The Jewel in the Crown

By Jessica Siegel — October 08, 1997 17 min read

It’s the third week of June in New York City, and, as the temperature rises, many schools begin coasting toward summer. Classes and homework give way to desultory test preparation, loosely justified field trips, and vaguely “academic” games. Teachers plan vacations or lock in summer jobs, and students’ thoughts converge on Jones Beach, basketball, and snow cones.

But not at P.S. 161 in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Here, they are even getting a jump on the next school year. At 9 a.m., more than 80 parents and their children sit in the school’s auditorium, their minds very much on the first day of kindergarten, still three months away. Principal Irwin Kurz welcomes them. A trim figure with dark hair, an oval face, and hooded eyes, his speech is neither a sermon nor a harangue. It’s more a declaration of shared purpose.

“What parents do is extremely important,” he says, looking into the faces of those gathered. “Not every child enters kindergarten knowing how to read. Not every child leaves kindergarten knowing how to read. But every child’s perception of himself as a student starts in kindergarten.”

The parents--mostly mothers, but there are fathers and grandparents, as well--receive a manila envelope of materials that includes articles on encouraging creativity and reading for understanding, a quiz to test their children’s skills, and a schedule for September. Each packet has a sticker with the name of the child’s teacher and his or her classroom assignment. There also is a book for summer reading. Some of the children already are curled up with it.

Joan Hagans is here with her daughter, Zarontha. She, like many of the other parents, made sure to register her child early. She knew P.S. 161’s reputation--the school has the highest test scores in its community school district--and she liked the fact that the students wear uniforms. Hagans’ son is a 3rd grader at another district school, which she describes as “a zoo.” The difference between the two places is palpable, she says. “You can tell something good is going on here.”

The school’s reading and math scores tower over city averages--a fact that’s drawn education scholars and reporters seeking answers for urban reform. Like most pundits, these visitors to P.S. 161 have pointed to one or two key ingredients of its success: Maybe it’s because the school requires uniforms or focuses on basic skills. Or maybe it’s the fact that the school’s teachers long ago declared a truce in the bitter war over phonics and whole language and now have great success blending the best features of each approach.

Of course, the attention pleases Kurz, who has spent 10 years at the helm of the school, taking its test scores from the bottom quarter of the district to the top. But he doesn’t attribute the school’s triumphs to any one or two factors. Sure, he’ll be interviewed on how the school teaches spelling. And he’s glad television news anchor Tom Brokaw included P.S. 161 in an NBC segment on school uniforms. But talk to Kurz for any length of time, and he keeps returning to the same thing: “It’s the whole picture,” he says over and over again.

Crown Heights is a neighborhood that reflects the vitality of its Caribbean immigrant residents. Along Nostrand Avenue, one block from P.S. 161, grocery stores post ads for telephone calling cards “with the best rates to the West Indies.” There are the restaurants specializing in curried duck and peanut punch, the ubiquitous beauty salons, the Apostolic Church of Christ, and the produce shops offering yucca and green and yellow plantains.

In 1991, tensions between blacks and Hasidic Jews over services and housing, among other things, erupted into riots that resulted in two deaths. Today, it is a neighborhood of struggling families. Affordable housing is hard to find, and if residents aren’t on welfare, they’re generally working in low-paying jobs, many as data-entry clerks or home health-care aides.

Known as the Crown School for its Crown Street address, P.S. 161 is a 1,370-student, K-5 school very much of the neighborhood. Ninety percent of its students are black, 8 percent are Hispanic, 1 percent are Asian-American, and 1 percent are white. In the shorthand educators use to identify economic need, 97 percent of the children are eligible for the federal free-lunch program.

Such statistics usually add up to poor academic performance, but P.S. 161 has refused to fit that mold. In 1996, 80 percent of its 3rd graders scored above the minimum level on the state reading test, compared with 47 percent in schools with a similar student population and 79 percent in all schools in the state. Perhaps even more impressive, 38 percent of P.S. 161’s 3rd graders tested at the mastery level, compared with 28 percent of 3rd graders statewide.

On the state writing test that year, 93 percent of the school’s 5th graders scored above the minimum standard, compared with 76 percent in similar schools and 92 percent in all state schools. On the math exam, 96 percent of 3rd graders at P.S. 161 scored above the state minimum, compared with 83 percent in similar schools and 95 percent in all schools statewide.

