PARK SLOPE — Park Slope's P.S. 118 was one of the most popular schools in the city this year, but when it opened in 2013, some families were skittish about sending their children to the untested elementary school.
The new school was created during a controversial rezoning that shrank the zone for highly respected P.S. 321. It fell to Principal Elizabeth Garraway to build the new school from the ground up.
How did she move P.S. 118, on Fourth Avenue and Eighth Street, to the top of local families' wish lists so quickly?
It helps that Garraway is so energetic and positive that when asked about what obstacles her school faces she seems stumped by the question.
"The truth is, I don't think much ahead about what my challenges are going to be," she said. "I actually think about what I want to do."
Garraway also credits an unshakeable commitment from parents — who started raising money for the school before it even opened — and the guidance of P.S. 321 principal Liz Phillips, her longtime mentor.
It was Phillips who steered Garraway onto the track to becoming P.S. 118's founding principal.
Garraway, a mother of three, took an indirect path to becoming a school administrator. Growing up in Brooklyn (she now lives in Kensington) she planned to become a doctor, but switched her college major to Spanish and anthropology after an organic chemistry class that sucked all the pleasure out of the possibility of studying medicine, she said.
Post-graduation, Garraway spent seven years living in Spain, where she met her husband, now a teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School. After a three-year stint living in France, she returned to Brooklyn and put her language skills to work with a job teaching at Fort Greene's Satellite West Middle School. She moved onto Benjamin Banneker Academy and then to the High School of Journalism at Park Slope's John Jay Educational Campus.
When her own kids started attending P.S. 321, Garraway became an active parent volunteer there, serving on the school leadership team. When she got her supervisor's license, Phillips invited Garraway to join the staff as an assistant principal.
"I love that woman," Garraway said of Phillips. "The great thing about Liz Phillips is that she believes everyone has leader in his or herself and she brings that out."
At the urging of Phillips, Garraway completed special training on how to start a new school. That background came in handy when District 15 was rezoned, Garraway was tapped to be the first principal of the fledgling P.S. 118.
Garraway sat down with DNAinfo New York recently to talk about P.S. 118, which is also called the Maurice Sendak Community School.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What was it like starting a school from scratch?
My situation was very difficult because I wasn't P.S. 321 [the school many P.S. 118 had expected to send their kids].
[At a year-long program on how start a new school] they taught us how to do a budget, how to work with parents, how to be not only an administrator, but also an instructional leader and an inspirational leader.
And how to build a school culture — that was an important part. We spent a lot of time on school culture, because your school could fail, especially starting a new school, if you can’t get a community behind you.
This could have all failed if I wasn’t able to win the parent body over. It could have been a complete disaster, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t because of two things: the parents negotiated, I negotiated, and we learned to trust each other.
What are 118's parents like?
My parents are amazing. The founding parents said they wanted the school to have a brand — and they used those words — and guess what, we got it. They said they wanted to make 118 one of the best schools in the city.
That’s the thing about the parent body here. They always go beyond my expectations. I can’t remember a time they didn’t reach their [monetary] goal. We were so afraid that we would’t [succeed], so people worked so hard. Financially, the PTA sets themselves a goal and they reach it every year.
Although we’re a school where a lot of the families are wealthy, we do have families that are not so fortunate. We just did Holiday Helpers. I mentioned it to the PTA and they took it and they ran with it. Within a span of a week, they raised $250 each for 10 families to buy food, toys, clothing, whatever they needed, for the holidays for their child. People were weeping, families were so happy.
What is the school culture at 118?
The school culture is: kindness matters, the social-emotional piece matters, diversity in its many forms matters, respect matters. Joy is our No. 1 [priority]. When people talk about the feeling of the kids at 118, they talk about how joyful they are. Our kids dance in the lunchroom. We usually do salsa and meringue music, because of [our goal] of integrating Spanish into the school.
Why did you start a no homework policy?
Homework was so stressful for parents, for kids. I had parents saying to me, "We argue over homework," and "What happens if the child doesn’t do homework?" I don’t like to rate and grade people in that way. I wanted to make sure that children were actually getting something out of it. And sometimes, I didn’t know how much coaching went into homework, and that could give us a false impression of what's really happening.
The Exercise Your Brain projects [the school’s alternative to worksheet-based homework] are specifically geared to build relationships with families...Parents are involved because they want to be involved and this is a fun way to be involved.
What are your goals for 118?
My goals are the same as they were when I began the school: to make sure that every child that graduates from 118 is ready for the next step, and that's middle school, but ultimately to leave the school prepared to be a public speaker, to be a friend, to be a flexible thinker, to be socially connected, to be social-minded, to be empathetic, and to love the arts.