BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — About six minutes into a recent interview, Celina Napolitano, principal of P.S. 23 in Bed-Stuy, was recounting the story of a depressed student dealing with poverty issues at home, whom she has been helping above and beyond the usual boundaries of a principal.
The story brought tears to her eyes.
She paused briefly, composed herself, then continued.
"I try to make their day full of beautiful things, and love, and let them know it's worth it to be alive," Napolitano said. "Sometimes some of our children don't see that."
P.S. 23 shares District 14 with schools in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, but the Bed-Stuy facility has more in common with neighboring District 16, where 10.4 percent of students are in temporary housing, the highest rate in the city, according to the Citizens' Committee for Children.
And despite increasing gentrification, Bed-Stuy has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the city, according to the group.
Teaching children at P.S. 23 is not only about work in the classroom, but also helping children deal with life outside the classroom, Napolitano said. But since she took over in 2012, the school, which had slipped from an A to a C in its annual progress reports between 2010 and 2012, has risen back to a B as of 2013.
"Some days it's hard," Napolitano said. "I don't mean to be emotional, but it's been my passion. It's about the children."
Q: How would you characterize the population of P.S. 23?
A: The school is fed by shelters, and we deal with families that are hungry and we try to feed them. Some of our children come without the basic supplies, so we supply the materials for education. At present we're collecting clothes for a family that recently lost everything in a fire. The children have not been able to come to school, because they didn't have shoes, so we've got shoes for the children, and now we're working on some outerwear.
It's just so poverty stricken that sometimes education is not on their mind. And that's one of the things the city doesn't realize: we deal with daily life. The new programs they put out, like right now with the new standards, well you know, our parents are not concerned about those things right now. They're concerned about just keeping alive and sending their children to school to be warm and safe and loved. That's my mission.
Q: What are some of the unique challenges then, as an educator?
A: That love of learning isn't there sometimes. So, how do we bring that about? It's just the way we model ourselves, our own attitude about being educated. To understand that through reading they learn about the beautiful things in the world, about problems other children may have that they can make a connection with. That they're not alone in the world. That they're just not alone, and we're here for them.
It's not always about citywide expectations. It's just about the expectations of living. To want to be alive, to want to give back. And it's hard, because sometimes you forget they're little kids. But then there's joy when the children smile, and they come back and say thank you, and the parents come back and say thank you.
Q: What are some administrative challenges you've faced?
A: Our [attendance] went down, and so right now our budget is really, really tight. I don't have enough for an after-school program. I don't have a music program, an art program, and the children have so many talents. They're really gifted. When you give them that opportunity they just shine.
Because we're fed from so many shelters, students move a lot. And also, the neighborhood's changing, and the young people coming in [to the neighborhood] aren't having children yet. And some parents feel that a charter school is better, so many of the children are going to the charter schools.
But we're doing a great amount of work with a lot less money.
Q; How did you work to improve the school's falling progress report grades with the city?
A: That's something we're all proud of.
When everybody's starting to feel down, it trickles down. But we looked at all we had for curriculum and we said, 'OK, this isn't working.' The teachers were involved. And they chose the new reading program, and we brought in another program to supplement our math, and there it is. The proof is in the pudding.
I inherited a staff that was not at a happy place in education, but because of the way I present things and the way I feel about education, they've been happier. And I think as an adult if you are passionate and happy about going to your job everyday, no matter how tired you may feel in the morning, no matter what happens during the day, if you still want to come back tomorrow, that will bring life back into the classroom. The children will see that. Like I said, it will trickle down.
One of the things we decided to do was departmentalize our fourth and fifth grade. To prepare them for middle school we need to start preparing them in elementary school. And we know that our fifth graders, when they go into the middle-school setting, they get very confused, because they're changing classes, they're having different teachers.
Not only are the children loving [grouping activities into different departments] our teachers are loving it, because they're planning for what they like. So there's passion there, so that trickles down to the children. There's excitement. It's given the teachers the opportunity to implement their best skills. We have this talent within the school, so why not use it?
Q: Despite the improved grades, do you think that with shrinking attendance, the city may choose to phase out the school?
A: I don't fear that at all. I believe that the word spreads. And when the community starts to hear we're doing great things in the school, they're just going to kick those doors down and try to get in. Little by little I feel like that type of family that chooses us will go to their friends and say 'You know I chose P.S. 23, why don't you have your child try it?'
We have a former student who's now a parent and her memories brought her back to us. We're also trying to reach all of our parents to come in on a daily basis and see what we're doing. Help us out, so we can do greater things.
So I would fight it. Because where would my children go?