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Red Hook School Unites Arts and Academics for Kids, Principal Says

By Nikhita Venugopal | November 28, 2016 7:20am
 Peggy Wyns-Madison, principal at PS 15 in Red Hook.
Peggy Wyns-Madison, principal at PS 15 in Red Hook.
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DNAinfo/Nikhita Venugopal

RED HOOK — At P.S. 15 in Red Hook, arts and academics work hand in hand, according to principal Peggy Wyns-Madison.

Through a federally funded magnet grant for the arts, P.S. 15's staff works to inject traditional subjects, like reading and math, with a kind of creativity that makes the "curriculum come alive for the young person and helps them retain the information."

The arts "has always been a strength of P.S. 15, even before my tenure here," said Wyns-Madison, who is approaching her 10th year as principal.

The school's artistic bent can be seen in all grades throughout the building at 71 Sullivan St. The students have staged musical productions, turned the hallways into a kid-sized transit system, and participated in "Big Idea Week," in which students stretched their entrepreneurial skills in "Shark Tank"-like scenarios.

P.S. 15 is also able to partner with organizations and harness local artistic resources to bring in the expertise of parents and residents in the tight-knit Red Hook community.

"If you want to know how to bring the art experience into a lesson, you want to get feedback and input from artists," Wyns-Madison said. "The perspective that is presented to the young people should be through the lens of how an artist would look at that particular task."

This year, P.S. 15 made a massive improvement in test scores as compared to the prior year. Roughly 45 percent of students passed ELA and 55 percent in math — up from almost 21 percent in ELA and 35 percent in math the year before, statistics show. 

Wyns-Madison credited that progress to teachers' perseverance and focused effort on problem areas, small group work and a deep attention to student data.

"My staff has improved and increased its arsenal of teaching tools to help children tackle challenging areas," she said. "That work has been going over time."

Principal Peggy Wyns-Madison recently sat down with DNAinfo New York to discuss the school's arts focus and place in the community. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

After working as an assistant principal at P.S. 15, you're entering your 10th year as principal of the school. Is this a role you had planned to take on?

My interest was not necessarily to become a principal! I was very comfortable in what I was doing. But the opportunity came up because my predecessor was going to retire and she had confidence that I would be able to continue the work we had started. But District 15 has been my entire career. I started at P.S. 131 as a teacher. I have a lot of years of experience. 

As a magnet school of the arts, you and your teachers try to inject the arts into all areas of study. What outside partnerships help you with that goal?

We have residencies with Studio in the School, we have a partnership with Young Audiences New York, which brings in the genre of dance, a partnership with Marquis Studios, which provides a variety of experiences for our youngsters, we have song writing through Spanish, movement for the littlest ones, and we introduced last year a media component where students were making movies.

And you stage musical productions as well?

Because we are an arts school, we do theater arts as well. And because there are a lot of media companies that come to use Red Hook as a source for filming, we were able to connect with those production companies.

We had a wonderful production of the "Jungle Book." We had the sound equipment just like Broadway, the children had mics, the sets were done by a lot of parents who are also in the arts. It was a wonderful collaboration. 

The year before we did the "Jungle Book," last year we did "Lion King." "Peter Pan" is coming.

How does P.S. 15 relate to the Red Hook community?

The name of the building Patrick F. Daly, it sets the tone for the relationship the community has with the school because he was such an impressive leader. [Editor's note: Patrick F. Daly was a P.S. 15 principal who was shot and killed in the neighborhood in 1992.] And even though the time was short, it was enough that people felt very confident in the role that the school played in the lives of their families. When I became principal of P.S. 15, the biggest piece was to get more students to come to the school.

There were many options for families to consider at that time and we wanted to have that community feel all the way outside the doors of P.S 15.

What are some of the ways you keep the community involved?

We have a committee that is not connected to the magnet world but is connected to the school because we see ourselves as a real community school. We are not just an entity in the neighborhood. We want and see ourselves as a partner with the community, even if they have no school-aged children.

That’s a group called the Friends of P.S. 15. It's been instrumental in helping us tap into those who exist in the community.

Like most of the neighborhood, P.S. 15 suffered severe flooding during Hurricane Sandy. In the wake of the fourth anniversary, how is the school coping?

We are still recovering from Sandy and that is always a reminder when we walk into the building. This building had over 25 feet of water that engulfed the basement. The temporary boiler was removed right before the end of last spring semester and the new boilers are in place. They moved systems up to floor level so they would not be compromised. There’s a generator on the roof. If ever there is a natural disaster, the generator will kick in.