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'New Yorker' Writer Calvin Trillin Touts P.S. 3's West Village Spirit

By Andrea Swalec | February 1, 2013 5:12pm

MANHATTAN — Decades after his two daughters attended the arty public elementary school in the West Village, New Yorker contributor Calvin Trillin still supports the institution.

The arts-integrated teaching philosophy at P.S. 3 is emblematic of the neighborhood's bohemian roots, the author of 29 books said in an interview Friday. 

[P.S. 3] seems to have the spirit of the Village," he said, pointing out that some teachers allow students to call them by their first names.

[The school] seems more like the Village than the tighter life you might live uptown."

Trillin, 77, recalled the conversations among parents and administrators that led to the founding of the self-described non-hierarchical school in 1971.

"I loved to go to parents' meetings [there] because they were always anarchy," he said. "It was a jolly place where no one thought they had to defer to the administration."

P.S. 3 is also known as the John Melser Charrette School, combining in its name a reference to the school's first leader — an experimental educator from New Zealand — and a French term used to describe collaborative problem-solving.

To this day, the school brings local artists into classrooms. Trillin, who lives across from the school, said this offers students unique opportunities regardless of public funding for the arts.

"If you expand your universe of teachers into the parent body, especially in a neighborhood where a lot of parents do creative things, it's all to the advantage of the school," he said.

In celebration of the 42nd anniversary of the 490 Hudson St. school, Trillin will moderate a discussion there at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2 on what lessons P.S. 3 can draw from its creative roots.

The event comes in the wake of a decision Jan. 23 by the Department of Education and Community Education Council for District 2 to eliminate Village parents' choice between P.S. 3 and P.S. 41. Starting in fall 2014, families will be zoned for one of the two schools.

Trillin, who said he is currently between writing projects, wondered if the zoning change would "regularize" P.S. 3, forcing it to become more traditional.

"There are people who like a more structured school," he said.

Panelists at the alumni event will include Durst Organization executive Jordan Barowitz, founding parent Viola Morris, and engineer and Princeton University lecturer Nat Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer, who was part of one of the first classes at P.S. 3, said the school cultivated in him a lifelong love of learning.

"It provided an environment that above all else teaches kids to love the experience of being in school," he said.

Even as a child, he sensed the unconventional character of the school.

"The artists' kids went to [P.S.] 3 and the bankers' kids went to [P.S.] 41," said Oppenheimer, a 46-year-old SoHo resident.

The alumni event will include a showing of the trailer for the short documentary "Padim," which filmmaker Nicole Ansari-Cox created about the impact of arts-based education at the school.

Trillin said what mattered most to him as a P.S. 3 parent was his daughters' love for the school.

"To this day, if you ask them where they went to school, they don't name their high school or their college. They say P.S. 3," he said.