The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Second Charter School Option Moves In to PLG

Somewhat lost in the parental chatter about neighborhood schools is the fact that a well-regarded charter school - Explore - moved into its new digs on Parkside Avenue near Nostrand. As the Q noted last September, there were the usual unhappy rumblings from the school already calling that building home - a purportedly rigorous middle-school called Parkside Preparatory - and the teacher's union trotted out the usual rabble-rousers with signs and shouts to make it appear that the current school was actively hostile to the charter moving in. Fact is, the relatively youthful facility was only 40% of capacity, so someone was probably gonna use the space. Explore had outgrown its old digs down on Snyder. Thus, Prospect Lefferts Gardens now has two, count 'em two, charter elementary schools within a block of each other. Neighborhood gadfly Babs noted that the sign below says "taking kindergarten applications," so if you're a parent of soon-to-be school-agers, it might be worth a gander.

Explore is the flagship school of what founder Morty Ballen hopes will be a powerhouse franchise of the charter movement - the Explore Network. The master plan calls for opening a school a year, and so far the growing non-profit group has put sister schools Excel, Exceed, and Empower schools into the NYC Public School System (he's gonna run out of "e" words soon, but it's a great run so far). Having sat on the Board of an unsuccessful charter application, the Q will tell you this -- these guys have their proverbial sh*t together. Check out their financials, the impressive list of Board members credentials, the strong fundraising, even the website itself glows. If in fact Morty and crew have the right stuff, they could go very far in the current public-school & union-bashing environment. (Off-topic, I was particularly moved to see that in his bio he mentioned that he lives with his husband in Brooklyn. We're living at a time when, soon, such a statement will seem unremarkable.)

Listen, the Q doesn't know if this school is right for your kid, and the bitch about it is, it's still a lottery to get this or any other charter. While I applaud the "fairness" angle of lotto, I think it misses a real need that parents have. Parents want desperately to have a walkable local school that they can help invigorate and feel proud about. It's hard to gather the courage to go local in a struggling district when you don't know if you or your neighbors kids will get in or not. I'm serious, it's demoralizing to have to entrust such an enormous decision to toss of the dice.

Truth is, there are now many local non-charter neighborhood-zoned schools all over the City that are "improving," or more accurately "gaining in reputation," as a result of parents being brave, banding together and That's right, they go. To their local zoned school. The one that HAS to let them in. Sounds easy, right? Well, a few stars have to align before such a transition happens, whether it's in Greenwich Village, Tribeca, Clinton Hill, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Prospect Heights,Windsor Terrace (all host to real public school "success" stories by the way). First, the principal has to see it as a priority to engage with all parents in the neighborhood. Two, at least a few parents have to consider the local option seriously, and develop the nerve to take the plunge. And three, the perception of the school must change. Oh yeah, teachers are important too. But great and lousy teachers are scattered throughout the City's schools, in pretty much equal numbers, so suggests the recent avalanche of data from teacher evaluations just made public. Translation: the big differences might just come down to the strength of the principal, his/her philosophy, and the parents (and by extension the kids and their overall readiness to learn). Of course the you and the Q probably understand the underlying reality here: whether a school ACTUALLY gets better overnight when gentrifiers start going is seriously open for debate. We're talking about perception here, though I doubt you could argue that creating a more diverse student body does a school harm.

Recently some parents in the neighborhood have expressed excitement about a school not far from here - the New American Academy, a school with a somewhat radical organizational model and a headstrong principal with a Harvard pedigree - Shimon Waronker. You can read about it in the NY Times, or you could check it out yourself, as one local mom did who said: "The basic thing that makes this school different is that the classrooms have 60 kids(!) but there are 4 teachers. I was very skeptical, but honestly I cannot say enough good things about what I witnessed there." It's not a charter school, just a district school given special license to try out a new method and reward good teaching. It's way the heck east of here though on East New York Avenue (past Utica), so it certainly won't qualify as a walk-to-schooler. Nice to see people saying nice things about a District 17 public elementary school though.

As is often the case in Brooklyn, the pink (black and white?) elephant in the room is race. Or rather, race and class, since it's fair to say that when people look at a school's demographics, they're observing the relative income AND racial characteristics of the students and perhaps, I say just perhaps, making inferences about a school's suitability for their child on this basis, rather than on the principal and teachers alone.

Going to school in a neighborhood is very different than just living there. Going to school means FULLY integrating into the local environment, both learning from and sharing with one's neighbors. That's what real integration is...and it's what school desegregation, the much-maligned experiment of the 1970s, was really all about - full social and cultural  integration - so that kids really could learn without inherent advantages or disadvantages. That was the utopian goal, of course. The biggest problem for most white or wealthier families (and probably some black and poorer families too) was that it was coerced and often meant long nonsensical commutes to school. What's happening in NYC is quite different - practically the opposite. As gentrification picked up steam, the new "gentry" has been attempting integration voluntarily, using the once-troubled P.S. 321 in Park Slope as inspiration. It's not nirvana, god knows. But this new reality is changing the very fabric of the City. Whether you see it as a good thing or bad thing, it is. Will that energy come to NE Flatbush/SW Crown Heights as well?


babs said...

Part of the problem in sending kids to zoned schools in PLG may be the crazy zoning. I live on Lefferts between Nostrand and Rogers; my house is zoned for PS 91, all the way out on Albany Avenue. PS 92 is closer, as are the Crown School and the Jackie Robinson School - so my kid (if I had one) couldn't even go to school in his/her neighborhood. The New American Academy is only a few blocks past PS 91, so not a big difference.

Anonymous said...

I know lots of parents whose kids go to PS92 and love the school. Don't know about Robinson up on Empire or the one they want to close. Everyone seems to love 92, so I don't get why people just dont go there. Why not ask the kids and the teachers?

Anonymous said...

There are too many options. Period. If we all had to go to the school we're zoned for they'd all turn around tomorrow. Half the people around PLG opt out of public schools entirely, taking their money and talents with them. The other half leave for greener pastures in other parts of the city. To look at the schools around here you'd think there wasn't a white or rich person for miles. Its an outrage, a damn shame and no one wants to do anything about it but start up new schools that frankly haven't a clue how to run themselves. Jaded? you bet!

Anonymous said...

I can't agree more with the above comment. Well said!