By Louise Sloan
At One Brooklyn School, a Lesson in the Danger of Success
If you believe the research, statistics and experts, it appears that my son’s elementary school, Public School 9 in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, has been doing everything right. Middle-class, college-educated people are increasingly sending their children there because of its academic excellence, its emphasis on individualized instruction, its commitment to arts education and its progressive, inquiry-based approach.
There’s a warm, friendly feel to the place, which has recently started to more accurately reflect the current demographics of our wonderfully eclectic neighborhood. We’ve got doctors, lawyers, child-care workers, musicians, families that live in homeless shelters, straight families, gay families, moms in burqas and dads with dreadlocks, all nodding and saying good morning to one another at drop-off.
But as a result of achieving such socioeconomic diversity, P.S. 9 just got $360,000 in federal financing pulled from its budget — which had already been slashed to the bone by the city and the state.
That’s because in New York City, federal Title I financing goes only to schools where at least 60 percent of students are poor enough to receive school-lunch subsidies. P.S. 9 is now “only” 59.1 percent poor — a difference of about five students — so our financing was unexpectedly yanked. The city offers a stopgap program called Fair Student Funding, which provides us with a cushion of $200,000, but we’re still $160,000 in the hole. As a result, four teachers are slated to lose their jobs on Wednesday.
Taking money away from a school like P.S. 9 may be following federal policy in letter, but it certainly doesn’t follow it in spirit. In an era where politicians and policy wonks wring their hands about the near-impossibility of an economically and racially integrated public school and try to develop ways to orchestrate that ideal, P.S. 9 is living it.
We are what other schools should be aiming for, if you believe a Century Foundation report released May 30. “There is 50 years of research to suggest that on average, low income students will perform much better in economically and racially integrated school settings, ” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the foundation. (There’s evidence that higher income students benefit academically, as well.)
Integration also helps students learn what it means to be an American, how to interact in a diverse society and all that idealistic stuff that may end up holding our increasingly multicultural nation together, Mr. Kahlenberg pointed out.
Economic integration isn’t the only thing P.S. 9 has been doing right, though. As American education outcomes fall further behind those of other industrialized nations, the school has adopted an inquiry-based teaching model and a focus on individualized instruction — the kind of approach taken by Finland, South Korea and other countries that are at the top of the list of the world’s best educational systems, according to the Stanford education researcherLinda Darling-Hammond.
According to Professor Darling-Hammond, schools in the world’s highest-performing nations have two things in common: they invest in teachers and they provide consistent, egalitarian access to good schools.
But in the United States, we’ve had a bizarre patchwork approach ever since the Reagan administration slashed the federal education budget, which shifted a lot of expenses to the states. Rich neighborhoods have good schools, either because property taxes bring in enough money to cover the school’s expenses or because the rich parents can raise enough money to supplement inadequate funding.
Students in poor neighborhoods, meanwhile, might have access to a good charter or magnet school, if they’re lucky and their parents know to apply to one, or they can go to a high-poverty school that receives Title I money.
But when a high-poverty school, because of its success, ends up in that zone between poor and rich, the place where real diversity resides, you get what should be a national priority — decent public education — being dumped into the laps of harried working parents. That’s what seems to be happening at P.S. 9, and it’s started to happen at other successful urban schools across the country, especially since private school is financially out of reach even for many middle-class families these days.
P.S. 9 parents are scrambling to raise the money and keep the teachers. But our parent-teacher organization isn’t even close to being able to raise $500,000 a year the way other schools in wealthier parts of Brooklyn can. Instead, our parent-teacher organization finds itself in the awkward position of asking working families who can’t afford $15 a day in after-school care to help supplement the budget of an educational institution that’s supposed to be free.
One alternative might be to make Title I money available on a sliding scale. Instead of making it an all-or-nothing proposition, begin to reduce disbursements once a school’s poverty rate begins to approach the cutoff percentage. Another, of course, would be to make education more of a national financial priority.
For now, though, the to-do list for P.S. 9 parents looks a bit like this: Take child to school. Check. Go to full-time job. Check. Pick up child, adopt class hamster for summer, check. Put child to bed. Check. Save the school. Check?
We’ll do our best, but there must be a better way.