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.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Q's Schools Tool: Intro: Spools and Spools of Schools

A few months back the Q visited a local charter school, Explore, and interviewed the CEO of its fledgling network of schools - Morty Ballen. The school's well-run, has swell teachers (hi Marie!), engaged students. Yes, it's a nice, small, decent grammar school, just down the road (Parkside/Nostrand). Few parents I've met even have it on their radar. The NY Times decided to write about it, not because it's a nice school in a mediocre district (ours, District 17), but because its writer Sonny Kleinfield wanted to make a point about de facto segregation in City schools. I promised myself that as I, a decidedly white parent, started the search for a school for my oldest daughter, also pretty darn white, while living in a predominantly black district (that number 17 again), would share my thoughts throughout in a painful public display of parental angst, because in my heart I feel there's a lack of honesty or dialogue on the whole notion of "choosing" a school. Actually, to be honest, I have no doubts that Lil' Miss Q will matriculate at an awesome school, wherever that may be, and if not, I'll pull her out and put her somewhere else. I don't share some other parents' fears that they won't find a good school and that their children will be forever damned to bus tables at a Chuck E Cheese for the rest of their lives as a result. It's kindergarten. They're probably gonna have a ball anywhere they go. This process is about parents, pure and simple. I know some will disagree, but really, there's a fairly prevalent herd mentality to the proceedings, like the way everyone was suddenly into exotic salts (all of which my Neanderthal tongue would call...salty). Another reason I'm not fretting is that to date I haven't met even one parent (and remember I'm on the old side so a lot of my friends have already been through this) who didn't find a school they like...even love. Public school. That's right, public school. I'm not planning on applying to private school, not out of some great patriotic love of country or because I hate rich people, but public school was good to me (albeit in Iowa), and public schools in NYC can be great, no matter what conventional wisdom says, and full of the diversity and energy that is NYC, and most or least importantly depending on which day of the month you ask, on pay day or say the day after, I can't afford it. (Most crucially though, I really want people to stop calling private schools "independent schools." Right now. It's annoying. They're private. Like Harvard's private, UMASS is public. McCarren Park Pool is public; the Y is private. The Harvard Club is private. Popeye's is public. Private, public. Public, private. No independent. And yes I know it's the opposite in England. I don't think they use the word independent there either, though.)

So far I've met with the principal at PS92 on Parkside near Rogers. I've talked intensively to parents at the Lefferts Gardens Charter School (I'll save that post for another day after I talk with the new leader there). I went to the year-end extravaganza at PS249, known as the Caton School near the Parade Ground. I took a tour at PS9 in Prospect Heights. I took a tour at PS295 in south, south Park Slope near the cemetery. On Thursday I went with another dad to PS770, the New American Academy, a district school that's making waves with its unique super-size classroom approach via a Harvard (there's that word again) PhDer, the charismatic and kosher headmaster Shimon Waronker. I've got tours coming up to PS's 139, 39, 133, 10, 11, 375, 705 and charter schools from here to Yonkers. My girl's not even four. And do you think I've become exasperated at the very sight of a metal book locker? (do they have those air holes in them in case a kid gets locked in one?) Not at all. I'm having a ball. Schools are fun; grade-schoolers are adorable; it's awesome to watch teachers in action; it's a gas to look at all the artwork hanging everywhere; it's fascinating to see how principals and parents "sell" their schools; it's wild to see how much schools actually have in common, even when they have vastly different reputations. And it's heartbreaking to watch a few parents clearly suffering from crippling anxiety. It's as if every terrible school experience is being relived by the middle-aged parent of a kindergartener-to-be, with even the site of a manic lunch room enough to send shivers up the spine of a once-taunted over-achiever. Sometimes it feels like a competition, this school scouting, but of course most decisions are made by zone, by lottery, by district, or by an indecipherable last-minute shifting of seats, in which principals fill their schools in August or even September to make sure they maximize the amount of dollars, figured per pupil, coming into the coffers. And yes, they divvy out seats to parents who really, really want it, and maybe to friends and friends of friends. Wouldn't you? And yes, you can lie about where you live, and plenty of people do that, but frankly I prefer the non-liars who are just really persistent and have the stomach to wait til they hear they're in, maybe on the third day of school. Yes, it's stressful, but so is taking the L train. NYC is not for wusses.

