Anne-Valerie Hamparsumyan had already put down a hefty deposit on private kindergarten for her son, Aris, when neighbors in their building on the Upper East Side suggested she check out her neighborhood public school, P.S. 183.
"Initially, we never thought that public school could be an option for us," says Hamparsumyan, a French-born art dealer, who feared her local school would be crowded, dirty, or even dangerous. "But I went on the tour and I was really very, very impressed."
She forfeited the private school deposit, enrolled Aris at P.S. 183, and now, four years later, her younger son, Adrien, starts kindergarten there this fall. Hamparsumyan says the school continues to impress her with excellent teachers who give children individual attention, an engaging curriculum that encourages children to make their own discoveries, and parent body that includes lawyers, fashion photographers, and an international group of research scientists from nearby Rockefeller University.
The insane competition over admission to private school has made thousands of well-heeled New York City parents crazy over where their children will attend kindergarten — or even pre-school. Who can forget the story of Jack Grubman, the former stock analyst for Citigroup, who engineered a $1 million donation to the 92nd Street Y with the hopes of getting his twins into nursery school there?
But increasing numbers of middle class and even wealthy parents are realizing that all it takes to get a good education in many New York City neighborhoods is to bring proof of residence, a birth certificate and immunization records to their local school and register their child. Bad press about public education notwithstanding, the cognoscenti know there are many neighborhoods in which the local schools range from perfectly adequate to truly superior.
"People have really rediscovered and revitalized the public schools," claims Catherine Hausman, co-author of The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools, who, despite her expertise in private schools, has chosen public schools for her own three children. "The fact is, private school admissions have gotten very tight, and people don't want to leave the city. People are weighing the options, and they see there are options in the public schools."
"Every year, I think parents' eyes are little more open to public schools," says Mimi Yunis Broner, co-director of Merricat's Castle School, a private nursery school on the Upper East Side, which sends about half of its graduates to private school and half to public school. At first, some parents whose children were rejected at private school sent their children to public school reluctantly. But once there, many of these parents were satisfied with what they found. "They told their friends, and their friends told their friends and [sending a child to public school] became an acceptable thing to do," Broner says.
The reporters of Insideschools.org, an online guide to public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children of New York, have designated 183 of the city's more than 600 public elementary schools as "noteworthy”. New York City's Best Public Elementary Schools, published by Teachers College Press, has profiles of more than 120 elementary schools. Even public middle and high schools — long considered weaker than the elementary schools — are seeing a modest revival. New York City's Best Public Middle Schools, also published by Teachers College Press, lists 68 schools, while New York City's Best Public High Schools lists 50.
The public schools aren't all good, of course, and the bad ones are dreadful. But in Manhattan, there are many excellent schools, particularly on the Upper East Side, in midtown, Greenwich Village, and Tribeca. Strong new leadership in Brooklyn has revitalized neighborhood schools in Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Brooklyn Heights. In Staten Island and portions of Queens, stodgy, traditional schools are giving way to more imaginative styles of teaching as a result of Mayor Mike Bloomberg's new curriculum, which replaces textbooks with children's literature and encourages creative writing projects based on the work of researchers at Teachers College.
Public school parents cite both practical and ideological reasons for their choice. Hausman says she transferred her children from private to public schools because she had "three children and no trust fund." But she also appreciates what she calls the "egalitarian" nature of the public schools, the absence of social competition, and the emphasis on tolerance. Hamparsumyan says she appreciates the "sophistication" of the P.S. 183 parents who are highly educated, but not super rich — research scientists rather than investment bankers. Others value the exposure to children from different parts of the world.
"My kids don't think Omar and Fatma and Mohammed are weird names," says Miriam Schneider, whose twin girls attend P.S. 59 on the East Side, not far from the United Nations and near many U.N. missions. "There are 44 languages spoken at our school. My daughters went to one birthday party at the Libyan mission and one at the Swedish mission." Schneider, who left a job in banking with a six-figure salary and substantial annual bonuses when her daughters were born, now devotes herself full-time to volunteering in the school, helping the PTA raise some $150,000 a year.
Amy Chan moved to Little Neck from Fresh Meadows so her daughters could attend P.S. 221. She cites the experienced teachers who know how to deal well with all types of kids as a big draw, though she notes that many of these teachers have retired. P.S. 221 is a large school with an active parents’ association. Chan‘s older daughter is entering the sixth grade at the highly regarded M.S. 67.
Some parents are so keen on public education that they invest considerable time, energy and money improving their neighborhood school even before their children are school age. In the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, parents of toddlers have formed a group called "Friends of P.S. 11" to support a school that has suffered from declining test scores and rapid staff turnover in recent years.
"People put a tremendous amount of energy into getting their children into private schools or good public schools in other districts," says Benjamin Dulchin, the father of a 4-year-old and a 6-month-old, as he passes a tray of hors d'oeuvres at a fundraising cocktail party at an elegant turn-of-the-century brownstone on a tree-lined street, the home of one of the parents in the group. "We thought, why not put that energy into improving our local school?"
Starting when his son was 2, Dulchin, who works for a non-profit housing organization, and others met with the administration of P.S. 11 to offer their support. They raised money for a new library, and a parent-architect volunteered his time to design it. They lobbied their city council member to find money for a new science lab and organized fundraising parties at one another's homes. Perhaps most significantly, these professional, middle class parents — a mix of white, black and Asian — have agreed to send their own children to P.S. 11 when they are old enough.
Of course, parent involvement, by itself, won't make a school good. The secret to success of any school is strong leadership: a good principal with a vision and the ability to carry it out. A strong administration can turn a school around in just a few years — and without good leadership, change is next to impossible.
