When it came time to enroll her grandson in school, Esther Fesale put his name in the lottery for a nearby charter. But as the summer wound down without a call or letter, Fesale figured she should get to know her grandson’s other option: P.S. 676 the Red Hook Neighborhood School, assigned to him based on the family’s address.
The buzz about P.S. 676, hemmed in by industrial yards topped with rusty barbed wire, was not encouraging. The red-brick building had housed another school, long shuttered for poor performance, and had struggled to shed its reputation for unruly hallways.
Fesale visited anyway and was pleased to discover a cheery welcome from the assistant principal and a pre-K teacher whom she described as “amazing.” She enrolled her grandson and, four years later, Fesale is one of the school’s biggest boosters — yet she finds it’s still often a tough sell to neighborhood parents.
“Some negative feedback seems to be in their head, blocking what can be,” Fesale said. “I’ll be like, ‘This is what we’re trying to get you guys to come out and see! It’s not that anymore.”
Fesale is part of a dedicated group of parents, school leaders, and community partners who have been leading a charge to grow and improve P.S. 676. Now, they find their efforts intertwined with another monumental challenge: integrating schools in a deeply segregated corner of Brooklyn.
The school is part of District 15, where officials are considering a sweeping redrawing of elementary school attendance zones. Facing a glut of seats at some schools, and severe overcrowding at others, the education department hopes that overhauling zone lines will help even out enrollment, and, crucially, lead to more diverse classrooms.
Whether either push can succeed — and for whom — remain open questions that could help or hinder integration efforts elsewhere in the city.
To become more diverse, P.S. 676 will need to attract a cross-section of students even as it faces significant challenges. Like many segregated neighborhoods, the school is cut off from the rest of the district by man-made barriers: an elevated interstate and the mouth of a tunnel connecting Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Still ranking among the lowest-performing elementary schools in the city, enrollment at P.S. 676 has dwindled, putting pressure on the school’s budget. Last year, only 120 students attended, though the building has space for more than triple that.
With integration now on the table, parents and community members who have supported the school face new concerns — for example, that an influx of white, wealthier students could displace the black and Hispanic families who have been fighting for a turnaround.
“This is the opportunity for us to do something groundbreaking,” the district’s superintendent, Anita Skop, told parents at a recent meeting to discuss the rezoning.
A district where integration is actually possible
Unlike most other city districts, where virtually all students come from similar low-income backgrounds, District 15 is one of the few where diverse demographics make racial and economic integration possible within its own boundaries. The district spans strikingly different neighborhoods, including Red Hook and Sunset Park, both immigrant enclaves along Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront — as well as Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, with their stately brownstones and tree-lined streets.
Yet that unique diversity is largely missing within individual schools. Although almost a third of students in the district are white, those students make up more than 74% of enrollment in some local elementary schools.
This spring, education department officials announced they were considering two options. The first is to redraw zone lines for seven schools, including in some of residential Brooklyn’s most coveted zip codes. The second is to simply remove attendance boundaries altogether, allowing families to apply to any of the seven schools whose zone lines are being reconsidered.
The task requires a delicate balance. Officials and many district residents have said the segregated status quo is not acceptable. But if white, middle class families balk at their school assignments or are denied their school preferences, they could decamp from the district altogether, taking with them any chance for integration. So as officials consider new boundaries, they are also trying to improve P.S. 676 to attract — and retain — families of all kinds.
“People vote with their feet,” Skop recently told parents. “It’s going to take a while to rebuild the curriculum and rebuild the belief system in this school.”
When segregation leads to concentrated poverty, like it has at P.S. 676, research shows that the result is often low achievement and fewer resources, which combine to make academic improvement difficult.
Integration, on the other hand, has been shown to help narrow test score gaps and boost graduation rates without dragging down achievement for white or more affluent students. Nationwide, despite at least two decades of focused efforts, it has proven remarkably difficult to lift the achievement of schools like P.S. 676 without first changing the mix of students inside.
It’s a challenge that people like Fesale have been tackling since well before there was much district concern about segregation, when the neighborhood’s focus was simply on keeping the doors open and turning things around for the students already in the building. With an attendance zone that wraps around the Red Hook West public houses, P.S. 676 has long served some of the city’s most economically disadvantaged students, virtually all of whom are black or Hispanic.
New leadership offers hope of needed change
Leading the effort is Principal Priscilla Figueroa, who started at the school in 2017 after serving as an assistant principal at M.S. 88, a District 15 middle school. She took a look around P.S. 676 and saw something “out of the ordinary” — and not in a good way.
“Students were not communicating with each other effectively. Safety agents were being threatened by parents,” she told the Red Hook Star-Revue in 2018. Through a department spokesman, Figueroa did not respond to Chalkbeat’s request for an interview.
In short order, Figueroa helped reopen the darkened library. A new parent coordinator came on board; she stands in front of the school during dropoff and pickup to talk with families or hear their concerns. A sorely needed guidance counselor was hired, who now works on a crisis intervention team that has made a world of difference, parents say, for students who have emotional and behavior issues.
