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How a Park Slope School Is Fighting to Stay Diverse

By Leslie Albrecht | December 10, 2014 4:17pm
 P.S. 133 sets aside 35 percent of kindergarten seats for poor and immigrant kids to preserve the school's diversity.
Diversity-Focused P.S. 133 Struggles to Attract English Language Learners
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PARK SLOPE — Two years ago, families at P.S. 133 were worried.

The historically black and Latino school was poised to move into a new state-of-the-art building in Park Slope and was expanding to include students from more affluent parts of Brooklyn.

Parents and education advocates were concerned the elementary school would soon be dominated by white, upper-middle-class families.

To preserve the school's diversity, the community persuaded a reluctant Department of Education to try a bold experiment at P.S. 133: set aside 35 percent of the kindergarten seats each year for kids who receive free lunch and those who are learning English.

"Everybody said... 'That school will go from being one way socioeconomically to another,'" said District 13 Community Education Council President David Goldsmith. "Both white and black families said, ‘We love this school because there’s different kinds of families here, and we want to maintain that.'"

Two years in, new data released by the city shows that P.S. 133 is meeting its goal of offering seats to poor and immigrant kids, but with some difficulties.

Though the school's admissions policy gives first priority to kids who are learning English in hopes of enrolling recent immigrants, the number of English language learners who applied dropped between 2013 and 2014, and many of those that were given offers didn’t accept them.

Advocates say a lack of outreach and no guaranteed busing to help kids outside Park Slope get to the school has made it hard to attract Asian and Latino immigrant students from Sunset Park. Fewer than 10 kindergartners who are learning to speak English enrolled in 2013, the first year of the effort, data show.

“There is work to do to help P.S. 133 succeed and to help other schools succeed," said City Councilman Brad Lander, whose district includes P.S. 133.

"There needs to be outreach, support for transportation and support for diverse families in the school," Lander continued, "so that over time people report to their friends and neighbors that they're having a good experience with the school."

P.S. 133's efforts reveal the obstacles city schools face in an education system that is largely segregated along racial lines. More than half of the city's public schools are at least 90 percent black and Latino, while half of all white students attend just 7 percent of the city's school's, according to DNAinfo's analysis of 2013-14 Department of Education data. 

One challenge is that it takes work to recruit families to a school they've never heard of a few miles away, said P.S. 133 parent Elena Romero.

When it moved to its new building at Baltic Street and Fourth Avenue, P.S. 133 was opened to all families living in District 13 and 15, a broad area that runs from Park Slope to Sunset Park, Windsor Terrace and Kensington.

But the DOE could not guarantee that busing would be available to the school, so the logistics of pickup and drop-off likely overwhelmed some prospective parents, Romero said.

“When we talk about immigrant parents, or just parents in general, the idea of having to commute with their children, especially when they have multiple kids of all ages — traveling 20 minutes every morning and afternoon may not be ideal for parents,” said Romero, a lifelong Sunset Park resident.

“Although there’s a wonderful opportunity at P.S. 133, people may not go after it," she added.

Romero, whose kids are half black, half Latino, said she and other parents take pride in P.S. 133's diversity, and she's working to spread the news about the school to other Sunset Park residents through word of mouth.

"P.S. 133 provides more of an ideal mix for my children,” Romero said. "They're able to be around multiple ethnicities and races. For me that was very important. Even though we live in New York City and everyone assumes it’s this great melting pot, it’s not.”

The DOE did not respond to a question about what outreach was done to recruit families to P.S. 133, but the agency vowed to "continue to support" the school as it works toward "the critical goal of promoting diversity," a spokesman said.

The DOE provided limited information about how the P.S. 133 diversity initiative is working so far:

► In 2013, P.S. 133 offered kindergarten spots to 35 children who identified themselves as English language learners, but fewer than 10 of those kids ended up enrolling.

► That year, the school enrolled 37 kindergartners who qualified for a free lunch, meeting its goal to provide seats for low-income kids.

► In 2014, P.S. 133 offered 31 kindergarten spots to English language learners and 38 spots to kids who qualified for a free lunch, which means the school met its goal of offering 35 percent of seats to immigrant and low-income kids.

► The DOE declined to give enrollment figures for 2014, but a November 2014 head count showed that P.S. 133 had just 19 English language learner students in the entire school of 560 kids, which means that many prospective kindergartners who are English learners did not take the seats offered to them this year.

Despite the snags, P.S. 133's experience has inspired other schools, such as The Children's School in Gowanus, to contemplate adopting similar diversity-boosting policies, Lander said. He is holding a City Council hearing on Thursday to discuss legislation addressing diversity issues, including a bill calling for better tracking of school demographics.

The architects of the P.S. 133 plan say that while it is still a work in progress, it will help preserve the school's demographics, even as Fourth Avenue is flooded with new luxury condos.

"No matter what happens with the neighborhood around P.S. 133, there will always be access for — if they want it — low-income kids and English language learners, said David Tipson, the director of New York Appleseed, a social justice nonprofit that helped create P.S. 133's policy.

"It's kept the door open for those students. Look at a lot of other schools in Park Slope and you won’t see that kind of access."

This is the second article in a series on diversity in New York City's schools. Read Part 1 to see how diverse, or not, your public school is and Part 3 about parents criticizing the DOE for not doing enough on diversity.