On his first visit to a public school since being named Chancellor-designee, Dennis Walcott breezed through Brooklyn’s P.S. 261 like the warm weather soothing the city today. As he strode in, memories of March and his deposed predecessor, Cathie Black, seemed to fade.
He chatted easily with third graders about gardening, read to a class of first graders, and took his turn at kickball during second graders’ recess. Dropping in on a dance and movement class, Walcott climbed onstage and, following a teacher’s orders, posed like a flower, then like a tree, and then tried to follow along with the class’s “alley cat dance” steps.
“I feel like I’m in a commercial,” said a first-grade student.
“A commercial?” said Walcott, laughing. “Some people may see it that way.”
Whereas reporters were barred from accompanying Black on her first school visit as chancellor-designee, Walcott was tailed by a crowd of TV cameramen and reporters today. And whereas Black often seemed unsure of how to talk to students, the school’s principal complimented Walcott, who was once a kindergarten teacher, on his ease around the children. Unlike Black, he was more likely to ask students what they were drawing than where they planned to go to college.
Speaking to reporters after the tour, Walcott took questions in the steady monotone he has deployed at more than a few chaotic public hearings. Asked about teacher layoffs, Walcott said that Mayor Bloomberg had been generous to the Department of Education in helping to fill budget gaps left by the retreat of state and federal funding. DOE officials recently said that they would need roughly $300 million to prevent over 6,000 teachers from being laid off this year.
“We have a hole, a deficit, and we have to rely on people who are very creative like the principal and all of the teachers to do, sometimes, more with less,” Walcott said. “It’s an ongoing story and we still have some time to see what will happen.”
P.S. 261 Principal Zipporiah Mills said she was concerned about losing some of her teachers to layoffs next year. According to the DOE’s school-by-school layoff list, Mills stands to lose five of her 59 teachers.
Walcott said he was already thinking about how to replace Deputy Chancellors Santiago Taveras and John White, both of whom will leave the Department of Education soon for other jobs. Taveras leaves at the end of this week to become a vice president at Cambridge Education and White is leaving this spring to run the New Orleans’ Recovery School District.
P.S. 261 is one of Brooklyn’s most diverse and most popular elementary schools. Thirty percent of its students are black, 26 percent are Hispanic, and 35 percent are white. Located in Boerum Hill, which is home to both public housing developments and upper middle class families, about 35 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
Last year, 61 percent of its students tested proficient on the state’s English exam and 63 percent in math. Mills said that though the school currently does not have a wait list for kindergarten, it probably will soon. Of its 125 seats, 100 have already been claimed by parents who registered early for kindergarten.
Before he can become chancellor, Walcott needs a waiver from the state education commissioner, allowing him to govern the school system without a school superintendent’s license.