Such figures would be a matter of pride at any school, and they obviously are at P.S. 161. But a number of Kurz’s fellow principals find them hard to accept. They seem to subscribe to an economic determinism that says poor minority youngsters do not--indeed, cannot--achieve at such high levels. Kurz says that when he runs into such naysayers, they dismiss the school’s test results with such comments as: “You’ve got a special population,” “Your neighborhood is better than mine,” and “You’ve creamed off the best kids.”

None of these accusations, Kurz says, is true. P.S. 161 is a zoned school, enrolling all comers from the neighborhood. As for 161’s success, Kurz keeps coming back to high expectations. “It sounds so phony,” he says. “‘All children can learn,’ ‘It takes a village,’ but it’s really true. It’s expectations.” Expectations--and a lot of hard work.

“I hate it when people write about the school and say that these kids do well considering the neighborhood they come from,” Kurz says. “These kids can do well--period.”

Diane S. Ravitch agrees. In a recent Forbes magazine column, the senior research scholar at New York University and former assistant U.S. secretary of education wrote, “If anyone wants proof that poor children can meet the same standards as their peers, visit P.S. 161.” Ravitch says P.S. 161’s success can be replicated in schools in other low-income communities. “Nothing that they are doing is beyond the reach of any school,” she says in a telephone interview. Even the school’s balanced approach to reading instruction--intensive phonics linked to literature--is simple common sense, she says. “It is accessible to anybody.”

Kurz began teaching in the New York City public schools in 1968. Although he was not sure whether he wanted to teach or go to law school, something clicked. He taught elementary school for 14 years, was an assistant principal for five, and has been the principal at P.S. 161 for 10--all in the same community school district.

The school day begins at 8:30 a.m., but Kurz arrives each morning at 6 o’clock and puts in 12 hours. There’s neither martyrdom nor braggadocio in his voice when he imparts this information. It comes with a little pragmatic shrug, the same shrug you see when he mentions expectations. “It’s really a question of intention,” he says. “If you intend something to happen, you can make it happen. If you want to get the job done, you can do it.”

Kurz’s commitment is not lost on his teachers. “He gives 100 percent,” says Janice Jackelow, one of the three reading specialists at 161. Adds Diane Yules, one of Jackelow’s colleagues, “If he only gives 99 percent, you feel like something is wrong.”

The teachers who come to P.S. 161 tend to stay. They have been working here for eight years, 10 years, 19 years, 25 years. “We’re a stable teaching staff,” says 1st grade teacher Sheila Katz. “Mr. Kurz’s attitude is, ‘You’re doing well, but you can always do better.’ You strive to do better if someone sets the tone.”

When Kurz was appointed principal, the school had been on a slide. The previous principal, although well liked, had been distracted from his duties by an illness in his family. Kurz came in and set a different tone. Teachers say he has set goals, written guidelines, and streamlined routine procedures, even down to printing labels with relevant student data so teachers don’t have to copy the information by hand in their record books. They also say he has assembled a good faculty: A veteran administrator, he has maneuvered around union contract provisions, recruiting teachers he wants and dissuading others with talk of what he demands from the staff.

By most accounts, he demands a lot, but he also promotes a professionalism that the teachers appreciate. He encourages the reading specialists to go to conferences and then share what they’ve learned with the teachers. The staff, working in grade-level groups, has spent the second half of the year rewriting the school curriculum after extensive discussions of the ideas of cultural-literacy guru E.D. Hirsch Jr. Although the teachers have not completely accepted Hirsch’s core curriculum, it has them thinking about what children in each grade should know. They are implementing the revised curriculum this fall.

Every morning, the principal is out on the street greeting students as they arrive at school. Most are accompanied by a parent or older sibling, but some need shooing from the local candy store. There’s no yelling and no bullhorn--Kurz speaks to the youngsters in the same calm voice he uses with teachers, parents, and reporters. Students eventually line up, by class, on the playground behind the school and walk into the building behind their teachers. Kurz’s goal is to create an atmosphere redolent of a private school, right down to the uniforms--plaid skirts with yellow blouses for the girls and yellow shirts with navy pants and ties for the boys.

Of course, academic achievement doesn’t rise from children’s merely putting on uniforms; it comes from what goes on in the intimate confines of the classroom. When Kurz started at P.S. 161, he saw little consistency in how reading was taught from class to class, grade to grade. Some teachers relied solely on phonics instruction, others used a whole-language approach. Students moved from one teacher to another with little carry-over. That had to change.