And why is it like this, exactly? All this Strang und Durm. I thought "choice" was supposed to be a good thing. But like the ridiculous number of choices in chewing gums, we now spend all our time stressing and envying and lying about our addresses rather than simply going to our zoned school and making it the best it can be. (Actually that's a ridiculous metaphor, because I usually just choose some variant on spearmint). And then once we connive our way into a "better" school, I guess we have to trumpet its virtues so we can make ourselves feel good about our diligence and parental decision-making. It's all perfectly understandable, and incredibly sad. Again, we could just go to our local school and try to make it the best it can be. Parents really are that crucial, so says everyone I've spoken to.

I keep hearing the same refrain in my head, something someone said a while back and I can't even remember who. "Education is being delivered." Yes, quite right. Everywhere I've been, and I suspect everywhere I'll go, education is indeed being delivered. Much more important than any reputation or method or testing regimen or homework scheme is going to be the teacher my kid has for kindergarten (and the amount of fun my baby says she had each day when she comes home from school and how much she loves her friends.) And it's with this notion of how crucial it is that little Q has good, loving, supportive teachers that, I gotta say, New American Academy, PS770, seems the best of the lot so far. And here's why.

Waronker's much ballyhooed method of 60 kids per classroom is really about a simple ratio - 15:1. The kids don't have one kindergarten teacher - they have four. One is a master teacher paid in excess of $100K. The other three are vetted as rigorously as the master. I met one of these jedi-teachers - Mr. G - and he was awesome. He says the teachers really dig it, this new system. Waronker's school is within the DoE, meaning it's union, unlike most charters, and generally speaking the union is more beneficial to a teacher's security and retirement. We can argue the relative merits of union vs. non-union, but suffice to say we'd probably all like the basic rights and benefits offered by a good contract. But at NAA, thanks to a special exemption from DoE, they don't have a lot of bureaucracy over their heads to boot, or boots over their heads, and only Waronker is their direct boss, and he seems pretty fair and supportive. The four classroom teachers meet daily for an hour and half, discussing lessons, learning new stuff, talking about YOUR kid. During that time, your kid is exercising and eating breakfast, presumably not simultaneously. Parents can come anytime, and are encouraged to have "breakfast" with staff on Fridays. Your kid doesn't have to ask to go to the bathroom, she can just go when she needs to, and that fits with Waronker's war on the Prussian authoritarian system of schools which he loves to debate. Is the food good? Waronker guesses so, but he keeps kosher and has never tried it personally. Hey, you can bring a lunch if you're worried. The classrooms seem giant, and probably seem even gianter when you're three feet tall, but the spaces are easily arranged into separate spaces for different teachers to do their specific strong suit teaching. Art is part of everything. Inquiry is part of everything. Everything is part of everything. Oh, and NO homework. Ever. Even til grade 8 if they end up expanding that far. (The backlash against homework and testing is in full swing, though a number of parents I've met don't mind using those test scores to judge schools. Funny thing, that.)

So what's the catch? Simple! It's east of here. Way east. It's in our district, but it's on the other side, in "Rugby," which is what they call it on the map, but it's about as close as you can get to the beginning of Brownsville without being in Brownsville. They emphasized that a free bus picks you up, anywhere in the district farther than a half-mile. A dad and I walked there from Tugboat in about 25 minutes...nice walk on a good day. There really IS a swell kosher grocery store over there by the by, that some parents have raved about on the listserve. BUT it's near Brownsville. And Brownsville, in all of our imaginations, means murder and violence. People say the same things about Brownsville that they used to say about Crown Heights. Or parts of Flatbush. Or Ocean Avenue near the park. Or, god forgive me, Franklin Avenue. As a parent pointed out to me, however, it's not like 4th Avenue in Park Slope is any great shakes. No offense, but it's really bleak over there, ESPECIALLY with all the new luxury buildings. And yet, it's west, it's affluent, very few murders, and the parent bodies at most schools over in District 15 have more college-saturated folks than any in the deep 'hood. Notice I said parent bodies, cuz I'm still convinced the kids themselves probably don't care whether their peers are rich/poor, white/black, working-class/upper-class. We're the ones who care about that stuff, and you can almost feel the tension in the air when we talk, we parents: yes we have strong ideals about equality and furthering Dr. King's ideals (happy MLK day!), but when push comes to shove "it's MY kid we're talking about, you know, not some fictional ideal child." There's an eerie resonance of decades past hanging over the proceedings, and it's an uncomfortable fit with the progressive mindset of most folks I know. After all, we CHOSE to live here. Most of us could've lived in any American city and afforded 90% of the neighborhoods. And of course, as we all know, not everyone gets to choose. It's all very twisted and vexing but it can even be a bit exhilarating when care and compassion are the watchwords. Fear often rules the day, though. And I'm not exempt of course. I want what's best for my kid, really I do. I just don't trust my instincts, and I'm afraid of the herd. Or making decisions based on the westerly gust of wind.

