Historically overshadowed by elementary schools further up the slope, P.S. 124 has always been somewhat of an afterthought school in District 15. The towering fortress of a building, located on 4th Avenue and 14th Street, might appear sterile, but according to an increasingly vocal parent base, it is filled with teachers and administrators creating, not just a positive educational environment, but one of warmth and family.
We sat down with newly elected PTA President Jim Newman (shown above with his daughter, Lyla) to talk about his experiences at 124, what challenges the school currently faces, and why local parents should not rule out this “small school with a gigantic heart.”
SSN: First of all, tell us a bit about yourself.
JN: These questions are always tricky for those of us who, shall we say, wear many hats. I’m an opera singing blogger, photographer, social media strategist and community manager. I’m husband to Jenn, Daddy to Lyla – a 4th grader at P.S. 124 – and, I’m the Personal Valet to our dog: a Chihuahua/Dachshund mix named, Sir Woody.
How long have you been here in South Slope?
We moved back to the City – and, specifically to the South Slope – from Arizona in 2009. After living in Arizona for 4 years, the economy collapsed and I lost my job as a Permit Manager for a Phoenix area homebuilder. Subsequently I was out of work for 18 months. Back to the City we came and South Slope became our little haven. We lived in Manhattan before and I’ve got to say: for a guy who thinks the City is too fast and the suburbs are too slow, South Slope is the perfect blend. Perfect!
What made P.S. 124 the best choice for your family?
Our daughter was in Pre-K when we moved to the Slope. As soon as we found out that P.S. 124 had Pre-K classes, my wife set up an appointment for us to tour P.S. 124. The Parent Coordinator, Donna Maxil, took us through the school and let us visit at least one class from each grade. The first thing that struck me as we walked down the halls was the teachers and administration knew every student by their first name. Also, art, music and technology were a priority at P.S. 124. What sealed the deal though: I met a mother in the school office who asked if I was considering sending my daughter to P.S. 124. I told her that we were considering it. This mother promptly said “You won’t regret it. Both of our kids have been here since Kindergarten – one is in 5th and the other 3rd grade – and, we could not ask for a better school. Our kids have excelled academically and socially… it’s just such a great environment.”
Why did you decide to toss your hat into the ring for PTA President?
The South Slope community is changing rapidly and therefore, the student body at P.S. 124 is changing, too. The P.S. 124 parents and the people in our community gather information in a different manner than they did just a couple of years ago. What used to be a flyer and poster-based communications infrastructure now needs to also include digital and social media. So, we needed a fresh approach to getting information out to the P.S. 124 parents and the community. We also need a fresh approach to encouraging parental involvement – which is a key reason why PTAs are in existence. So, my wife said to me: “You should really consider running for president because if anyone will bring a fresh approach, it will be you.” I talked to a couple of mothers whose kids are in Lyla’s grade and they were both thrilled at the idea. They said, “We need to make this happen…”
What are some of the challenges for P.S. 124 right now?
Given the current low registers, and the direct correlation between the registers and funding, lower budgets continue to be a problem. The school is running in a deficit and this is going to effect supplies, field trips and extra educational activities. Also, there is no dedicated Physical Education teacher and the school has to find money to pay for Yoga just so the lower grades can get their bodies moving. So, many parents look to the PTA … and, they frown. One of the main challenges that the PTA faces is changing how our organization is perceived. Many parents see the P.S. 124 PTA as a weak, unorganized group that lacks focus on fundraising and communication. This perception is not totally wrong but, it’s not totally correct, either. The school has always been small in relation to other schools in the area and the P.S. 124 parents have not always had extra money to hand over to the PTA. This is a fact that stems from the difficult economic times from which we are still recovering. But, as I said before, the South Slope is changing and, as it changes, the student body of P.S. 124 is changing. The PTA has to change, too.
The fundraising that has happened has been incredibly focused on small pet-projects of those who’ve come before me. In addition, the fundraising seems to have flown under the radar. Not by choice I don’t think but, simply because there hasn’t been a strong communication infrastructure in place. Much of the communication, as I said before, was flyer and poster-based. There is a fundamental issue with that when it comes to many parents like me. I feel like I have to be super clear about this: When I’m taking my daughter to school, we are usually running down to the minute. There’s a kiss on her forehead, she’s off for her day and I’m off to the train to head into Manhattan. I don’t have time to stop and read a poster – nor, in my hurried state, am I always in the presence of mind to even notice a poster is there. When my wife is picking our daughter up, she’s rushing after work to get her from the YMCA After-school Camp and then, it’s a rush home for dinner and homework. And, we’re not alone. Parents are busy people. So, when do we catch up on news, announcements and stuff like that? During our lunch hour at the office, or when we’re on the subway stuck on the Manhattan Bridge, or after our daughter is in bed and we have a few moments to sit down with the laptop and/or tablet. That tells me: the communication strategy must include digital and social media.
Although the scores for the most recent Common Core ELA test were low across the district, P.S. 124 only had 14.63% of its 4th graders pass. Should prospective parents be concerned about such low scores, and what is the school planning on doing to help improve those numbers?
After a recent conversation with P.S. 124’s principal, Annabell Martinez, I firmly believe that prospective parents should not be worried at all. Scores dropped significantly city-wide because the standards and expectations are higher. In addition, question format is more challenging in its text complexity. P.S. 124 has proactively adopted a city-approved ELA curriculum that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards and addresses many of the changes. Lastly, the teachers and administration at P.S. 124 have identified students who fell below the state benchmark for ELA and they are providing intervention support through targeted, small-group instruction.
How does the PTA plan on increasing P.S.124’s presence within the community?
We understand that the South Slope community and PS 124’s prospective families know very little about the kinds of amazing things that go on behind the doors at PS 124. Things like: dual language Pre-K, the grant-based Leader In Me initiative which uses Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” to encourage leadership potential, the PS 124 Green Team which facilitates recycling and energy efficiency both at school and at home, as well as the school’s continued emphasis on technology, art and music… just to name a few. We are working closely with area blogs, such as South Slope News, and other digital/print publications in order to begin highlighting some of these key programs to the community and to those prospective families whose young children should be attending PS 124 in the near future.
How can the community help support the school?
Right now, we are in need of office supplies for our office – such as: copy paper, for example. In addition, school supplies are always welcome. Also, make sure to look for upcoming events and fundraisers. The community can stay in the loop by following us on Twitter, liking us on Facebook or watching PS124Brooklyn.com for details. If you have ideas as to how you might help, you can email the PTA Executive Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why should neighborhood parents keep P.S. 124 on their radar?
P.S. 124 scored an “A” on its latest DoE Progress Report, and Inside Schools says PS 124 is a “warm, family-oriented school” with “small class sizes [and] diverse student body.” P.S. 124 is a small school with a gigantic heart. Its teachers are second to none and its administration cares for every student as if they were their own. It’s a safe, nurturing and empowering environment where kids want to come and are eager to learn.
Photo via Jim Newman