PARK SLOPE — When Park Slope mom Anita Gasser-Bodzin told her friends how much her daughter Emma was thriving in a second-grade class with chess, gardening, music and drama programs, her fellow mothers immediately wanted to know which school the 7-year-old was attending.
When she told them Emma was at P.S. 282, "their eyes almost fell out," Gasser-Bodzin remembers.
This same group of moms had questioned her decision to send Emma to P.S. 282. "My friends were like, 'Don’t you know it's a black school?' I was like, 'What did you just say?'" Gasser-Bodzin recalled.
Even in a neighborhood that prides itself on progressive thinking, discomfort around P.S. 282's racial makeup is a common theme when families chat about local schools, parents say.
Last year, 67 percent of P.S. 282's students were African American, 6 percent were white and 54 percent qualified for free lunch — an anomaly in mostly white, affluent Park Slope. Some local parents embrace the school's demographics wholeheartedly, while others say it gives them pause.
P.S. 282 stands in sharp contrast to P.S. 321, just six blocks away, where 72 percent of students in 2011-'12 were white, 10 percent were African American, and 9 percent were eligible for free lunch. P.S. 321, regarded as one of the borough's best schools, is so crowded with neighborhood families that the Department of Education recently moved to shrink the school's zone.
Meanwhile, P.S. 282 suffers from the perception that it doesn't measure up academically to its neighborhood peers.
Some say that reputation is undeserved, but it means that few local families are willing to send their kids to P.S. 282. A mere 15 percent of P.S. 282's pre-K through fifth-grade students actually live in the school's zone, a desirable section of the North Slope full of multimillion-dollar brownstones.
At P.S. 321, 92 percent of the kindergarten class last year came from inside its zone, according to the Department of Education.
Some say it's time for education officials to address the stark disparities between the two schools head-on.
"Someone has to put the [district leaders'] feet to the fire and say, 'Do you acknowledge that you have a school in the middle of your district that is completely unpopular?'" said Park Slope mom Meredith Davis, whose kids go to P.S. 10.
Davis got a big round of applause at a public hearing on the DOE's District 15 rezoning proposal when she called P.S. 282 the "elephant in the room" of the rezoning debate.
She pleaded with leaders to "fix P.S. 282" — which is in District 13 — so it would draw more local families and ease overcrowding in District 15.
But she added that the DOE would have "a riot" on its hands if it tried to move P.S. 321 families into the P.S. 282 zone. The DOE made no such attempt during its rezoning of District 15.
Davis isn't alone. Many feel that P.S. 282's failings — real or imagined — are contributing to overcrowding at P.S. 321 and other District 15 schools. It's a common belief that families zoned for P.S. 282 routinely get "variances," or special exemptions, to pull their kids out of the school, though the DOE did not respond to a request for hard data regarding that point.
It's also conventional wisdom in the neighborhood that P.S. 282 is underutilized, though a DOE spokesman said that's no longer the case.
In 2007, the school's capacity was as low as 75 percent, according to a report by the city's School Construction Authority. Today P.S. 282's building utilization rate is at 107 percent, a DOE spokesman said.
Nonetheless, P.S. 282, whose principal Magalie Alexis didn't respond to calls for comment, lost about 74 students this year, and that cost the school about $380,000 in funding, the principal announced at a recent PTA meeting. As a result of the cuts, a gym teacher and a dance teacher were let go, Alexis said.
P.S. 282 dad Rob Underwood's two sons traveled to a national tournament with the school's chess team. He recently wrote to City Councilman Stephen Levin and District 15 Community Education Council President Jim Devor asking for help.
He'd like to see P.S. 282 moved into the same district as P.S. 321, so education officials could even out the enrollment disparities between the schools with rezoning.
"The question that must be asked is, why are North Slope parents zoned for P.S. 282 choosing any means necessary, including criminal acts like borrowing utility bills to falsify [school] registrations, to get their kids into P.S. 321?" he said.
He pointed out that both P.S. 282 and P.S. 321 received "B" grades on [DOE] progress reports last year.
The annual school progress reports use various data such as performance on standardized tests to measure schools' strengths and weaknesses.
"There's a mythology that's developed in the Slope among more affluent parents, especially those newer to the neighborhood, about P.S. 282 that is wildly different from the on-the-ground reality," Underwood said.
"P.S. 282 is a great school."
Gasser-Bodzin said she's mystified by the school's bad reputation. Her two daughters love P.S. 282 so much they "skip" to the school every morning, and she's been "blown away" by their academic progress, she said.
Her older daughter, Emma, started reading chapter books at the end of kindergarten, she said.
"We basically have two categories that are important to us — good socialization and a well-rounded excellent education," said Gasser-Bodzin, who helped start a teaching garden at the school.
"P.S. 282 gets two checks on both accounts."
Education website Inside Schools has praised the school's strong enrichment programs and "state-of-the art" facilities.
But a mom who toured P.S. 282 said she was put off by the school's culture. She said administrators seemed defensive and unwelcoming, and were too focused on discipline for her taste.
"They wear uniforms...They talked about how there was no talking in the hallways," said the mom, who asked that her name not be used. (Uniforms are only worn by the middle schoolers at P.S. 282, which is a K-8 school.)
"[P.S. 282] is about discipline and order. Park Slope is about loosey-goosey, hippie parents. It doesn't reflect the population and values of the neighborhood."
A consultant who asked not to be named but who helps parents evaluate public schools, said much of P.S. 282's reputation is based on rumors and hearsay. But there are also some real issues, she said.
Most troubling is the school's teacher turnover rate, the consultant said. Turnover was 33 percent a few years ago and dipped to 21 percent — still a huge number — in 2009-'10, the most recent year for which data was available. At P.S. 321, the most recent teacher turnover rate was 9 percent.
On P.S. 282's Learning Environment Survey — the DOE-issued questionnaire that measures school satisfaction among students, parents and staff — most teachers said they don't trust the principal — another major red flag, the consultant said. The consultant said she's also heard directly from parents at the school that they've never met or even seen Principal Magalie Alexis, and that she hasn't been receptive to attempts by parents to improve the school's reputation.
Alexis did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting an interview.
A parent who supports Alexis acknowledged that she may not be as "huggy feely" as other Park Slope principals, but parents say she was supportive of programs like the school's award-winning chess team and its new teaching garden.
One mom of a 3-year-old who lives down the street from P.S. 282 has heard so many negative things about the school that she's seriously considering moving out of the zone to avoid having to send her child there. The mother, who asked to remain anonymous, even made a spreadsheet comparing P.S. 282 to other schools.
One issue she worries about is P.S. 282's relatively small PTA budget — the organization has taken in $27,563 so far this year. By comparison, P.S. 321 PTA's goal is to raise close to $1 million this year.
The mother said she's hoping to organize other prospective parents to improve P.S. 282, either by themselves or with help from local officials.
"Parents are purposefully sending their children to other schools that are not in the vicinity, not convenient, not optimal, because of the reputation of that school," she said. "There must be a reason. I’m upset that both [District 13 and District 15] are ignoring the problem. You shouldn't have trouble recruiting 5-year-old kids into your school.”
But some say it's no mystery why Park Slope parents avoid the school.
"I think this is all about race and class," Underwood wrote in an email. "There is a group, albeit small, of white parents in Park Slope who can only handle diversity like that which they knew at the liberal arts colleges many of them attended. I went to Colby College — the 'diversity' of such schools, if you can even call it that, is token at best."
He added, "But in Brooklyn the diversity is real. And Park Slope is in Brooklyn, not Maine. If white parents want exclusively white, affluent schools, they should move to Darien (Conn.)"