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Brooklyn's Oldest Public Elementary School Welcomes New Leader

GREENPOINT — When P.S. 34 Oliver Perry appointed her to be principal last month, Carmen Asselta inherited both the esteemed traditions and the challenges of Brooklyn's oldest public elementary school.

"We have a lot of parents who graduated this school and then choose to send their kids here," she said in the small 167-year-old building near McGolrick Park. "But while other schools enjoy the privileges of a gym, library and auditorium, those are unfortunately things I do not enjoy."

But the staff, kids, parents and neighbors make up for that lack of space, Asselta said, noting that the cafeteria is filled with "rich activities" that imbue it with a constant energy of creativity. The school's ties between the local Polish and Latino communities run strong, she said, and many of her students are English Language Learners from immigrant families. The U.S. Department of Education recently honored P.S. 34 as a National Blue Ribbon School for the academic success of its diversity of students.

Now, Asselta is focused on enhancing the bonds between her institution and groups who offer extra facilities and services.

"I know the past principal had a very strong relationship with the community," said Asselta of Alicja Winnicki, a Greenpoint resident who is now District 14's superintendent. "We're working to maintain those partnerships and to build more." 

How are you following in the past principal's academic footsteps and what are you doing differently?

We're continuing the rigorous curriculum that also encourages students to be lifelong learners, and I'm working toward a more rigorous science program. I'd like to start the STEM (science technology engineering and math) program here. 

What are some of your proudest new partnerships with local groups?

We just started a chess program, in which we're partnered with the nonprofit St. Nick's Alliance and with [the Bushwick chess champions] M.S. 318. We have middle and high school students come in to work with our kids after school, and we're hoping to have them take part in competitions. We have 30 students in the chess program, but over 65 applied. Many parents wanted the opportunity for their kids to play the game and M.S. 318's notoriety for chess made them the ideal match.

We also reinstated this year the studio-in-classroom program. Artists come in to work with the art teacher and with teachers in the classroom to implement the arts in lessons.

And this year [Assemblyman Joseph] Lentol offered to let our "young environmentalists" group plant in Lentol Gardens.

How do you accommodate and appeal to the diverse mix of immigrant families, from Polish to Latino, at your school?

All communications to parents are translated, and we have Polish and Spanish translators in the school for parents. We have an international night celebrating all of our cultures and bringing them all together, rather than just highlighting one at a time. And of course we have a significant ESL staff.

Can you tell me about the challenges and perks of having school in a landmarked building?

The classrooms are set up right next to each other, so it's been called "the school without walls" because the rooms run into each other. The staircase and the style of the railings are unique and beautiful, but space is an issue. Our fifth graders, for instance, have their graduation in the Polish and Slavic Center nearby.

What's your background in NYC and in education?

I was born in Ridgewood, Queens. I had my first job in education in this district, at M.S. 50 teaching Spanish and then in staff development...then I left to go to District 15 (Sunset Park) and now I'm back. This is my first time to be principal. I don't know of a better job — it's the most rewarding career.