P.S. Confidential: Which Schools Make the Grade?

Clara Hemphill is optimistic. That’s no small feat when your job is helping city parents find a great public school for their kids. As director of Insideschools.org at Advocates for Children in New York, Hemphill and her three co-authors visited nearly 500 elementary schools and identified 200 of the top schools for the recent, third edition of New York City’s Best Public Elementary Schools (Teachers Press, $21.95) — 70 more since the last edition was published in 2002.

“We’ve seen a lot of improvements in neighborhoods you might not expect,” says Hemphill, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned public school advocate, pointing to progress made by neighborhood schools in East New York and the South Bronx. Schools in gentrifying neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Long Island City have made gains, and even schools in the outer boroughs once considered staid have become more innovative and energized, she reports. In conversations the author has had with private nursery schools, she also learned that parents are more willing to send their children to public elementary schools than they were five years ago.

The bad news? With the increasing quality of neighborhood schools, there’s less space for students who live outside the school zone area. Parents seeking a variance for an out-of-district school will have a harder time than they would have experienced five years ago. “It’s a mixture of things,” explains Hemphill. “It’s partly increased demand and partly Department of Education policies to encourage parents to stay in their neighborhood.” Still, there are a considerable number of schools of choice profiled in the book, which accept students on a district-wide or citywide basis. Parents who want to shop for a school outside their neighborhood are advised: to start this fall for the 2006 school year,; not be shy about volunteering their time and talent; and keep a lid on the negative comments. As Hemphill succinctly puts it in the book: “Even more than sweat equity, principals are looking for parents who share their vision and philosophy of the school…Having parents who constantly challenge the principal’s authority only makes it worse. So if you want your child to go to a school, don’t whine about the math curriculum on your tour.”

Typically, the staff of Insideschools.org spends a day in a school, acting as the eyes and ears of motivated parents. Test scores are included with the profiles, but they’re only one of many factors in selecting the city’s best schools. “A lot of the things we’re interested in are things you can’t quantify,” says Hemphill. The level of engagement of the students, classroom environment and the cohesiveness of the school community are other factors taken into account. “We think, in time, these qualities will translate into high test scores,” she adds.

A number of schools from the 2002 book, including three from District 21 in Brooklyn were not profiled in the new edition. Overall, some came off due to a decline in quality, and some Hemphill says are still really good schools, but were squeezed out because of space. Really, it all comes down to leadership. As the author points out, while a good principal can turn around a mediocre school in just a few years, an uninspiring one can dismantle a great school just as quickly. Asked for her thoughts on how to better develop more educational leaders, Hemphill responds, “Principals get lonely. You have to create a situation in which they get support and leadership from their own superiors and colleagues.” A good local instructional superintendent can do that she adds, noting that was a strength of District 15 and 26 in Brooklyn, and District 2 in Manhattan has also been successful in providing a career path for teachers.

‘New York City’s Best Public Elementary Schools’ is available at www.tcpress.com. For additional information on New York City public schools visit www.Insideschools.org.

Still Stellar

A small sampling of the best, according to Clara Hemphill and the staff at Insideschools.org:

• P.S. 364 The Earth School: an egalitarian East Village school with a strong focus on science and social studies. Priority is given to District 1 students.

• New Explorations Into Science Technology and Math (NEST +M): Gifted and talented K-12 school that blends traditional and progressive teaching philosophies. Admissions are citywide and very competitive.

• P.S.116: A neighborhood school in Kips Bay with a reputation for attracting top teachers. School offers a gifted and talented program open to all students residing in District 2.

• P.S. 333 Manhattan School for Children: Racially diverse Upper West Side K-8 school with an accessible principal, involved parent body and creative curriculum. School is also on the forefront of including severely disabled children into general education classes.

Schools Worth Watching

—Children’s Workshop School on the Lower East Side, founded by teachers from Central Park East II, provides a nurturing environment and lots of hands-on learning. Priority is given to children living in District 1.

—Hamilton Heights Academy in Washington Heights, a relatively new school founded by neighborhood parents, with a progressive philosophy and welcoming atmosphere. Admission is by lottery with priority for District 6 students.