That's why parents are so optimistic about the future of P.S. 8, a tiny school in the upscale neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights that until recently was shunned by middle class parents. A dynamic new principal, Seth Phillips, and a capable deputy, Olivia Ellis, have been leading the school for a year, and the changes, parents say, are palpable. The first signs occurred in the physical plant: The hallway door to the principal's office had long been painted shut. Phillips opened the door, and invited parents and children to stop by without an appointment. Old textbooks were tossed out, replaced by new classroom libraries with pretty picture books, science discovery books, novels, and engaging history books. Pillows, cozy rugs and small tables replaced old desks lines up in rows.
Next, the new team worked to inspire and motivate the staff — encouraging them to visit successful schools to pick up new ideas, signing them up for workshops on the latest techniques on teaching writing, and asking them to draw up "wish lists" of equipment and supplies they most needed. The administration set up a "teacher room" with a coffee pot and baskets of bagels — as well as books to help the staff hone their skills.
Parents were welcomed into classrooms, and parent volunteers were recruited to staff the library. P.S. 8 still has a long way to go, but neighborhood parents are beginning to come back. Phillips opened a new pre-kindergarten class last year and a new kindergarten class this year to accommodate the increasing enrollment — and the school now has a waiting list.
"Everyone's giddy, exhausted, overwhelmed and energized, all at the same time," says parent Suzanne Tokarsky. "This school is definitely going to change people's minds about the viability of public school."
Clara Hemphill is the director of Insideschools.org, a project of Advocates for Children, and the author, most recently, of ‘New York City's Best Public Middle Schools’ (Teachers College Press). The second edition of her book, ‘New York City's Best Public Middle School: A Parents' Guide’, has also just been released. Her books are available thru Teachers College Press, (800) 575-6566.
Up-and-coming schools There are blue-chip neighborhood schools that real estate agents tout when they sell apartments, such as P.S. 6 and Manhattan New School on the Upper East Side, P.S. 234 in Tribeca, and P.S. 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. P.S. 183, P.S. 59 and P.S. 40, all on the East Side, have long been strong and are getting stronger. But there are also great schools that haven't been discovered — the value stocks of public education. P.S. 126 on the Lower East Side and P.S. 51 in Hell's Kitchen have made great strides in recent years. P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side has an unusual partnership with Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights, once on the state's list of failing schools, has strong new leadership and is poised for a turnaround.
For those who can't afford sky-high rents in those neighborhoods, consider the Talented and Gifted School in East Harlem. Long a favorite among the African-American elite, TAG is a traditional school that draws children from all five boroughs and is actively recruiting children of all races. Or look at Hamilton Heights Academy in Washington Heights, a progressive, racially mixed school where parents are welcome in the classrooms. P.S. 163 is one of several schools on the Upper West Side with gifted programs that accept children from outside the immediate neighborhood.
In Brooklyn, Brooklyn New School in Cobble Hill is a solid favorite, while P.S. 107 in Park Slope, P.S. 154 in Windsor Terrace, and P.S. 29 and P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens have become popular in recent years. Less well-known is P.S. 196 in Williamsburg, which is beginning to change, along with its gentrifying neighborhood. P.S 9 in Prospect Heights and P.S. 11 in Cobble Hill, seem to be on the upswing.
In Queens, the neighborhood schools in Bayside have long been sought after. But don't overlook some unheralded schools: P.S. 234 in Astoria has a beautiful new building and a great arts curriculum. Students at P.S. 78 in Long Island City maintain their own oyster bed in the East River as part of their study of marine biology. P.S. 222 in Jackson Heights is a lovely new neighborhood school serving kindergarten through 2nd grade.
— Clara Hemphill
Uptown and downtown: The rail to reading success
By Nancy Cavanaugh
An organization bridging the gap between public and private is the parent-created Six Stops on the #6. Parents of private school students pair up with public school students in lower income areas throughout the five boroughs. The volunteers provide individual tutoring in reading and writing in 45 minute-sessions once a week.
"We started informally four years ago, with parents from one private school tutoring children at one South Bronx public school who needed extra help with reading. Now we have 12 private schools participating, each paired with a public school in Harlem, the South Bronx, or the Lower East Side. As we keep adding (private) schools, we will also be in new neighborhoods," explains founder and director Florence Rubenfeld.
Six Stops requests that volunteer tutors spend two-and-a-half hours a week with up to three students in the school of their choice. The organization provides complete training, including a manual and tips, and resources to fall back on if needed. Six Stops' academic area of emphasis is literacy skills, but they will sometimes work on other areas of study where the classroom teacher feels the child could use help.
"We bring the joy of reading to children who otherwise may not have known how much fun reading can be. Our participants, both adults and children, have said many times over that the experience has greatly exceeded their expectations. We sometimes hold year-end ceremonies of accomplishment, and the children all express their great joy at reading with their tutors," says Rubenfeld.
For those who are interested but still unsure, Six Stops offers a chance for potential volunteers to 'shadow' a current volunteer at the school in which they'd like to tutor.
"We are now raising funds to expand our programs to more and more schools," says Rubenfeld. The organization was granted 501(c)(3)status last year.
"Additionally, we have involved private corporations in our work at the public schools. We have found that companies are often looking for meaningful community service projects for their employees," says Rubenfeld. "Many individuals who first volunteer through their employers are so changed by the experience that they look to develop an ongoing involvement with their paired public school."
To find out more about Six Stops on the #6 and to get a registration form, visit www.sixstops.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Six Stops can also be reached at (212) 362-0993.