BROOKLYN — As the city's top public schools get overcrowded, parents are looking for under-the-radar options that can still offer a quality education.
Many families in Brownstone Brooklyn and other rapidly growing neighborhoods are taking a fresh look at schools that have long struggled with low test scores and few resources in the hopes of transforming them.
"If we're waiting for someone to create more good schools, that's not going to happen," said Stephen Leone, a parent at Cobble Hill's P.S. 29 who is leading a grassroots movement to improve the nearby School for International Studies.
"We have to do it."
Leone is working with families from P.S. 29 and two other well-regarded elementary schools to send an influx of local sixth-graders to International Studies next fall in the hope of boosting the middle and high school's performance and fundraising.
As families across the city are rolling up their sleeves to help remake schools, in ways big and small, here are some tips for parents on how to do it:
1. Get organized.
Building a coalition is key since a lone voice is not likely to get as much traction as an organized and dedicated group of families — and that involves planning, outreach and communication.
The families working on turning Brooklyn's School for International Studies into the next "it" middle school used surveys and shared Google documents to gather feedback about what parents wanted to see and to plan next steps. They met with each other to discuss their goals first and then scheduled group meetings with principals to share their vision and learn more about schools.
"Most people do [the middle school application process] blind. You talk to one or two friends," said Robert Hansen, a parent at Carroll Garden's P.S. 58. "We did a big survey — and got around 20 or so responses — and then we did a meeting and presented the results and then we met with the principals."
2. Figure out what your community needs — and how to get it.
Once families are organized, the next step is to develop specific proposals for improving local schools.
Parents can seek out partnerships with organizations to bring enrichment like chess or dance to the school. They can also help start a dual language program to give kids an extra challenge.
The School for International Studies, for example, is starting a French dual language program next September, which has made the school particularly attractive to graduating students from the French program at nearby P.S. 58.
"[Dual language programs] reinvigorate schools and create a vibrant community," said Fabrice Jaumont, who works at the French embassy and wrote a "roadmap" to help families develop dual language programs across the city.
"People are fundraising. The teachers are very motivated. The kids are doing well on standardized tests."
Williamsburg mom Lanny Cheuck followed the blueprint to start the city's first Japanese dual language program next September at P.S. 147, with the goal of creating a higher-performing elementary school that she would want her daughter to attend.
Cheuck did outreach to the community on behalf of the new program — especially local Japanese families who send their kids to private school — and said parents are now more interested in P.S. 147.
3. Find a willing principal.
After parents figure out what they want to do, they need to find a principal who is willing to work with them and is open to welcoming them and their ideas to the school.
That's what families found at the School for International Studies and at P.S. 147, where the principals both recently struggled to attract students.
At International Studies, Hansen said principal Jillian Juman was an eager partner who was thrilled to hear that so many local parents wanted to attend her school.
Juman was already working on implementing the rigorous International Baccalaureate academic program in the school and got ideas from parents on how to implement its French dual language program. She was also quick to respond to families' inquiries and to set up meetings with them, Hansen said.
"She's interested in serving the needs of the community," Hansen said.
4. Get Involved: Join committees, advocate and fundraise for your school.
Once your child is in school, the next step is to stay involved by joining the PTA, the School Leadership Team and other committees, so you can have a say on grant applications and how the school's funds are spent. Parents can also make recommendations about everything from cafeteria food to the amount of exercise kids receive each day.
In addition to traditional PTA fundraising, another way to get money for school improvement projects is through participatory budgeting, in which City Council members let residents vote on how to spend money in their districts. Kensington's P.S. 230 and P.S. 179, for instance, got smartboards and other technology upgrades thanks to the participatory budgeting process.
To learn more about the participatory budget process, parents should reach out to their local City Council member.
5. As a last resort, start your own school.
If you can't find a way of making your local school work, you can start your own community charter school. It's a yearslong process, but parents have done it.
The first step is to get advice from schools consultants or the New York City Charter School Center to learn about how to put together a planning team and executive board that not only includes parents and educators but also "finance people," explained Park Slope parent Miriam Nunberg, who co-founded the Brooklyn Urban Garden School, known as BUGS.
Nunberg began planning the school when her eldest son was in kindergarten. It opened two years ago, when he was in sixth grade, and is committed to serving an array of students with different levels of academic performance, unlike some of the nearby screened schools.
Nunberg and her team put together a demographic study to demonstrate the community's need for such a school and applied through a competitive bidding process to the New York State Education Department. They also won support from local officials and community groups.
"We wanted to create a high-quality program that was not screened," said Nunberg, a special education teacher and civil rights lawyer. "We were local parents who felt this was something that needed to be addressed."