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Williamsburg School Marked for Closure Opens New Library

By Meredith Hoffman | March 19, 2013 7:29am | Updated on March 19, 2013 8:27am

WILLIAMSBURG — This 101-year-old elementary school may be on its way out the door, but one determined principal is hoping to make the school’s last years its best.

P.S. 19 Roberto Clemente, which is being phased out of its South Third Street home, has just unveiled an innovative global studies library inside a former storage room. Students’ Peruvian bracelets and journals on Greece now decorate a room with laptops and books addressing a span of continents and cultures — and the principal said the addition has uplifted an institution that will be gone by 2015.

“The school’s closing is not their fault, so I’m going to give them what every other kid deserves. It empowers them,” said Principal Angela Camiolo, who pulled together parents and teachers to create the multicultural center. “At least I can say that when they leave, they’ll know how to do research and to use new technology. That’s where education is going now.”

P.S. 19 — which is being phased out by the city for low performance and is where parents and teachers protested last year for having no science or math teacher or a librarian — used part of a magnet grant the city has given the school to open the library, Camiolo said, noting that all teachers now use the space for their classes.

“Every month they do a project… This month is on Women’s History Month, last month was Black History Month and Dominican Republic Independence Day, and January was Martin Luther King Jr. and peace building,” Camiolo said of other additions this year to the curriculum. “They use the computers to research for their projects.”

Camiolo, who arrived as the new principal this year after announcement of the phase-out, said the library's opening was “bittersweet,” especially to teachers who have spent decades in the building.

“I know everyone was probably feeling down…but they’ve gravitated toward the fact that they’re here today,” she said. “The whole community came together to make this happen.”

The library on the top floor of the building — which P.S. 19 now shares with the 7-month-old Brooklyn Arbor School — will eventually belong to Brooklyn Arbor when the new elementary is phased completely into the space, Camiolo said. But for now, the 197-student P.S. 19 has full reign over the space.

“All generations of former students came when we opened it,” Camiolo said of the library’s grand opening last week. “The students were like, ‘Is that for us?’ Everyone is very proud of it.”

When former P.S. 19 student Sydney Fox, 69 — who graduated from the sixth grade there in 1955 — attended the grand opening, she said she was amazed by the staff's dedication even in the institution's final hour.

"I'm heartbroken they're closing my school because so much of my old neighborhood is gone, so it's bittersweet," said Fox. "But I'm so glad to see they're soldiering on and they have this terrific principal and teachers."

Fox, a retired New York City public school teacher whose mother and sister also attended P.S. 19, said the school's new progressive curriculum far outshines her own education as a child.

"I was not taught in this way," she said. "I was very impressed with the caliber, not just of the teachers but of the students... For these students to learn about the rest of the world at an early age is incredible."

For Williamsburg Councilwoman Diana Reyna’s chief of staff Antonio Reynoso, who attended P.S. 19 when he was a child, the innovative room is a surprising sign of hope for the school’s students.

“It shows that the Department of Education, or at least the school administration, hasn’t abandoned these kids,” he said. “At first people thought the school’s being phased out would cause the kids to be neglected, but putting in the library dispels those notions.”

Reynoso, who vehemently fought the city’s decision to close the school last year, said the library was the best possible addition both for P.S. 19 and the Brooklyn Arbor School.

“The magnet grant was for the school as a whole,” he said. “I think this is a win-win for both sides.”