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Brooklyn's Highest-Performing Schools Plagued by Low-Performing Bathrooms

By Leslie Albrecht | October 29, 2013 6:44am
 Many of the neighborhood's top schools need bathroom upgrades, school leaders say.
High-Performing Schools Plagued by Low-Performing Bathrooms
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BROOKLYN — In the gleaming computer lab at P.S. 10 in the South Slope, students design their own birdhouses on iPads. Every child graduates knowing how to read sheet music, and the school is looking forward to another stellar progress report this year.

But when students leave their sunny, cheerful classrooms for a trip to the restroom, they take a step back in time to the 1950s, which is the last time the lavatories got a renovation, said Principal Laura Scott.

"Our kids are definitely at the forefront in technology, but the bathrooms are in need of repair," Scott said.

The DOE wouldn't allow photos to be taken, but a tour confirmed students' descriptions of the foul bathrooms. Antiquated flushers are difficult for students to maneuver, so toilets don't get flushed. Some sinks lack soap dispensers and faucets, leaving kids with no way to wash their hands. There are also screws falling out of stalls, missing locks on doors and even missing doors on stalls.

Plumbing issues cause leaks and floods, especially on rainy days, and in one instance a toilet "exploded" all over a kindergartner, leaving her covered with urine "and thank God nothing else," Scott said.

Fifth-grader Ian St. Germain said he loves P.S. 10, but the "cruddy" bathrooms take away from his positive feelings about the school. "It's kind of like the one thing that sticks out," St. Germain said. "[Fixing them] could make the school perfect."

Ian's not the only kid in the neighborhood coping with crummy commodes.

A review of school building inspections shows that several local schools, considered among the best in the city for academics, get poor grades when it comes to their bathrooms.

Inspectors found deficiencies in bathrooms at M.S. 51, P.S. 321, P.S. 39, P.S. 10 and P.S./M.S. 282, records show. All of those schools earned at least a B on their latest progress reports, but their high-performing students contend with rust-ridden stalls, broken and missing floor tiles, deteriorated or missing doors, cracked ceiling plaster and poorly laid-out sinks and toilets, according to DOE inspections.

Department of Education records also show that many neighborhood principals list restroom renovations as their top priority when DOE building inspectors ask them about their school facilities. P.S. 10's Scott told inspectors earlier this year that her "No. 1 concern" was the toilets in her building. School leaders at M.S. 51, P.S. 372, P.S. 321, and Millennium Brooklyn High School all told inspectors that their schools were in need of bathroom upgrades.

Citywide, schools made 137 requests for restroom renovations last year, but the DOE lacked the money to address them, a spokeswoman said.

"Is it nice to be able to upgrade if funds are available, sure," said DOE spokeswoman Marge Feinberg in an email. "But the capital plan is a balancing act and our focus has been on new seats and major structural projects such as making sure our buildings are watertight."

Scott doesn't fault the DOE for P.S. 10's lackluster loos. "There's no money," she said simply, adding that even if she got money to upgrade P.S. 10's facilities, she would probably try to modify the funding to address her two highest priorities: instruction and class size.

P.S. 10's school's student council identified the bathrooms as a problem in need of a solution in 2011, and with the help of administrators, convinced City Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez to allot $300,000 of the estimated $1 million needed to upgrade all 18 of the school's bathrooms. They hope to get the remainder from the Brooklyn borough president's office.

Other Park Slope schools are also turning to city council members to try to spiff up their grungy restrooms.

In Councilman Brad Lander's district, both P.S. 124 and P.S. 58 won money for bathroom upgrades last year through participatory budgeting, the system that lets residents decide how to spend Lander's $1 million in discretionary dollars on neighborhood upgrades.

Several other local schools are hoping for similar successes this year.

P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill needs a renovation, according to a supporter who petitioned for participatory budgeting funds online.

"Kids need clean working toilets with doors that can lock. How can you teach hygiene if the toilets do not work?" the author wrote.

P.S. 179 in Kensington is looking for participatory budgeting dollars to fix "dysfunctional" bathrooms where "sinks are hard for younger kids to use and fixtures are broken."

P.S. 321 also needs a bathroom upgrade, parents say, and it's hoping to fund it through participatory budgeting.

Third-grader Oscar Rosenstein, 8, makes sure he uses the bathroom before heading off to the school every morning, because he refuses to use the "horrible" toilet in the mini school building behind P.S. 321's main facility, according to his dad, Neal Rosenstein.

"I wouldn’t go to the school bathroom if I were you...I haven’t gone to the bathroom today," Oscar recently wrote in a homework assignment on the proper use of contractions, Rosenstein said.

At P.S. 154 in Windsor Terrace, the PTA is hoping participatory budgeting money will finance an overhaul of the third-floor boys bathroom. Principal Eric Havlik says the restroom is full of cracked tiles and partitions that are coming away from the walls. There's also a small hole in the floor.

"Overall it’s an unpleasant place," Havlik said. "Kids need to use the restroom every day, and if it's dark and gloomy,  they’re not going to use it, and obviously that’s not good for kids.”

P.S. 10 student council member Dov Alperin, 9, agreed.

"Some kids hold it all day," Alperin said. "Who says they're still going to concentrate in class if they're putting all their energy into holding it?"