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New Schools Win Acclaim in Prospect Heights and Crown Heights

By Sonja Sharp | February 11, 2013 6:42am

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Every kindergartner knows that A is for apple and B is for banana — but if you're a kindergartner at P.S. 705 in Prospect Heights, the letter C is for cereza.

That's Spanish for cherry.

The brand-new District 17 school, which is replacing P.S. 22 on St. Marks Avenue in Prospect Heights, is one of several in central Brooklyn now offering dual-language immersion for kindergartners. 

"My daughter is very into the arts. She loves music and loves dance classes, and I was really hoping to find something that would offer that," said mom Brandi Goodman. "Finding 705 was a godsend.

"A lot of people weren’t taking chances on schools in the neighborhood," she continued. "But I’ve always been a firm believer that you have to be the change that you want to see."

P.S. 705, also known as the Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School, also offers dance, music, art and fencing.

But that's far from all that sets this and other up-and-coming neighborhood schools apart from their peers.

Despite just less than a year on St. Marks Avenue, P.S. 705 Principal Sandra Soto and her staff have charmed their small but dedicated group of new parents, while winning over skeptics whose children were displaced from P.S. 22.

P.S. 22 was one of several under-performing schools in District 17 slated for phase-out beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, with the elimination of kindergarten through third grade.

In its place is P.S. 705, which, like its more established neighbors P.S. 9 and P.S. 316, offers families priced out of Park Slope and turned off by charters a place to call their own.

"People cried with gratitude and relief and happiness, and talked about just being really happy with the education their kids were getting, in a lot of cases after being very unhappy," said P.S. 705 PTA president Kelly Bare. "It's a really special little place."

District 17 has long been fertile ground for big charter networks — KIPP, Achievement First and Explore Schools, among others — which are known for their single-minded focus on getting so-called underprivileged children to and through college.

But the district's strongest public schools are also inspiring parent loyalty with rigorous, creative lessons.

Kindergartners at P.S. 770 in Crown Heights, for example, probably know more about banana biology, cultivation and transport than most high schoolers.

"Here, kids are doing the scientific inquiry to discover how things work," said P.S. 770 Principal Shimon Waronker, whose kindergartners built clay boats and studied maps for a semester to understand the life cycle of the humble yellow fruit. "They're looking at the world through wondrous eyes."

Here are some of the noteworthy public elementary schools in Crown Heights' and Prospect Heights' District 17:

P.S. 705, Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary, 443 St. Marks Ave.

P.S. 705 is too new to judge by the numbers, but parents rave about its eclectic mix of activities and the warm approach to learning. Some parents in the up-and-coming neighborhood say they find it a good fit.

"We took a calculated risk," said mom Kelly Bare, whose son attends pre-K at the school. "We weren't going to let the hype about certain perfect neighborhood schools drive our real estate choices. We weren't going to buy an apartment because of a school zone."

P.S. 9, Teunis G. Bergen, 80 Underhill Ave.

Like P.S. 705, P.S. 9 offers dual-language Spanish and English immersion beginning in kindergarten. The school has begun to gentrify, though parents still tout diversity as among its most appealing qualities. The school lost its Title I standing in 2012, meaning that fewer than 60 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Faced with a resulting deep cut in funding, the parent community banded together to raise money to preserve arts and other enrichment programs.

"I love the diversity in the school. I love that when you walk in, you can tell that the people that work there love what they do," said dad and parent leader Duane Domutz. "Even though funding has been tight, Principal [Sandra] D’Avilar has been really committed to not losing the arts programs."

P.S. 770, New American Academy, 60 E. 94th St.

Located deep in the heart of southeastern Crown Heights, the school may not seem like an obvious choice for neighborhood newcomers. Though Principal Shimon Waronker said his model was designed with an eye toward the city's neediest students, the school has seen an increasingly diverse enrollment since it first opened in 2010. "[The traditional public school] was literally designed to imitate a factory — you were a widget along the assembly line," Waronker said. "I think children are works of art, not widgets."