PARK SLOPE — Principal Liz Phillips at P.S. 321 has been at the school's helm for 14 years, but her ties to the school go back decades — to the time when her own children were students and and she was a teacher there.
In those days, P.S. 321 was a Title I school, meaning it qualified for federal funding to improve the academic performance of its many low-income students.
Today the school is vastly different — it's considered one of the most desirable in the borough because of its high-performing students and active and well-financed PTA.
The school's popularity has made it larger than ever, but Phillips said she works hard to maintain a sense of community. The Department of Education recently announced plans to address the overcrowding problem by shrinking P.S. 321's zone.
Phillips, 63, became an educator after a career in book editing. She lives in Park Slope.
Q: What’s new at P.S. 321 this year?
A: At an effective school, there’s a lot that’s not new.
But as far as things that are slightly different this year, we’ve put a real strong emphasis on math professional development.
In literacy, we already pretty much meet [the Common Core Standards]. But in math, they are quite demanding. And I think we do need to all get better in how we’re teaching math.
One other new thing has to do with technology. We have started buying iPads and by the end of this year we should have them for all the teachers.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you’re facing at P.S. 321?
A: Probably one of the biggest challenges we face is size. We have 1,450 students. For me personally as principal, that’s a challenge because I want to be in every classroom, I want to know the kids, I want to know the parents. Sometimes I see colleagues of mine who have schools of 400 or 500 and it feels like such a luxury to be able to genuinely know everybody.
Q: What are some of things you’re doing to maintain the small feel?
A: We really value community building in the school. We have professional development on it. We start the year and every teacher has some lessons on community building so there’s some common language among the kids.
One of the best ways of addressing the size of the school is that we work really hard on grades having a consistent curriculum, working together, being collaborative. So even though we have 11 first grades, they’re not doing 11 different things.
Q: What are the strengths of P.S. 321?
A: What makes the school special is, I would have to first say, the incredible teaching staff. We have really remarkable teachers — not a couple, but almost our whole staff.
We have incredible parent involvement. It’s not just that they’re involved, it’s that philosophically there’s tremendous commitment on the part of both staff and parents to do what’s right for all kids, not just for an individual kid.
Part of the PTA budget includes camp scholarships, so that kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford camp can go to camp.
Q: P.S. 321 got a “D” in student progress on its latest DOE School Progress Report. How should parents interpret that?
A: Progress Reports are totally meaningless. Totally. I’ve said this publicly for many years.
Our school — in the six years we've had report card grades [on Progress Reports] with the same principal, same basic staff, because we’ve had very little turnover — has gone from as low as the 36th percentile to as high as the 95th. Yet, our school has barely changed...When you have such a high performing school, what they’re talking about in terms of progress is meaningless.
I value the Quality Review, [the school evaluation where] somebody who’s an educator or a superintendent comes into the school, observes classrooms. P.S. 321 got a “WD” for Well Developed. I think our School Environment Survey is valuable. If you look at the details of it, you can see that parents and teachers are happy with the school.
Q: PS 321 has a diversity committee. Why was it formed and what does it do?
A: We've had a diversity committee for many years. One of the reasons we have a diversity committee is, our school has become less diverse.
When my children went to this school, it was a Title I school. It was a third white, a third black, a third Latino. Right now we’re about 70 to 75 percent white now.
There is a real concern on the part of a lot of parents and the teachers in the school of wanting to make sure that kids who are in more of a minority than they ever were before feel comfortable and supported, and that teachers understand there are real issues if there are only three black kids in a class.
[The diversity committee has had] different guest speakers over the years. One year we had one talking on bringing up biracial children. Our next workshop is going to be on talking to children about differences.
Q: If you were Schools Chancellor for a day, what would you do or change?
A: I would get rid of the School Progress Reports. I would make sure that everything coming out of my office would be geared toward valuing collaboration in schools on many different levels, and hopefully I would be able to think critically about unintended consequences. For example, an unintended consequence of teacher evaluation based on test scores is pitting teachers against each other.
I would negotiate a union contract where teachers worked and got paid an hour beyond when kids went to school.
Q: What do think about rezoning?
A: Rezoning P.S. 321 has been talked about for the last three or four years, ever since they started building P.S. 133. Originally I was totally opposed to rezoning...But I have to say that this year, seeing how many more kids we have, and just doing the math of how that ends up — we can’t sustain it.
I don’t believe you should ever turn away zoned kids. I don’t think it’s right. And so, I’m at the point, and it took a while for me to get here, where I feel like, as much as I hate to do it, I think we have to rezone.