VINEGAR HILL — Visionary principal Roberta Davenport returned to the block she grew up on to help a school in need — and, over the last nine years, the changes have been tremendous.
Davenport grew up in the Farragut Houses located across the street from P.S. 307 in Brooklyn. The red brick school, once touted as one of the greats, was plagued by low attendance rates and disciplinary problems by the late '80s.
Its academic performance was so poor that the state had taken it over, Davenport said.
In 2003, Davenport was living in Connecticut helping to build another school when she received a call.
"I was told that a principal was needed at P.S. 307," she said. "I was quite content with what I was doing, but I woke up the next morning and knew I would go.
“How do you say no to coming back?”
She found P.S. 307 in a very fragile state with teachers and parents frustrated by principals who never stayed long enough and children who were out of control. The building itself had also been neglected. The hallways were dark and drab.
"We hung student work on the walls and replaced the bulbs," Davenport said.
She also revamped the curriculum, hired new teachers and built partnerships with local art groups. Now, almost 10 years later, local parents call the school "one of Brooklyn's best-kept secrets."
Recently an auditorium packed with community members watched P.S. 307 students dance and sing at their annual spring concert. Parents beamed at the children on stage, nudging anyone in arm's length to proudly claim their little ones and shouting words of encouragement.
"The community now has pride in their school," Davenport said.
Q: What was it like growing up in the Farragut Houses?
A: We were one of the first families to move into the houses in 1952. My mom and dad raised 10 children right there across the street.
My dad worked in the Brooklyn naval shipyards as a plumber and my mom stayed at home. When we got older she cleaned houses and we would go along with her. We grew up with a very strong work ethic and an intact family.
I was happy here. I had a very good upbringing. I was one of the lucky ones.
Q; How did you start teaching?
A: I have been working with children all of my life. I was one of the oldest of 10 and I was my mother’s left hand with the kids. My first job was tutoring and working in summer programs and camps. I got a community leadership scholarship to Marymount Manhattan College. Then I went to Teachers College at Columbia University for my first masters and then I attended The Principal’s Institute at Bank Street College for my M.Ed.
I taught for a few years and fell in love with it. I was a passionate teacher. I had no interest in doing anything other than teaching. I was completely focused on the kids.
Q: What was the state of the school when you returned after years of being away?
A: This school was once touted as one of the greats. And then it fell.
When I came back, the school had been struggling for a long time and had had a high turnover of principals over a short amount of time.
It was awful when I found it. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of chaos. Children were out of control. It was bad. They didn’t understand their feelings or how to mange them. They had no strategies other than to be aggressive.
On the first day of school I asked the janitors to turn on the lights. There were 40 light bays in the ceiling and only four had working bulbs. The building had a real sense of neglect.
Q: How did you begin to transform the school?
A: I spent the first year trying to understand the children and the families and where the problems were. We had to start over. We had to start at the beginning.
We asked, “What kind of school do we want?”
We began with the end in mind.
Then we hired new teachers. We wanted teachers that could make a commitment to this community and who did not come in judging the community as less than, or diminished, or [were] condescending in any way. I wasn’t interested in that.
We had to look at the children coming into this building as being entitled to a quality education.
We restored order, made a culture shift to pro-child and focused on both emotional and academic needs. We started to build a strong academic program. We set a high target for reading and math. And that is why our kids outperformed every fourth grade in the borough of Brooklyn last year. That is what happens when you have high expectations.
And then came the arts.
A: We brought in the arts and not just as fillers. We created partnerships with the Noel Pointer Foundation, The Brooklyn Philharmonic, The Brooklyn Ballet, Music in the Brain, Mark Morris Dance Center, and Bargemusic, to name a few.
I only partnered with organizations that respected this community. The programs that came in here had to be of excellent quality. I didn’t want people to walk in here with condescending attitudes or afraid of the children. I wanted people who were bold and large and passionate.
Every child in this school has the opportunity to discover their passion and their identity in the arts. That is life affirming. School is a lot more than getting kids ready to take a test. If they don’t get it here, where are they going to get it? That is important. If not here, then where?
There are no resources here. People have already thrown these kids away, thrown these families away, thrown this community away. That’s why this school is very important in this community. We don’t throw kids away. In fact we put them up on pedestals and tell them how great and wonderful they are.
And then we push.
This is where the spark will be lit.