to quality education in their own neighborhood. As a taxpayer, why should you have to make a decision to send your children to a school much further away or possibly even out of your school district when there is a good school literally next door?

So the decision was made that the Crown School go to a lottery system where children from the school zone would get first preference to attend. But here is where the problems begin. With a lottery there is inherently a dynamic of winners and losers.  Some winners considered admission into the middle grades of PS 161 their golden ticket and some of the losers were active and involved parents who simply disappeared. But especially important here is when the selectivity component that made it a ‘good’ school suddenly goes away, what is left? The answer is you have PS 161.

This is not to say that The Crown School is no longer a good school or no longer viable. There are many talented and concerned teachers, there are some motivated parents, and we have some fantastic students. The DOE itself has gone on record as saying that there are many positives at PS 161. But PS 161 does not exist in a vacuum. Many of our children have working parents who cannot afford after-school care and in some instances are on their own until an adult comes home in the evening. They live in a neighborhood that is dealing with a burgeoning gang problem. Their parents in many cases are first-generation immigrants who are hard-working and well-intentioned but not necessarily equipped to assist or deal with the whole educational process. And like all other kids they are dealing with the cultural distractions of music videos, the internet, and video games, not to mention puberty. All this coupled with a school budget that has lost over $700,000 over the last 3 years alone, insufficient social supports, oversight and controls by the DOE, and policies that ‘hamstring’ administrations from dealing with some serious issues, have created that ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances that keep our children from succeeding.

But PS 161 is making efforts to turn things around and the groundwork has already been laid out. We have a brand new principal, a new district superintendent, a new network leader, new parent leadership and a new sense of urgency in the community. But in our Educational Impact Statement (EIS), the DOE’s took the position was that this was not sufficient to make a quick turnaround with the emphasis on being on rapid results. This makes no sense as now you are sending the children to another location in the district where they will have the exact same thing – a new principal, a new district superintendent, a new network leader, and new parent leadership. Why is there an expectation of rapid results in that scenario? After almost 10 years of mayoral control and the closure of over 100 schools, the DOE’s own statistics show that only 13% of children of color are graduating ‘college-ready’ from our public schools. If only just a little over 1 in 10 are college-ready, is there really any place to hide? Are the alternatives that the DOE is promoting really improving outcomes if after 10 years of a mayoral school reform policy, only 24 percent of our eighth graders were proficient in math and 24 percent were proficient in reading citywide? Using this standard, shouldn’t we be having a dialogue about overhauling the DOE and whether mayoral control was an awful mistake?

What is clear is that the current policy of closing schools has not worked and that it muddies the waters around educating our children. The DOE’s policies and processes outline how to close failing schools but do nothing to identify the real obstacles to learning and performance to enable them to succeed. They trumpet ‘parent choice’ where, in principle, parents can choose to send their children to what they perceive to be ‘better’ schools. But this is only an option for some. For those parents whose children who score well on standardized tests, the choices are abundant between charter schools and schools with selective admissions processes. But if your child struggles academically or when the spaces at the charter schools fill up, what real choices are left?  Lower performing students and students with special needs get ‘warehoused’ in the local zone school with insufficient supports, where they later face being stigmatized as being in a ‘failed’ school. The policy of school closures and truncation has caused schools and communities to actually consider turning against our own children by shipping them and their problems somewhere else because they are bringing our numbers down. The illusion of choice has made parents scramble to fill seats in what are perceived as good schools and not meaningfully engage their local schools.

And why is this done? Because it would require a real effort on the part of the DOE to try and make sure that there is access to quality education in all schools. Not to argue specifically about charter schools, but what they do present to the DOE is the opportunity to shift the onus on who is accountable. By effectively ‘outsourcing’ education, the DOE does not have to deal with union issues, they can circumvent many of state regulations imposed on the public schools, and they can trumpet any success and be not immediately held responsible for failure. While this is obviously a great deal for the DOE, it does nothing for those students who have real issues and obstacles. Parents and taxpayers have only one real choice and that is that our students have access to quality education in all of our communities. That means that the DOE should be bringing in additional resources to assist struggling students, developing specific community-based solutions, providing the appropriate training and oversight to school staff, creating capacity in our communities to promote learning, lobbying for changes to state and local regulations that hinder our abilities to educate our children, and forging substantative partnerships with parents and other community stakeholders. That is the only real choice. Instead, the DOE through its policies is effectively to be opting to get out of the education business.

Parents at 161 have already been working on identifying school needs. What our school truly needs to be successful is the additional resources for remedial programs and tutorial assistance for those students who are struggling. The Crown School should be made an attractive educational option by expanding our Gifted & Talented program and implementing an enrichment program to compliment what they are learning in the school. The school should have an expanded safety presence and also get technical assistance with setting up after-school programs. Many of these reforms are needed on a system-wide basis as this is what is truly required to improve student outcomes.

There can be no defending of failure. The decision to close or truncate a school is a serious one and one that should be the last resort. In meetings with the Department of Education and in public hearings parents and community leaders have stated time and time again that this is a problem that did not happen overnight. There are issues in our schools that need solutions and we must be realistic that they will not come overnight as well. It is only through thoughtful analysis, planning and implementation of real solutions that we can help our children achieve. The real question the story of PS 161 forces us to ask is whether the Department of Education is really interested in education our children? We must stop closing schools and shuffling our children around and begin the real work of fixing them. The time is now for New York to demand real the education reform to give our children what they deserve and not just pay lip service.

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