So despite the fact that there's already an exciting alternative in the district, parents are clamoring for more options. Close to home options. Or maybe, close to culture options. Even though 770/NMA is really quite accessible. Even though those options have yet to be tried. Even though those options are purely theoretical, or anecdotal, at this point. Before you pass on 770 though, I encourage you to take a look (if you're a parent of course. It'd be kinda creepy if you aren't, at least if you're a dude, and not say a student or journalist or something). There's a bunch of open houses coming up.

Given all the blah-blah-blah I noted, it came as no surprise that when word got out that a new school might get a charter, and they might locate in our district, parents have showed up at meetings and signed petitions to get said proposed school to come to PLG or environs. (Though I'd be quick to point out that even if it ends up in District 17, it could end up co-locating as far east as PS770. Just saying.) The school certainly has a lot of promise, headed by three experienced and ambitious teachers who've embarked on a trip across America to visit "best practices" from here to Tacoma. It's called the Odyssey Project, and on the surface it sounds great, though in my opinion a bit gimmicky. (Check out the video and Kickstarter here, that raised more thank $80K.) One of the three, Todd Sutler (read his posts here), has worked at popular charter Community Roots in Ft. Greene. A number of friends have kids at that school, and it gets raves, though some have told me privately it's a good school, not earth-shattering, as in it still comes down to who is your teacher. Of course I'd trust a good teacher to know a good teacher when he/she interviews one, so it makes sense that someone like Todd would make a good head of operations. And yet, his project isn't even approved yet, and there's no knowing where it will be placed. So why all the excitement?

I've definitely noticed that "new" seems to equal "better" in many people's mind, and a school that hasn't even gotten its charter certainly qualifies as new, or even pre-new, thus, perhaps, the excitement level. Oddly, there's ANOTHER charter school opening in the district, just this fall, on Empire Boulevard (again east, of course, since the district is mostly east of us). It's called "Citizens of the World," which is not a great name, but neither is "The Beatles" when you think about it, but the band was pretty good. Citizens of the World has garnered some negative attention due to the proximity of its founding board chair to Eva Moskowitz (he's her husband, Eric Grannis), and Eva's a "controversial" figure in the new school movement probably not so much because of what she does (her schools are pretty much education deliverers, don't you know) but because she's outspoken against unions and convinced that charters should benefit ALL kids, not just underserved poor minority ones. Those are fighting words to some, and in fact an organization (or is it just a few disgruntled individuals?) has grown up to fight her planned CoW school in Williamsburg. (angry response to CoW here.) The group is called Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents for Our Public Schools, or WAGPOPS, I'm not kidding they call it that.) Frankly, if you're into public school charters then you probably line up with most of Moskowitz's thinking, from what I can tell she's hardly radical within the movement, maybe just louder, so if you're someone who's considering going to a charter I wouldn't worry about her too much, unless of course you go to one of her schools - the Success Academies. She just seems to get a lot of press, and has a habit of putting schools in places like, um, Williamsburg, where a fight is inevitably going to erupt about who her schools are actually for. I mean those buyers of million dollar condos gotta send their kids somewhere, right? You can see where that dialogue goes really fast...right into the class and race discussion that dogs so much of this stuff.

The flyer for the new CoW school (they don't call it CoW, but they should) says about what every new school seems to be saying. Strong leadership. Diversity. High Achievement. Experiential. Hands-on. Parental Involvement. Great teachers. Accountability. Are these words important to you? Then just about every other school in a 10-mile radius will be for you. It will be interesting to see how the school does though. I'm cynical I guess, but not so cynical I wouldn't love to see the school succeed and turn its kids into model Citizens of the World. I look forward to finding out more, and I began a dialogue with a rep from the school, and will be happy to write more about what I find out.

