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Crown Heights School Shines at Intersection of Old and New

By Sonja Sharp | September 16, 2013 7:42am
 Principal Sandra Soto enters her sophomore year as head of District 17's eclectic new P.S. 705.
Principal Sandra Soto enters her sophomore year as head of District 17's eclectic new P.S. 705.
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P.S. 705

CROWN HEIGHTS — Roughly half a block from the oft-contested border between Crown Heights and Prospect Heights, a huge city-owned building at 443 St. Marks Ave. is home to a school that thrives on diversity.

Now in its second year, P.S. 705 absorbed students from the closed P.S. 22, plus children who are new to the neighborhood, principal Sandra Soto told DNAinfo New York as she prepared for the school's second year.

"It’s been a wonderful sort of melding of an existing community with a new community that’s coming in," she said. "It's an extremely diverse community, and because we’re a zoned school, we're always going to reflect the community."

The blocks surrounding P.S. 22 are home to brownstones and pre-war apartment buildings whose longtime residents have been in a years-long state of flux.

A coffeehouse so fancy it doesn't serve artificial sugar sits around the corner from a diabetes center. One block north of the school is an adult daycare, while two blocks south is the hotly anticipated 1000 Dean Street commercial building.

Soto spoke positively about the change in the neighborhood.

"I think that’s a wonderful thing," she said. "I think we learn best when we can learn to be open and respectful of different kinds of people and have the new experiences that different people bring us."

DNAinfo New York spoke with Soto about her whirlwind first year in the neighborhood and how she plans to maintain her early success in the school's sophomore year. 

Q: Local parents are in love with P.S. 705 — how did you get such a diverse group of people so excited about a new school?

A: Parental involvement here is huge. Because we’re a new school, any idea that people bring, if it’s a viable one and everyone is sort of in agreement [we'll try it].

Because we’re starting from scratch and there’s a great big vacuum to fill, it’s very easy to get support if the idea sounds like it’s going to be beneficial to community building and fundraising. Parents are very engaged and very talented and willing to get involved.

Q: District 17 is full of new schools — what will continue to set P.S. 705 apart in its sophomore year? 

A: We added an additional full day pre-k class that people are very excited about. There are never enough seats for full day pre-k, but this year we'll have three.

The other thing people are very excited about is our dual-language program that will be continuing. What's unique about our program is that it begins in pre-k. Because there’s such a demand, my second pre-k class will have a Spanish enrichment component.

Q: What kind of challenges do you think students face and how do you approach them?

A: Only in school are we expected to be good at everything. We're expected to be good at math and reading and sports and to make friends and be coordinated, but I believe that kids all have their own unique design and our job as educators is to discover how they’re gifted and help them develop those areas of giftedness. 

Q: How do you do that? 

A: Our mission statement is about discovering the unique compliment of gifts and talents that every learner has. It’s this idea that we're all still learning, not just the kids. We’re all students and we’re all teachers.

There's a certain humility that goes with acknowledging that I don't know everything and I still have things to learn. I think that permeates who we are, not only in our staff, but I’m seeing it in our families. I deliberately tried to set up a community that was really focused on continuous learning and improvement.