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Gowanus Principal at the Forefront of Making City Schools More Diverse

By Leslie Albrecht | December 6, 2015 6:49pm
 Arthur P. Mattia, known as Mr. Artie to his students, is principal of P.S. 372, also called The Children's School. Unique in New York City, the school teaches special needs students and general education students side-by-side in every classroom.
Arthur P. Mattia, known as Mr. Artie to his students, is principal of P.S. 372, also called The Children's School. Unique in New York City, the school teaches special needs students and general education students side-by-side in every classroom.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

GOWANUS — Many schools claim to be special, but the Children's School is truly unique in the city.

General education and special needs kids learn side by side in every single classroom through a one-of-a-kind partnership between Brooklyn's District 15 and District 75, which serves special needs children.

Next fall, the school will take another step toward embracing a varied student body when it joins six other schools citywide participating in a pilot program to boost diversity. A third of the school's seats will be set aside for kids who are learning English and kids who receive free or reduced price lunches.

Principal Arthur Mattia, known as Mr. Artie, has been with the school since it opened in 1992 with just two pre-K classes and two kindergarten classes. He became principal in 2003, and today the Children's School, also known as P.S. 372, has 480 pre-K through fifth graders and attracts 500 to 600 applicants for 15 to 20 kindergarten seats. The school also has a campus in Fort Greene for 55 students with autism spectrum disorders.

Mattia says he wants his students to leave The Children's School on solid academic footing, but it's most important to him that they have a real respect for difference.

"I want them to also walk out of here with that acceptance and tolerance of others, and to not just do it here at our school, but when they have left here," Mattia said. "Are they recognizing and accepting others for their individualities and their differences? If they are doing that, then the mission of the school is being carried out."

DNAinfo New York talked to Mattia recently in his office about his background and work at The Children's School.

Q: How did you get into education?

A: When I was in college my field was physical education. I was going to start teaching in my old Catholic elementary school when I graduated. Right before I was going to start teaching, my brother, who was a commodities broker, told me they needed another broker [at his company]. The money was phenomenal. I became a broker. I did that from 1975 to 1990.

When the company moved to Florida, I had to make a decision: 'Do I want to stay in this or do I want to get back to what I really love doing — being with kids?'

I took a tremendous pay cut and worked as a physical education teacher for about two years in East New York. I'll never forget on my first day. I was given a broken hula hoop and a deflated ball and a [small] room, and they said, 'Teach P.E. to emotionally handicapped students.'

Q: What drew you to working in special education?

A: It was by chance. One of my emotionally handicapped students spit at me. I took him into the office and said, “I thinks he's having a hard time.” My principal said, "You are cut out for special education."

As I went along, I realized that what these kids needed was not a strong hand, but just somebody that would look to understand them and give them a voice and respect them.

Q: Why is The Children's School so popular now?

A: The philosophical belief is that all children can learn regardless of their disabilities. Our whole mission is to show how we can learn from one another.

The beautiful thing is that if a special needs student is having trouble trying their shoelace, the general ed student is coming over and assisting them.

That's the whole premise of what we want to put into this program. That's our mission, that's our philosophy, that's our passion.

Q: How did The Children's School's participation in the diversity pilot program come about?

A: When this school first opened up, the student body was supposed to represent the District 15 ethnic breakdown. If District 15 was 50 percent Hispanic, theoretically we should have 50 percent Hispanic students.

As our school became more popular, we found that more white families were applying to our school. The Hispanic population was more down in Sunset Park, the Red Hook population was more African-American. People were less likely to put their children on a bus to come a school that they didn't know about when they had a school right in their area that was doing well.

Our Diversity Committee had been going out [to neighborhoods around District 15] trying to get people to come see our school, inviting people to open houses and tours. We were successful somewhat, but not as much as we would really like to have been.

We felt it was important for us, so in the spring of 2014 we put in a proposal [to the Department of Education] and then in October 2014, the Chancellor had a meeting with schools interested in looking at diversity. Then a couple of weeks ago, they announced the seven schools in the pilot program and my school was one of the seven.

A third of our seats will be set aside for students that are free and reduced lunch as well as students that are English language learners. We're hoping that as a result we're able to see different communities being better represented in our student body.

Q: What special programs does Children's School have?

We're very big on the arts. We have a dance teacher who's been recognized across the country for the work that she's done. We have a music program. One of our paraprofessionals does an afterschool program with bongo drums and guitars, and she puts together a little band and they perform at some of our events.

What's so beautiful is that students that struggle socially, and students that struggle academically, when you see them performing, watching them be part of that, it brings tears to my eyes. When you see things like that, you say, what you’re doing here is just so well worth it.