I'd have thought all the double-speak and triple-speak would make me depressed. But actually, I'm finding that most schools look pretty damn good compared to the demoralizing litany of negativity aimed at them by politicians and media pundits. These are real people teaching our kids, and it would appear that most of them are committed to their craft and interested in their kids' well-being. Of course there are rotten teachers, probably in both "good" schools and well as "bad." I recently heard a tale recounted of a miserably drug-adled and incompetent teacher in a highly prestigious Manhattan prep school, tenured to boot. I also recently heard tale of a long-past-her-prime public school teacher barely staying awake through classes and counting days til retirement. But come to think of it, I had those teachers in Ames, Iowa too. Don't you remember a few from your youth? And then there's the simple fact that by the time you're old enough to really know what's going on, the prevailing attitude, as Louis C.K. likes to remind us..."school sucks, right?" Have you never uttered those words? Some really DID suck. Some teachers were awesome. Some were total duds who should have been put out to pasture years ago. Seems some things never change. And there will always be a certain degree of suckage.

For me, the most absurd argument I've heard yet was one that seemed so obvious it HAD to be true. This is from an actual smart person, who I really respect, who I dare say probably doesn't believe in black magic. But I swear to god I almost bought it. "When you walk into a school, you'll just know." Know what? That the color scheme is off? That the bathrooms don't have doors on them? That the clock is five minutes fast? That the security guard would rather be anywhere than right here right now? I don't know about you, but I've been notably wrong on my first impressions at least half the time throughout my life. Okay, I was right about my wife, but I was dead wrong about R.E.M.'s "Murmur" and cabbage. I even thought that "Mad Men" was a boring gimmick show, going nowhere interesting after the first episode. Actually, I still think that, but I'm pretty sure everyone with a television disagrees with me. Suum Cuique, as the Latins used to say, though probably not in reference to a cable TV show. Maybe in reference to Greek tragedies or pastas?

I've written way too much for tonight, and the president is swearing so I should go now. Or rather he's swearing in, or the chief justice is swearing, and maybe this time they won't fumble the text and they'll swear legally. I think if I were to sum up my feelings thus far, it would be: there are a lot of fine schools, there are a lot of fine teachers. In the end, we parents are all trying to quantify something quite unquantifiable. Even all the test scores and teacher evaluations miss the keyest point of all. How about the teachers? How do THEY feel about their school? Seriously, has anyone ever asked that question and created a metric on it? Because I would probably trust that number more than any other currently floating in the ether. I want my kid to be in a nurturing, safe, healthy environment where the teachers feel happy and free to do what they love to do. If a principal promises that in his or her spiel, I might actually be attracted to that school. That's why Shimon impressed me - he made teacher satisfaction a big priority, and my ears pricked up and a smile started to form on my lips. Now THAT's revolutionary. (In fairness, Morty Ballen said that too, and I hope I hear more of it.) It just seems wrong, wrong, wrong to me to keep bashing teachers and threatening them and grading them like meat. Don't get me wrong, the rotten meat should be fed to the dogs (or rather asked to retire...sorry, didn't mean to sound so cruel). But most teachers are good, getting better, and need encouragement and mentorship and support and professional development and a hug now and then. And $100K with benefits.

I'm left with the simplest, most confusing gut feeling of all - confronting my own fear of heading east. It's complicated though, because the band HEAD EAST made one of my favorite records of my 8th grade - "Never Been Any Reason" from its AOR triumph FLAT AS A PANCAKE.  That was one of the years that "school sucked," and no teacher, method, charter, philosophy or progressive model would have preventing it from sucking. It just sucked. And looking at those guys in the band, I'll bet they had a pretty sucky year or two too. They probably brought it on themselves, but still...


MadMommaCarmen said...

So glad that you enjoyed your visit to New American! Myself and other parents in the area are quite pleased with it. My daughter is thoroughly enjoying her school experience and that's whats most important. Admittedly, the distance was a concern for me as well, but the bus is incredibly reliable (even during the strike!) and as you found out, the walk there isn't that bad either. There are big things happening at New American, one being the addition of a second location based on the same model (a charter school a few blocks away from the PS770 building)

MadMommaCarmen said...

PS: The online application for the 2013-2014 school year is available here:

Kimi Weart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clarkson FlatBed said...

Kimi: I'm so grateful for you honest response. I think you nailed the fear many of us had right on the head.

The question I keep coming back to is this: isn't part of the social contract in this City and society to bring something to the conversation, not just take? If we believe we have something to offer a school in terms of diversity, shouldn't that be at least some small of our thinking?

I'm sure there would be those who'd argue the perception of mono-culture at 375, 249 or 92. The only common element is probably brown skin. But yeah, Jackie Robinson is pretty much all poor - though decidedly not all "ghetto" (sorry, that's the term that's pretty universally used around here by kids even). That would be the kind of stereotype that would not hold up to scrutiny.

