Brooklyn’s Outstanding Public Elementary School
In a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its cluster of famous authors, Park Slope’s P.S. 321, The William Penn School is fostering a new generation of writers.
Beginning in pre-kindergarten, students engage in a writing process pioneered by Teachers College at Columbia University. Teachers at the pre-K through 5th grade school use fiction and nonfiction books, instead of traditional texts, as a springboard for writing assignments on a range of topics and genres.
By early fall, emerging writers in Dana Rappaport’s 2nd grade classroom were preparing their first books for publication. Rappaport shepherded the children through the whole publishing cycle, from “seed” ideas and early drafts to revision and editing. The process culminated in a publishing party for family and friends.
Like teachers throughout P.S. 321, Rappaport and her class study classic children’s literature for inspiration and guidance.
“We’ll take a ‘mentor text,’ like Fireflies, by Julie Brinckloe, and pull out what’s really beautiful and engaging to the reader and determine what strategies we can take from that,” she said.
Once recent day, Michael, one of Rappaport’s students, was illustrating his story about a pivotal baseball game and his triumphant home run. As he drew a picture of himself wielding a giant bat, he explained how he settled on the title.
“First I called it Making a Hit, but then I changed it to The Big Hit, because it sounded more exciting.”
Young scribes receive further encouragement from visiting children’s book authors who participate in the school’s long-running “Meet the Writers” program. And each spring, the PTA publishes a literary magazine, Pandamonium, which spotlights student poetry.
Another popular feature of the literary curriculum is the “reading buddies” program. Older children, serving as mentors, are matched with students in lower grades. PTA co-president Julie Markes called the program a huge success.
“Last year, when my son was in 2nd grade, he was so proud of being able to help kindergartners,” she said.
Under Principal Liz Phillips’s 10-year stewardship, P.S. 321 has cemented its reputation for academic excellence, becoming one of the city’s most coveted—and crowded—elementary schools. This year, enrollment topped 1,300 for the first time, with almost 250 kindergartners spread throughout 10 classes. First grade classes usually have about 19 to 21 students; in the 2nd and 3rd grades, that number goes up to 23 to 25 students; and the 4th and 5th grades, class sizes hover between 26 and 30. Each grade has one inclusion class, combining special needs and general education students.
The school’s strength, according to Phillips, is consistent training of teachers. Teachers and administrators attend classes and workshops and study educational material to enhance their style and methodology.
“You need to keep learning and learn with colleagues, learn with experts,” Phillips said. “I don’t know of a really effective school that doesn’t value professional development.”
Another key part of P.S. 321’s success is parent involvement. When the school was learning about environmentalism, around 1,500 people—children, parents, and teachers—walked a two-mile loop in Prospect Park. The children received pledges beforehand, and raised money for environmental groups like Transportation Alternatives, a Red Hook farm called Added Value and Amazon Watch.
The walk was part of a larger environmental initiative called “Go Green,” in which each grade worked on an eco-themed project. Kindergarteners planted trees while the 4th graders taught fellow students proper recycling habits, giving out gold stars to classes who followed their instructions.
For special needs students, guidance counselors are trained to teach parents how to enhance a child’s educational experience at home, addressing everything from self-esteem to speech.
“Parents deal with self-esteem issues,” Phillips said. “If they have kids who are delayed because of a severe learning disability, we have a guidance counselor to help kids feel secure.”
A group of parents and teachers dedicated to special needs students meets every month, and P.S. 321 has similar groups for Arabic- and Spanish-speaking families.
Some parents whose primary language is Spanish have difficulty navigating the city’s middle school application process. So the group of Spanish-speaking parents, which meets weekly, is aided by three full-time administrative staffers who happen to be bilingual: the guidance counselor and family coordinator.
“It is an attempt to make sure every part of our community is comfortable in the school, make them feel like it’s their school,” Phillips said.
But P.S. 321 still knows how to have fun. Parents come in for movie nights and Family Friday, which falls on the first Friday of every month. One such gathering attracted around 800 parents.
“We have an amazing relationship with parents,” Phillips said. “We encourage a real collaboration.”
With additional reporting by Dan Rivoli.
P.S. 321, The William Penn School
180 Seventh Ave.
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11215
Elizabeth Phillips, Principal
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