PARK SLOPE — In a neighborhood where some schools are bursting at the seams, P.S. 124 was an exception this year — the school had fewer than expected students.
The surprise enrollment drop led to a budget crunch, and now Principal Annabell Martinez is on a campaign to reverse the trend by spreading the word about P.S. 124's special programs so that more families will send their kids to the school.
She's confident more students would choose P.S. 124 if parents knew about the school's offerings, such as swimming classes for second-graders at the Ninth Street YMCA and the new Spanish-English dual language program for pre-K, which will expand next year to kindergarten.
Above all, Martinez wants people to know about the school's warm, nurturing atmosphere.
Students are more likely to end up in the principal's office when they've done something good, such as learning how to tie their own shoes, than for disciplinary reasons, Martinez said.
"When I took on this position as principal, I didn’t want kids to feel like I was the last resort, like going to the principal’s office was a threat," Martinez said. "I wanted it to be like it was a celebration."
Martinez, a 45-year-old mother of two, grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands and moved to New York as a teenager. She attended Brooklyn College on a scholarship and majored in bilingual education. She started teaching right out of college, then became assistant principal at M.S. 136 in Sunset Park.
In 2005, she took the helm at P.S. 124, on Fourth Avenue and 14th Street.
Q: How has the school changed since you became principal?
A: Our demographics have changed over the past couple of years. We were very much a Hispanic/Latino population and now it's kind of shifting. We’re getting a number of Asian children [bused in from overcrowded P.S. 94 and P.S. 169 in Sunset Park]. Our Asian population has gone up, our Anglo population has gone up.
It’s so mixed right now, so much more than before. Something like 80 percent were Latino when I first got here. That’s not the case now.
Q: What does that mean for the school?
A: In terms of richness of diversity, it’s fabulous. It’s amazing for the families and the children because they’re being exposed to different cultures and languages.
Q: What else has changed in the past several years?
A: We’ve made a much stronger push with writing, which is not something that was happening before. Teachers have become much stronger teachers of writing and they certainly understand what the expectations are when it comes to the Common Core.
[Students] have to know how to write a narrative and an opinion piece. We also have "free write" moments. Oftentimes kids are very excited because they can’t wait to [write in their] notebook, to get out whatever it is that's been troubling them, or whatever experience they want to share. I'm very proud of that. It happened because writing was a passion of mine and that’s something I brought to the school. I write memories, I write poetry, I keep two journals.
Another change is teaching kids about leadership. The principles are based on [the Stephen Covey book] "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." So, it’s what does it mean to be proactive, to synergize, to begin with the end in mind? We’re working on those things with the children, at their level. For a kindergartner, being proactive might be, ‘I saw a piece of paper on the floor and nobody told me to pick it up but I picked it up all by myself.'
Q: What are some of the special programs at P.S. 124 that you want people to know about?
A: I absolutely want them to know about our fabulous guitar program. Mr. Conrad, the music teacher, applied and got professional development through Little Kids Rock and we got these fabulous guitars as a gift.
I’ve built into his schedule a music enrichment period. He comes in later in the day but his day doesn’t end until 4 p.m. because he has a music enrichment program and it goes right into a music after-school program. He’s doing that with fourth- and fifth-grade students. We’ve gotten fabulous donations like a drum set and keyboards. It’s been amazing. I definitely want people to know about that because it’s not something you see very often.
And [I also want people to know about] the art program with Mrs. Truppi. She has an art studio on the third floor. She puts on “museum openings.” We’ve done it as a fundraising effort where the parents purchase children’s artwork. We frame them and everything.
Our kids in the upper grades get a lot of cultural experiences. They go to the Whitney Museum, they go to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Our kids really do get out.
Another great thing that [people ] should know is that first grade does theater at Gallery Players [a theater company right next door to the school]. It’s a 10-week program called Shakespeare for Sprites. This year they’re doing “Macbeth.” It’s done in a way that the children understand the story, and all the really horrible stuff gets taken out.