PARK SLOPE — Principal Eve Litwack of P.S. 107 is a true neighborhood educator. Not only did she launch her education career at nearby P.S. 321, she lives on 14th Street, sent her two kids to local schools, and walks to work every day.
Litwack became principal at P.S. 107, located on Eighth Avenue and 14th Street, in 2011, after a 15-year career at high-performing P.S. 321.
Litwack says her deep roots in the community give her insight into what Park Slope families expect out of their schools — and the pressures on those institutions. At the top of the list of challenges is P.S. 107's burgeoning size, with about 600 students this year.
Litwack, 56, grew up on Long Island. She's the mother of two sons.
Q: How did you get into education?
A: I did not go into education [right out of college.] My parents were both very musical. I loved music and I thought that would be what I would do as a livelihood. I went to Vassar [College] and majored in music. [But] I didn't really know how to approach becoming a musician. I didn't have the personality for the insecure lifestyle that came with that.
I worked in the entertainment industry when I realized that I probably wasn’t going to pursue music as a career. I worked in publicity at Paramount Pictures and in marketing at HBO.
What led me into teaching was having my own kids. My son Julian went to a nursery school that was a co-op. We had to work one day each month. I loved it. I would go through his books and figure out, 'What are we going to study today?'
I subbed for a couple of years just to get a taste for it, to make sure it was something I really wanted to do. I loved it. I loved going to Bank Street (to study education). I just felt like a sponge, learning so much about children.
I knew the former principal, Peter Heaney, at P.S. 321, and he let me sub there. I subbed at P.S. 107. I subbed in all the neighborhood schools, and I loved it.
When I was at Bank Street I was placed as a student teacher at P.S. 261 in Cobble Hill. I had been there two weeks when I went to pick up my son Julian at P.S. 321 and the principal came out and met me and said, ‘Do you want a job?' So I got a job as an 'in-service' [doing student teaching while earning a living as a teacher].
I taught at P.S. 321 for 10 years, most of it as a first-grade teacher. I loved, loved, loved it. Then I became a math coach for a year, and then I became the assistant principal there for five years. My entire career was at P.S. 321.
It's a particular kind of experience where you're in a very high-functioning school and you've got everything that any teacher could possible want. Peter Heaney was a great principal, and Liz Phillips came after him and was a superb principal, and really had a vision for the school and a direction for us to go in. Working under her as a teacher and then as an assistant principal was another huge learning experience for me. Not only did I learn about great teaching at 321, I learned about what makes a really great leader.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge you face at P.S. 107?
A: The biggest challenge is accommodating all the kids in the neighborhood that I need to accommodate. You can't see it, but I think we’re at the highest capacity of any school in the city. I’ve heard we’re at 158 percent capacity. P.S. 321 is also over-crowded. We can’t take more students. This year I have almost 600 kids in the school. We’re beyond what we can hold, and with kindergarten, the numbers keep going up every year.
This year I had to move my science teacher out of the science lab up into a shared multi-purpose space because I had to put a fifth-grade class into his room. It’s very nice, and he doesn’t mind it, but it’s not a room. When we have assemblies, he’s going to push all of his stuff out of the way. It means his teaching can’t be as consistent.
Q: Do you want the school’s zone to shrink?
A: Not especially, but I also want to accommodate everybody that I can without having classes at the limit. Even if they cut the zone we would probably grandfather in siblings into the zone, and that means the overcrowding is going to take years to resolve. It’s potentially five years, I think, of waiting to see the results.
Q: What’s the down side of rezoning?
A: The down side is, with every student comes funding, and so the fewer students, the less money in the school. The other downside is that there is a part of the neighborhood, wherever it’s going to be cut, that we’re not going to serve. I walk through part of that neighborhood when I walk to school, and I’ll be sad not to feel like those are my kids.
Q: What’s new at P.S. 107 this year?
A: I brought a dance program into first grade, Together in Dance. We have a dance program in second grade, Mark Morris [Dance Group], and third grade does African dance. Every grade has enrichments, but the lower grades are the grades where there's a little bit more room in their schedule to be able to have more arts enrichment.
There was some talk among parents in the past couple of years about kids not moving enough. In response to that I thought, let’s try Together in Dance. They do it right in the classroom. They move all the furniture out of the way. It’s sort of interpretive dancing.
We're also trying to fine tune some of the work we started last year on respect and anti-bullying, the 'upstander not bystander' language. In July the 'Dignity Act' was passed, which means kids need to be free of bias and harassment at school. I’m trying to take it really seriously. It’s not a big problem in the school, but I wanted to be really pro-active about keeping it from being a problem and making sure kids know they have a reasonability to say something. I feel like if we build a program that makes everybody feel empowered, it's going to be way less of a problem.
Q: The DOE recently released School Progress Reports. Do you have any advice for parents on how to interpret those numbers?
A: [At a recent public forum] P.S. 321 principal Liz Phillips talked about how her ranking among her peer group went from one year, something like 39 percent to 82 percent to 59 percent — it was all over the place. She talked about how it's a danger to put too much credibility on those numbers. You just don’t want to rely on those numbers too much.
I feel like the School Environment Survey is useful information. I put a lot of weight on that and unfortunately that counts for hardly anything on the progress report. The test is 85 percent. The learning environment survey is 15 percent.
I would say…realize they don’t reflect everything that’s going on at the school. There’s more to every student than a number and there’s more to every teacher than just reducing them to a number. It changes from year to year. You can’t take that stuff too seriously, and the environment we’re living in is making people think that those numbers are be all, end all, and they're not.
Q: Testing is a big issue in schools these days. What’s your philosophy on it?
A: You can't not prepare kids. You have to prepare kids. But in a school like this we are preparing them through a rich, good curriculum, something that is helping them think critically. If you’re preparing kids to take a test and answer specific questions, you’re not teaching them how to think. I don’t like all the weight they put on the test. It’s interpreted the wrong way.
But even at our school, in March, the teachers start to do some test prep. The test is usually in April. The two weeks before the test is intense. The kids spend the morning doing practice tests, and that’s horrible. It’s horrible for them, the kids don’t like it, the teachers don’t like it. The kids want to pull their hair out and fight with each other. It’s kind of a recipe for disaster. But you can’t not prepare them.
Q: What do you want P.S. 107 to look like in five years?
A: We've got really, really wonderful kids and by and large they’re really respectful. I’d love to see kids as leaders in the school and put something into place where, aside from just student council, I’d love to see kids being able to kind of own the school. I also want to see teachers think outside the box on how kids could teach each other and how we could so some cross-grade teaching.
I also want to have really positive and very specific ways that parents can help in the school. In the past it’s been kind of a free for all. Parents were doing all kinds of things. We can’t do anything without the parents, but I want the parents to know more precisely how they can help.
Q: If you could be Schools Chancellor for a day, what would you do or change?
A: I would go around and speak to teachers and students, and find out from them, how’s it going? Like Ed Koch used to say, ‘How I’m doing?’ To really hear from the horse’s mouth, what’s working for you in school, as a student, as a teacher. I think [Chancellor Dennis Walcott] tries to get into schools, but I don’t think he’s all that connected to what the struggles are for the teachers.