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How Brownstone Brooklyn Parents Aim to Take Over a Struggling Middle School

By Amy Zimmer | January 29, 2015 7:27am
 How Brownstone Brooklyn parents and a principal of a struggling school are working together.
Parents Rally Behind School for International Studies
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COBBLE HILL — Almost no fifth-graders from the upscale P.S. 29 applied last year to the School for International Studies, a struggling middle and high school that sits less than three blocks away.

But this year, spurred by overcrowding at more popular local middle schools, nearly 40 families from P.S. 29 took a leap and applied to International Studies' sixth grade. They hope to transform the school into a place where they want to send their kids.

"It is a small environment with a clean canvas, and a capable and willing principal," said Stephen Leone, a father of a fifth-grader at Cobble Hill's P.S. 29 who has been leading the push for families to apply to International Studies.

"If we're waiting for someone to create more good schools, that's not going to happen," Leone added. "We have to do it."

The two schools could hardly be more different: P.S. 29 is overwhelmingly white and its PTA raised nearly $1 million last year, while at International Studies, 82 percent of kids are black or Latino, more than three-quarters qualify for free lunch and less than 10 percent of kids passed the state's math and reading tests last year.

But P.S. 29 parents said they were encouraged by International Studies' principal, Jillian Juman, and the changes she is bringing to the school, including a French dual-language program that's launching in September and an International Baccalaureate project-based curriculum.

Before settling on International Studies, P.S. 29 parents were getting desperate for a middle school in overcrowded District 15, which spans from Boerum Hill to Park Slope and Sunset Park.

Affluent families in the district have long felt that there are only three local middle schools that were high-performing enough to be worth attending: M.S. 51, M.S. 447 and New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts. As the district's elementary population boomed, parents grew alarmed that the three middle schools would no longer have enough room for their children.

"My goal was to find a school where we could send an overflow of kids in bulk," Leone said.

Leone enlisted fifth-grade families at P.S. 29 and two other local powerhouse elementary schools — P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill and Carroll Garden's P.S. 58 — to send a critical mass of their kids to International Studies, in an attempt to turn the school into the next hot program.

In addition to the nearly 40 P.S. 29 kids who applied to International Studies this year, up from just two last year, 60 students from P.S. 261 also applied, up from about a dozen last year, and more than 50 kids from P.S. 58 applied, up from one the year before, according to International Studies' director of admissions Stu Chasabenis.

Overall, applications to the school spiked 70 percent this year.

Maryanne Murray-Fishman, who ranked the International Studies first on her daughter Carol's middle school application, was impressed by the school's chess, violin and culinary lessons, as well as daily gym classes. She also liked that her daughter wouldn't have to choose a "major," as some other middle schools require, and appreciated that classes are capped at roughly 20 students. 

She was most wowed by the International Baccalaureate curriculum, which is used in some of the city's most posh private schools, like Carroll Gardens' $30,602-a-year International School of Brooklyn.

"The International Baccalaureate, playing chess and studying French?" said Murray-Fishman, whose daughter is in fifth grade at P.S. 261. "It's a total snob factor. You get to be a snob and not pay for it."

Juman is excited about the spike in interest in her school, which has just 30 sixth-graders this year even though it has room for five times that many.

But she knows that she still has to convince parents who applied to the school to actually send their children there.

"It will take some strength and courage for parents to pick International Studies since we are not the typical candidate within District 15," said Juman, who plans to hold events for prospective students and parents. 

"We just need to create great opportunities for them to come to the school and back off a little bit and let people make a decision," she added.

Obstacles the school must overcome include low test scores and bad reviews on the popular site Insideschools.

"It says the performance of the school is not great, so there were a lot of questions about that," said Rob Hansen, a parent of a fifth-grader at P.S. 58.

Still, he said, he was impressed by Juman's commitment to the school and ranked it third on his son Luca's middle school application.

"The principal is doing everything she can to transform that school. She has a big vision," Hansen said. "She's interested in serving the needs of community."

The sudden interest is a "double-edged sword" for the existing school community, said Susan Moesker, the co-president of International Studies' PTA and parent of a sixth-grader.

"I think everyone wants to have students with high caliber," she said. "And you want parents who can be involved," she added, noting that it's been a struggle to get families to sign up for the PTA.

But the school's existing parents are concerned the International Studies' diversity could "disappear or shrink or be silenced, in a sense, because others who have more time and resources to devote to advocating for their kids, will push them to the margins," Moesker said.

"These are the alpha parents, who have loud voices," she added. "Wealth and privilege and whiteness could really have a strong impact on the culture of the school and how it feels and how it works."

Juman, who took over International Studies in 2012, says she is committed to keeping her school culturally diverse. 

"Really the vision is to balance out our school so we have a plethora of cultures to really provide what our kids need for perspective," Juman said. "That's why we need [District 15] parents."

Juman also needs local families to invest in the school if she wants the program to continue to exist at all.

The school shares a boxy building on Baltic Street with three other schools, including a Success Academy charter. Juman worries that unless she boosts enrollment, her space could be given to another program. 

She hopes to take in 70 sixth-graders this fall and eventually grow to 150 incoming students.

"We have room," she said. "We're ready to take on more."