Brooklyn’s Rising Star Public Elementary School
In 2003, P.S. 8 was under capacity by roughly 200 students, and only one-third met state standards in math and English Language Arts. There were rumors that the Brooklyn Heights school might close.
Five years later, P.S. 8 has had to put temporary classrooms in the yard and plans to add space for at least 150 more students by 2011. Reports from 2007 show half or more of the school’s 4th, 5th and 6th graders meeting state standards.
The turnaround can be credited to neighborhood parents who didn’t want to see their local school shuttered, committed regional superintendent Carmen Farina, new principal Seth Phillips and a group of teachers and staff who banded together to put past divisions behind them.
Now, said PTA co-president and P.S. 8 parent Tim Eldridge, “The school is an asset to its community and people are thrilled to have access to high quality education in Brooklyn.”
If this story sounds familiar, it might be because P.S. 8 has been in the news recently because of the “F” the school received on this year’s city progress report—a grade most parents say does not reflect their feelings about the school.
In a letter to parents, Phillips wrote, “P.S. 8 is not a failing school; far from it,” explaining that the grade took into account only a small portion of the school’s students and placed a heavy weight on year-to-year improvement—something that becomes more difficult as scores become higher and higher. “This grade does not reflect the real progress that has taken place at P.S. 8 over the last several years,” Phillips wrote. “I believe in how I have rebuilt this school and developed the teachers.”
Things began to change at P.S. 8 in 2003, when Principal Carole Friedman retired and Farina chose Phillips as the new principal. Longtime P.S. 295 principal Tina Volpe agreed to be Phillips’s mentor, and P.S. 321 2nd grade teacher Olivia Ellis helped implement new teacher training programs, including one at Teachers College.
One of the first things Phillips did as principal was to take the lock off the door separating his office from the hallway and break the paint sealing it shut. That allowed parents and teachers to start talking to him without having to go through the administrative offices first.
Next, Phillips and other staff went into local living rooms to explain their plans to parents and urge them to get involved. The school brought in teachers and community members on the weekend for cleanup days. And Phillips and Ellis worked to create unity among the staff and restore confidence in teachers who had been worried about losing their jobs.
“I think we have a great principal,” said PTA co-vice president Samuel Bernstein. “He’s accessible, either in person or online,” Bernstein adds. Phillips attends PTA meetings to answer questions, and if he has to do something unpopular, he explains it, Bernstein said.
“He’s just a great collaborator,” Eldridge said. “He works with the community so they have an opportunity to participate in the success of the school.”
As an example, he cited Phillips’s response when Eldridge brought up his son’s numerous food allergies. Eldridge said Phillips sincerely appreciated the severity of the issue and worked with Eldridge, other parents and a couple of doctors the PTA brought in to create a training program and educate every member of the staff in allergy management.
One of the major changes Phillips made was to the school’s philosophy, which is now based on a model developed by University of Connecticut professor Joseph Renzulli. Renzulli believed that by giving children the opportunity to explore areas in which they were interested, they would develop skills that would transfer across all areas.
At P.S. 8, kids break into small groups weekly to study a topic of their choice for half of the year, culminating in a project. One group, for example, studied rainforest animals and then raised money to support rainforest protection. Experts also come into the school for 12 weeks at a time to teach kids about certain subject areas. Last year, children studying architecture built a model of the school from milk cartons and cardboard boxes.
Eldridge’s son went to private school before entering P.S. 8 as a 1st grader last fall. Eldridge and his wife had considered continuing with independent schools, but the week before they expected admissions responses, the family decided to go public, no matter what.
“We have no regrets about that decision,” Eldridge said. “The school just has a lot of very committed people who are tangibly passionate about teaching the kids.”
37 Hicks St.
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201
Seth Phillips, Principal
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