By Christina Veiga, Chalkbeat New York
Proposing to close a school is almost always controversial, pitting the education department against parents and teachers who often argue they haven’t been given a fair chance. But in one corner of Brooklyn, that dynamic has flipped.
Families from Red Hook’s P.S. 676, along with their principal, have successfully advocated to phase out their school.
After fighting for years to lift test scores and enrollment, the school community decided to refocus their advocacy and transform P.S. 676 into something families in the waterfront community had been promised years ago: a middle school with a maritime theme, giving students a district school option in a community where there currently is none.
The middle school plan, approved last week by the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, resulted from a first-of-its-kind, community-driven process that might serve as a model for these kinds of thorny school-level proposals moving forward.
P.S. 676 Principal Priscilla Figueroa admits it was a hard decision to land on, as her “momma bear” instinct to preserve the elementary school initially kicked in.
“But I, like everyone else in the community who is advocating for 676, have to be realistic,” she said. “Figuring out, ‘Does it make sense? Is it what the community needs?’ In the process of asking these questions, the community itself said, ‘No. What we really need is a middle school.’”
The plan approved last week calls for the school to phase out its elementary grades, with the last class of kindergarteners accepted next year. After that, any elementary school students in the area are expected to have enrollment priority at nearby P.S. 15, which is also in Red Hook and has room to grow.
For a community so fiercely protective of P.S. 676, the proposal to phase out the elementary school may seem surprising. But for those who have fought for the school’s survival, it feels pragmatic in the face of stiff competition for elementary students and the desire for a middle school closer to home.
‘A totally different way of engaging’
The plan to phase out P.S. 676 is part of a larger effort to rezone elementary schools in well-heeled areas of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, and Boerum Hill, as well as more working-class neighborhoods of Red Hook and Gowanus. Proposed zone changes, sparked by a 400-seat expansion of Boerum Hill’s P.S. 32, were slated to shuffle students at seven schools and serve as an integration effort since many local schools do not reflect the district’s diversity.
“We were challenged by the community to do a better job of engaging and to find different ways of engaging community’s voices that were not being heard,” Karin Goldmark, a deputy chancellor who oversees school planning issues, said at the public meeting to approve the conversion to a middle school. “This was a totally different way of engaging. We’ve never done it before.”
The result was a process called Participatory Action Research, or PAR, for short. Led by CUNY’s Public Science Project at Brooklyn College with some support from the NYU Metro Center, it turned the typical rezoning process on its head. Instead of the education department leading engagement efforts and coming up with recommendations for redrawing school zone boundaries, members of the affected communities were trained and paid to talk to their neighbors about their wants and needs. The community members then distilled what they heard into recommendations for the education department.
Despite the pandemic, the PAR team conducted interviews with families as they waited in food lines to pick up meals. They surveyed parents about their experiences with the local schools, collecting 800 responses. They walked the neighborhoods together to understand the barriers separating communities. Even though COVID-19 tore through the education department’s budget, the efforts continued with funding thanks to a grant that the state awarded District 15 to pursue integration efforts.
“I learned that the community, if they voice their opinion, they can make changes happen,” said Esther Fesale, P.S. 676’s PTA president and a member of the PAR team.
Enrollment at P.S. 676 has continued to plummet despite the efforts of an energetic principal and dedicated community partners. Far from any subway stops and cut off from the rest of the district by a busy highway, fewer than 100 students attend this year. One nearby district elementary school and another two charter schools nearby siphon off enrollment.
In interviews with Red Hook families, the PAR team learned the school building itself posed a barrier for some families. P.S. 676 is co-located with a charter school, enrolling middle and high schoolers. Some parents of elementary-aged children worried about the mix of older students in the same building. Longtime residents remembered when the building housed other, poorly run schools, saddling P.S. 676 with a troubled reputation.
All of that has conspired against intense efforts to lift performance at P.S. 676 and make it more attractive to families. In 2018, English test scores were in the bottom 1% in the city.
“We have tried everything in our area to help our community,” said Fesale, the PTA president.
Since taking the school’s helm about three years ago, principal Figueroa has struck up partnerships with an impressive number of local organizations to infuse a maritime and harbor theme into everything students learn, turning the school’s location into a virtue by tapping into its proximity to the waterfront.
Now, preschool students examine oysters in tanks and learn about their role in cleaning the waters that surround the neighborhood. Third graders are mentored by high schoolers from the Harbor School on Governors Island. In later grades, students learning about how climate change could threaten Red Hook are working with local officials to redesign the footbridge that connects their neighborhood, making the pathway more resilient and welcoming by adding a park.
Parents say that now their children come home and excitedly talk about scuba tanks and lionfish.
With a trusted principal and a unique focus, P.S. 676’s supporters saw that if they gave up their fight to grow an elementary school, they could turn their attention to launching a middle school. The only other options nearby are charter schools, and many students end up leaving the neighborhood once they start sixth grade. It makes sense to have Figueroa lead it: Before taking the helm at P.S. 676, she was the assistant principal at nearby M.S. 88, where many Red Hook students head once they graduate elementary school.
The transformation will be gradual.
P.S. 676 will stop accepting new elementary school students after next year. As the elementary school phases out, the middle school will add a grade each year. The inaugural sixth grade class will start in 2022.
Three years after that, the school is slated to move into a new building rising closer to the waterfront a few blocks away, where it will share space with a District 75 school for students with complex disabilities.
The PAR team recommended keeping the P.S. 676 building for some kind of educational benefit to Red Hook, such as an early childhood center or a high school, which the neighborhood also lacks. No decision has yet been made on that.
Shifting to a middle school also fits into the district’s ongoing efforts to make the local middle schools more integrated in District 15. The new middle school would become a part of the district’s lottery admissions process, which aims to enroll a student body at each school that is representative of the district.
The biggest test of the PAR process has yet to come, when the team presents its recommendations for rezoning. Those are expected later this month. Some of the schools affected by the changing boundary lines are among the most sought-after in Brooklyn, but city leaders hope to avoid some of the tensions that have flared during other school rezoning battles.
Ultimately, it’s still up to the education department to make formal proposals for changing a school’s configuration or shifting attendance boundaries. The local Community Education Council must vote to approve changes in zone lines.
Whatever the outcome, Figueroa said she hopes the model of deep engagement, led by community members, is here to stay. Through the process, she said the school has built even strong ties with families, who have leaned on the school more than ever during the pandemic.
“It helps to give us an opportunity to engage everyone and to hear what others think and feel, and what they want and what they struggle with,” she said. “We want to continue to use this as an example to build better relationships with our families.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.