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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Inside the Lefferts Gardens Charter School

The Lefferts Gardens Charter School is nearing the end of its second year in existence. While there were certainly some rough patches for LGCS on the road from brainchild (first date) to getting its charter (conception) through it's struggle to cohabit peacefully with PS92 (shotgun wedding), it's really quite remarkable how this little "hands-on learning" school has grown to be an important part of the fabric of the neighborhood in so little time. As LGCS continues to add a grade each year on its way towards full-fledged elementary schooldom, it might look back on 2011-2012 as its terrible twos. And yet, after talking with three very-involved parents of the super-important Parents Association, the Q feels incredibly impressed and hopeful that all will be full-steam-ahead for Year 3. Since the school's opening, I've heard rumors and second-hand info from folks from time to time, but for the most part, it's been hard to get a clear sense of what's going on over on Parkside near Rogers. So my lively and lengthy conversation with these actual ueber-moms felt like just the tonic to quench my curiosity.

Earlier this year, LGCS's inaugural principal peacefully resigned, pledging to stay through the year, and the Board and its parent association representative have been vetting candidates and soul-searching ever since. If you were to believe the naysayers and alarmists, the fact that Marc Magnus-Sharpe jumped ship was a certain death knell for the school. Far from it say my interviewees. There are undoubtedly many sides to the story, but one well-articulated viewpoint is that Marc was an incredibly likable and capable leader who perhaps wasn't a perfect fit for an early education start-up. Another side points to discord between the school leader and the board. Regardless of any past politics, this little charter school with a super-specific mission - to use the environmental sciences as a core value - should be able to find another leader who can make it work. Apparently, they're quite close to naming someone. Long story short, there are a lot of talented educators and administrators out there - LGCS will likely find a dedicated person to guide it through its next phase.

So what is the school all about? For a long time there was no website to speak of, so outsiders had little chance of gleaning useful tidbits. The "A Day in the Life" section of their newish site here has lots of great narrative descriptions to help parents gauge whether the school sounds like a possible fit. If you're intrigued, go visit the school. There's no better way to truly get the vibe - I've been, though not in the classroom. It's! The school offers regularly scheduled tours throughout the year, so by all means go and ask questions if you're curious. Class sizes are 25-27 ish, though with two co-teachers in each.

The women I spoke to were as committed as ever after the first two years. They hope to engage the community more, through things like the school's "tree stewards" program wherein the school adopted a dozen street trees around its perimeter. And by all means check out the following events that are open to the public and happening this week:

 Art Show
Wednesday, May 30
5:30-7:00 PM

Second Floor of 601 Parkside
Third art show of the year displaying student work produced with the artists-in-residence.

Mighty Milers Fitness Fun Run

Saturday, June 2
10 AM-noon

Basketball courts on Winthrop between Bedford and Rogers (behind school building)
LGCS students run/jog/walk a mile to raise money for arts programming for the 2012-13 school year.
Other activities include a group warm up, live DJ, healthy snacks and beverages, and award ceremony.

The Q recently landed himself in a bit of controversy by landing a quote in the NY Times about how middle-class white parents are loathe to go to nearly-all black schools. For my lengthy response to being so tersely quoted, click here, and I hope I made it painfully clear that my biggest complaint about that quite obvious "fact" is that it misses the more nuanced issues of culture, income and the remarkable diversity of what gets called "black" on the census and in school data. [And for THAT matter, the diversity of what gets called white. I mean, right here in Brooklyn I could (inadequately and probably over-stereotypically) describe 20 different sub-genres of whiteness, but they'd all show up "white" in the racial stats from the schools.] Suffice to say, what distinguishes District 17 isn't so much it's blackness, and that's not to say it isn't plenty black. It's its poorness. Only the charter schools around here seem capable of attracting a student body where less than 90% get free lunch, the metric by which such things are measured. And if you ever wondered what income level gets free lunch, it's 130% of poverty rate and under...this year a family of four making $30K or less would qualify (charts here). Whether you care deeply or not that a super-majority of a school's population is paying out-of-pocket for its "pink slime," it blows me away how high the poverty statistics are for schools around here. Some are 95% or higher, a couple define reason at 100% (not a single family of four making more than $30K among 200+ families?). The only schools that have less than shocking poverty are those that you have to apply to - like charters and a couple unzoned non-charters. IN CONCLUSION: The numbers don't lie - middle-class parents (white, black and green) are simply not attending locally zoned mostly-poor schools, and will put in the required effort to go elsewhere - some have told me they've applied to 10 or more throughout the City, with some involving long commutes. Honestly, it's nuts, though truth-be-told even in richer districts, most public schools are overwhelmingly poor and minority. Even as the borough gets wealthier and whiter, the numbers don't budge too terribly much year-to-year. And that's because, of course, if you have the money in this town, you stay the eff out of the public schools, even if you give them lip service.