Latiayia Williams said her son had problems with bullying at the school, but now that he meets with a counselor there, things have improved.
“They’re trying,” she said of the staff. “When he goes, he’s happy now.”
Figueroa also began to look for outside help, and a network of Red Hook activists didn’t hesitate to respond, bringing new energy and programs to the school.
One local advocate who showed an early interest in the school was Carolina Salguero, who runs PortSide New York, a nonprofit housed on a historic, floating oil tanker docked in the nearby Atlantic Basin. Last December, students began walking over to the ship to read books and make art projects. Though many live in the waterfront neighborhood, many were disconnected from it, and couldn’t identify shellfish or seagulls. The field trips quickly led to a custom science curriculum, created by PortSide and P.S. 676 together, to introduce students to the sea.
“The kids are loving it, and obviously you need to be excited and enthusiastic to learn,” Salguero said.
Talks are now bubbling about turning P.S. 676 into a school that focuses on Science, Technology, and Math — or STEM — possibly with a focus on marine science, making a virtue of the neighborhood’s proximity to the harbor. That location could help create a ready pipeline for the New York Harbor School, which is a ferry ride away on Governor’s Island and does high-profile work with the Billion Oyster Project, a partnership with schools that involves students regrowing oyster reefs in city waters using shells donated by restaurants.
“I think that’s something that could be attractive not just to local parents, but also to Carroll Gardens and Park Slope,” said Edwin Pacheco, who runs a church called Red Hook Redemption, whose members volunteer to mentor students at P.S. 676 and to help improve their reading skills.
Big dreams, big challenges
For now, though, those big ideas are still largely in the incubator stage. And despite signs of progress, plenty of work remains to be done. Marie Hueston, the school’s parent coordinator, has offered facials on Mother’s Day and hosts regular chats about P.S. 676 over coffee, but getting parents to become more involved is still a struggle.
Many families are themselves wrestling with deep needs, so P.S. 676 has plans to offer GED classes, résumé help, and lessons on how to use computers. Such services may be vital for the local community. But they aren’t likely to have the same draw for middle-class, white families who may expect schools to play different roles and who are necessary to increase integration.
Among the school’s greatest challenges, said Tiffiney Davis, who runs a local nonprofit, is having the resources to meet the needs of the current student body. School budgets are based, in part, on enrollment. Last year, P.S. 676 had just 11 students in the first grade.
Davis has worked with neighborhood children for more than a decade, providing free art classes and homework help after school through the Red Hook Art Project. She said she was impressed when Principal Figueroa reached out to ask for help and was willing to name what the school was lacking.
“It’s hard because these students are talented — they’re great — but they’re not getting what they need,” she said.
Like many, Davis has faith that Figueroa could be the one to turn the school around. But that possibility also brings new worries.
The front doors of P.S. 676 open up a construction zone, where a stack of new condos is slated to open. Longtime residents worry about gentrification like they’ve seen near P.S. 15, where you may spy a Tesla parked in the driveway of new, single-family townhomes.
That school has already begun to undergo a subtle shift. Pre-K classes were almost 40% white last year, though many of those families ultimately enroll elsewhere for later grades.
Pacheco’s own daughter attends P.S. 15, and he said that navigating the changes hasn’t always been easy. He feels parents of color have pulled away as newcomers make the school their own.
“It just feels different,” he said.
Either scenario on the table — redrawing zone lines or simply removing them from all the area’s schools — is likely to be tough for P.S. 676.
If officials decide to redraw zone lines, sought-after schools such as P.S. 29 and P.S. 58 could see their attendance boundaries shrink. But the plans, so far, leave the lines around P.S. 676 unaltered. The district superintendent said at a recent public meeting the district has to focus first on making sure the school is strong enough to attract students that already live nearby — before opening up enrollment to other families.
“If they’re not going to choose it, it’s not going to change,” Skop said.
The district’s alternate proposal — removing zone lines entirely — could be even more destabilizing for P.S. 676. More of the currently zoned students would have an option to go elsewhere, increasing the competition P.S. 676 already feels from other schools. A charter that operates out of a gleaming new building, and Brooklyn New School, a district school that accepts students from across the borough, are both nearby.
Those who are hopeful for P.S. 676’s rebound see another possibility playing out. If the school experiences an upswing, people like Davis wonder whether longtime Red Hook families will be displaced to other schools.
Both of the scenarios being considered include an admissions preference for certain vulnerable populations of students, who would fill up to 35% of seats. That share is representative of the district average but could mean a dramatic demographic shift at P.S. 676, and with it, a new focus on a very different set of student and family needs.
“And then what happens to the black and brown students?” Davis asked. “If they want to make the school into something else, is it really going to serve the students who have been there?”
Correction (July 20, 2019): A previous version of this story misidentified the location of P.S. 15. This story has also been updated to provide more context about PortSide’s partnership with P.S. 676.