First, Kurz introduced a basal reading program called Open Court, published by McGraw-Hill. A phonics-based series with a literature component, Open Court provided a schoolwide foundation but was by no means the whole story. The school also has poured thousands of dollars into supplementary reading materials. Now, each grade level from kindergarten up is stocked with classroom sets of popular storybooks, more than 100 titles in all--everything from More Spaghetti I Say and Noisy Nora to Charlotte’s Web and Robinson Crusoe. PTA fund raising has paid for most of the books; the activist group brings in as much as $25,000 a year. Teachers have made the books an integral part of the curriculum. They assign readings as homework, and students discuss them in class the next day.

Children of all grades compete to become members of the Principal’s Reading Club. To join, kindergartners and 1st graders must go to Kurz’s office and read a book aloud to him; older students must read five books and write and revise reports on each. Club members receive a certificate, a button, and a place of honor on the school’s central bulletin board.

Then there is the bookstore. Wednesday mornings, from 7:45 to 8:15, a few tables in the gym become a children’s literature bazaar. The three reading specialists display and sell books suitable for all grade levels. The store is also open during parent-conference days and at events such as the kindergarten fair. Over the past year, the school has sold more than 6,000 books--at a loss. The school buys them for 99 cents each and sells them for $1, which doesn’t cover shipping.

Excitement about the Wednesday bookstore begins to build early each week, according to reading specialist Jackelow. “Children start asking me on Monday afternoon, ‘Have the books come in yet? Have the books come in yet?’”

Barbara Adler has been teaching for 20 years, 15 of them at P.S. 161. She has the soft-spoken but exuberant manner of someone who knows her way around kindergartens. Sitting on a small chair with her 30 students seated around her on desks and the floor, she leads phonics exercises on the letter B.

“I’m thinking of a word that starts with a B that you wear on your arm,” she says. Hands go up, with a bunch of “ooohhs.” “A bracelet,” says Jeremiah, who now comes up and, to much applause, pulls a bracelet from what Adler has christened the B Box, a cardboard container she has filled with objects starting with the letter they are studying.

Jeremiah looks in the box and spots an object. “I’m thinking of a word that starts with B that lots of pirates used to go out on.” More hands and “ooohhs.” “A boat,” someone says, and the activity continues. Later, Adler writes a B on the board and directs her students to make the shape of the letter in the air, on a friend’s back, on the floor. These are exercises Adler has developed and used throughout the year to introduce each letter of the alphabet.

Sensing the need to switch gears, Adler pulls out a book titled Me and asks who would like to read. Nicole’s hand goes straight up. She reads with ease. “Look at my little cat. I like my cat.” She pauses at the end of each page to show the class the picture. “Look, little cat. A big dog! Run, little cat, run.” The others applaud when she finishes.

Adler points to Me as an example of how she “revs up” the Open Court phonics program. “This is a book I found a few years ago to help them develop sight words,” she says. “It’s good when children are reading some words. They can take it home and read it to their parents.”

Now, Adler moves to another B-word activity, pulling out a book on butterflies, I’m a Caterpillar. She asks Brittany to read. Brittany has been sitting quietly with a sad look on her face, but as she begins to read--"I turn into a pupa. Then I turn into a chrysalis. ..."--the sadness seems to melt away.

At P.S. 161, there is no trace of the battle over whole language and phonics that has divided schools across the country. That fight was resolved with the adoption of the Open Court phonics program. Yet, listening to several teachers talk about their approach to reading instruction, it becomes clear that they each have their own take on the matter.

“You can’t just teach phonics,” explains Jacqueline Streets, a kindergarten teacher. “If there’s no reason to read, they won’t want to.”

Notes 1st grade teacher Sheila Katz, “Even with Open Court, we’ve always pulled in sight words.”

“You need the whole piece to read,” says Karen Bellot, who teaches 5th grade. Bellot gives her students a reading assignment from their supplementary readers every night. Reading is a top priority in her own life, and she lets her students know that. “I tell my class that if I’m reading a book, I do it first, and then I balance my checkbook.”

Bellot believes students need a strong grasp of phonics. “You need word-attack skills,” she says. “The 26 letters, and 40 sounds they make, allow you to figure the puzzle out. You need the tools to figure it out.”