So it was perhaps not surprising that early in my conversation with the P.A. reps we got on the subject of race and culture and poverty. LCGS draws its students by lottery. District residents may apply. District 17, where most NE Flatbush/PLG/Caledonians/South Crown Heights folks reside, is largely West Indian and African-American, with plenty of variety beyond that co-majority. LCGS reflects this, and in many ways mirrors the population in the district much better than the locally zoned schools. That is to say, it's poor but not ALL poor. By district standards, there's a fair number of whites attending. And from our conversation it's clear that a fair number of whip-smart educated folks send their kids there to boot. (I'm not saying that's not true of the other public schools, notably 375, 92 and 249; I have yet to gain any traction to get an interview there, and will probably have to focus on parents there too)

But truth be told, the moms of LGCS admit it ain't always easy crossing barriers of income, education and culture. For example, it can be extremely hard to bridge the digital divide when trying to communicate effectively with parents over the very interwebs that have made communication and gathering info so much quicker and easier. Expectations about everything from discipline to uniforms vary greatly among paretns. There is, also, a proud tradition of highly disciplined education in many of the Caribbean nations - the more rambunctious nature of American students rubs some West Indians the wrong way. An African-American mom with kids at a local school recently said, disparagingly, "the Caribbeans are taking over, and I'm taking my kids out." Wow. So don't think the nonsense doesn't cut all ways! Or to create an utterly awkward metaphor, there's a lot of different cheeses in the school fondue.

Bottom line, if there is such a thing when it comes to education, is this: the KIDS are generally doing fine. They're learning. They're making friendships and they're, for the most, gaining skills and learning from each other. There was an unfortunate incident this year that was the single biggest bummer beyond the unexpected change at the helm. Apparently, a teacher had to take medical leave right at the top of the school year, leaving a classroom in inexperienced hands. The Q has heard first-hand accounts from a couple families who lived through this very frustrating situation, which came as a total shock after a brilliant first year. One dad tells us he got fed up, presumably over the same incident, and has found a spot at another non-charter school for this fall. I pointedly asked the P.A. members whether the school was "bleeding" kids, and they seemed none too worried. The leadership eventually acted on parents concerns, and the new permanent teacher turned out great. It's interesting to note, though, that LGCS's homepage states that applications are still being accepted for this fall's wait-list, weeks after the official lottery, so it may well be that a few families are leaving the school or choosing not to attend after "winning" the lottery. That said, it won't be hard to fill the spots...most charter lotteries, LGCS included, have hundreds more applicants than spots, highlighting how desperate parents are for choices beyond their zoned school. If there are spots open, they will surely be gobbled up.

One last note, something that I had almost forgotten til this conversation. LGCS grows a grade every year, meaning in just two years it will need to find a new home. So just when you get used to the idea of the school residing at PS92, they're most likely gonna have to move. But just as Explore Charter School survived its move to just down Parkside near Nostrand, LGCS will likely have the guts and stamina to withstand a relocation. So if you happen to have a few tens of thousands of square feet with a gym, cafeteria and playground that you just happen to not be using, please let 'em know. They'll be happy to take care of your street trees in return for a long-term lease!

I hope that those of you in the community will share your thoughts in the comments section. I took the time to get to know some of the dedicated parents of LGCS so I could pop the vacuum and let in (out?) some air. The Q wishes the school the very best in its ongoing mission. Godspeed, LGCS.


ElizabethC said...

The awesome Mighty Milers Program! Great to hear!

babs said...

There are always lottery winners who choose not to attend - as you pointed out, some parents sign their kids up for as many as 10 different schools, and will obviously attend only one. Additionally, peoples' lives are subject to change (job transfers, family responsibilities in other parts of the country, etc.), so signing up for the wait list is always a good idea.

Anonymous said...

This school is fantastic. Teachers and staff are great. Our child is happy with school and friends. We'll miss Marc but welcome change. The critics need to visit for themselves. LGCS is what they meant when they coined the word diversity. - Initially Anxious Parent