And yet if the school leader isn't smart and strong, and most importantly inviting of change, it's hard to just force your way into an ill fit. What schools that have been successful in integration have in common is a principal who believes it's a goal that benefits all, and can sell the concept to all cultures. PS9, PS11, even going all the way back to ALL of the Park Slope schools have experienced these transformations. The danger, of course, it that they become homogenous in the other direction.

Thanks again Kimi. I really appreciate your thoughtful perspective. Being the "one" never feels good. Unless you're the "one" truly popular kid! (Right Bob Marvin?)

shelley said...

Q, loved all you said. I actually really loved visiting all the schools as well when my daughter was approaching Kindergarten. Joyce Szuflita also fell in love with the process, and then made a career out of it, so who knows...blogger? school reviewer in your near future?

Tonight at 6:30pm Play Kids (676 Flatbush Ave)will be hosting the founders from The Odyssey Initiative/Compass Charter School. They'll explaining their project, take your questions, concerns, etc. All are welcome to attend. {For the record, Play Kids has no affiliation with Compass Charter School. We are purely giving them a space open to the public.}

Another coincidence, I've also spent MANY hours driving down the roads in Iowa listening to Head East/Flat as a Pancake.

The Snob said...

I agree with your point about the social contract. This district deserves a successful, well-regarded public school with an active and varied group of parents willing to commit time and $$ to it. Color of the participants is not important.

Anonymous said...

People always assume when white families reject a local public school in Brooklyn it's because of race. That's a knee jerk reaction that doesn't show much willingness to understand what's really going on and honestly it shows why the school in question and its families don't care that other families feel unwelcome. The truth is some schools (including PS 92) have school leaders who say outright they don't want any new ideas or parent participation. The principal being open to parent participation and leadership in a school is a specific thing many parents look for in a school, even when they ARE considering an all white top scoring school. We're looking at private schools and the schools that seem not so great at inviting parent participation do not interest us. We'd love to be at a diverse, local school. We'd love for for our locally zoned school, PS 92 to have the kind of school leadership and parent involvement and PTA we seek. But at present it doesn't. The new charter schools by nature of what they are, schools formed by the community in partnership with the school leaders, offer more of what people of all races want now. The other difference between PS 92 and schools that interest us more is the approach to teaching and discipline. PS 92 is more traditional ed. We do not want that.

Anonymous said...

My son is in kindergarten at PS 770 and I have been thrilled with the creative, interdisciplinary work he is doing there and with the supportive and nurturing environment that my son's teacher team has created in his classroom. I think that anyone interested in a progressive education, who lives in District 17, is cheating themselves if they don't at least take a look.
Our family is white and kind of broke, but with good (decent) educations and solidly middle-class values. Our son attended the Lefferts Gardens Montessori School on Rodgers Avenue, which I loved for it's true racial, cultural, and socio-economic diversity. I really feel that Shimon is attempting to create a very similar inclusive feeling at his school, and I know of at least 10 children from Montessori who are currently attending 770.
The school is only 3 years old. I believe that in it's first year it drew mostly children from right in the neighborhood. In it's second and third years, as word of the great things happening there has spread, people from awider area have embraced the school. As far as population goes, I think it is still evolving.
It is far, but the school bus stops on the corner right outside of my home, is icompletely reliable, even, as Carmen mentioned, during this strike, and my son steps off of the bus every day with a smile on his face and an endless stream of songs and new concepts to share with me. He is happy. I am happy. I have every intention of sending my younger son there for preschool in the fall.
People shouldn't get hung up on demographics and stats. Just go. Feel the energy and the engagement of the kids. See what you think. The New American Academy is still very new. It is already a very good school. If people embrace it, it has the potential to be an incredible plac that is held up as a model to educators and schools everywhere. I feel privilaged to be a part of it at this early phase. (And to not have to deal with the K app process ever again! Yay!)

WAGPOPS said...

Thought you might be interested in learning more about why WAGPOPS!

WAGPOPS! is far more than a few disgruntled people, but represents hundreds of parents and community members district wide along will all of our elected representatives, including our City Council Members, NYState Senators and Assembly, our US Congresswoman, our CEC14 and our Community Board.

Here are some background articles. If you have more questions, feel free to contact us through our Facebook page.

WAGPOPS! launched a lawsuit against the SUNY charter school authorizers here:

The Snob said...

Right on, WAGPOPS. There are charter schools, and then there are just carpetbaggers. These COW guys seems like real crumbs. It's a shame that our own Lefferts Gardens Charter, a real parent-led community school, gets tarred with the charter brush.