According to 4th grade teacher Marilyn Norfleet, basic skills are crucial, but they are just a starting place. “I like to integrate artwork along with everything we do to give children a way of expressing themselves,” she says. “It isn’t porridge and no extras. It’s not just meat and potatoes--we put a lot of other things on the plate.”

In Alice Cherry’s 4th grade class, it’s Authors’ Celebration Day. Her students are reading picture books they have written and drawn to a 3rd grade class. Cherry stands with an arm around the shoulder of one of her students, Keegen Phillip. She introduces him to the 3rd graders by reading the “About the Author” note from his book, Jose Renardo’s Big Problem: “Keegen Phillip is a Trinidadian boy who lives to write stories. He is an immigrant to the United States. He has written many books such as Jose Renardo’s Adventure, Dwayne’s Graduation, Impact, and many more. He is inspired by R.L. Stine and C.S. Lewis. He lives in an apartment in New York City and has many friends.”

Keegen stands very straight and reads the story dramatically to his audience, stopping to show the illustrations as he goes along. Jose’s problem, Keegen explains, is that a bully, Richard, has been shaking him down for his lunch money. “How can I get rid of this bully?” Jose wonders. With the support of his brother, Jose decides to stand up to Richard. The bully--quite surprised by this turn of events--asks to become Jose’s friend.

“How many people enjoyed Keegen’s book?” asks Cherry, who already knows the answer from the intent looks on the 3rd graders’ faces. Hands rise, followed by applause.

After Keegen, Anastacia Cenci reads The Special Gift, about a girl who doesn’t have enough money for a Mother’s Day present. Then Jessica Etienne reads about a girl who has lost her parents to gunfire and is adjusting to living with relatives.

Later, Anastacia explains how she and the others prepared their books. “We picked a character and chose people we wanted to be in the story,” she says. “And then we wrote and edited and illustrated it.” Cherry showed her how to improve her writing. “I started to understand how you describe characters by their actions. You have to show actions, not just say it. The character traits come out by how they act against people.”

Cherry came to P.S. 161 four years ago with 18 years of experience. “I had heard that P.S. 161 was a well-managed school--a nice place to work, not an easy place to work,” she says with a laugh. She calls herself “a middle-of-the-road kind of teacher.” She explains, “There are lots of teachers here who are very traditional and others who are very creative.”

Kurz gives teachers guidelines on how to pace their classes’ work in the Open Court readers and in the math curriculum through the year. Teachers are also expected to spend several days preparing their students for the state and city math and reading tests that all New York City students take. “We don’t teach to the test, but we teach a lot of test sophistication,” Cherry says, like how to take a test within a time period and how to work with an answer sheet.

Cherry uses the phonics-oriented Open Court reader but for only about 20 minutes a day. She likes to have her students do as many independent projects as possible. Still, she doesn’t bristle at having to use the reader or take time to prepare her students for the tests. “Even the most creative teachers take the time to do it,” she says. “Children get the basics.”

She started the book-writing project with her class at the start of the school year and built on it throughout the year. The students analyzed characters in the 10 novels they read as a class. They examined how authors use description. They worked with a graphic organizer that helped them develop plot, setting, and characters.

“I know that they’re children,” Cherry says, “but I really want them to understand how writers get readers to understand things.” She often sits with them individually as they write, revise, and edit their stories. Cherry says she has learned a lot over the course of the year and intends to change some aspects of the writing project in the fall. “I’m still not 100 percent satisfied with the results,” she says.

This kind of striving, thinking, and refining is typical of the teachers at P.S. 161. Perhaps it’s because they are treated like professionals. Or perhaps it’s an outgrowth of those high expectations Principal Kurz talks so much about--expectations for himself, the teachers, and their students. At P.S. 161, people do not make excuses. “No one says it’s another person’s job,” says reading specialist Diane Yules.

That’s what Kurz communicates to the parents attending this morning’s kindergarten fair. “I’m never going to tell a teacher that this kid doesn’t have a father, doesn’t have a mother, or is hungry,” Kurz says. “It’s important for all of us to take responsibility, and you’re the first teacher.”

His words aren’t lost on the parents. After the meeting, they line up three and four abreast, many with their children at their sides, to buy books at the makeshift bookstore. Yes, summer is on the way, but at P.S. 161, it’s time to gear up for fall.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 1997 edition of Education Week as The Jewel in the Crown