The Jewel In The Crown

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Once a school on the slide, P.S. 161 in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood has taken wing with hard work, fresh thinking, and a reading program that marries phonics and whole language.

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 next year. At 9 a.m., more than 80 parents and their children fill seats in the front of 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 in September. There is also a book for parents to read with their children during the summer. Some of the kids are already 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."

It won't be long before P.S. 161's reputation is well-known outside Crown Heights, too. Despite its largely poor and black enrollment, 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--or secret--ingredients of its success: Maybe it's the school's uniforms or its focus 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 Tom Brokaw included P.S. 161 in an NBC news 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, batata, and green and yellow plantains.

In the shorthand educators use to identify economic need, 97 percent of the children are eligible for free lunch.

In 1991, the neighborhood was the site of the Crown Heights riot. Tensions between blacks and Hasidic Jews over services and housing, among other things, erupted into violence 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.

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

Such grim statistics usually suggest that kids will not fare well academically. 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, an amazing 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.

'If anyone wants proof that poor children can meet the same standards as their peers, visit P.S. 161.'

Diane Ravitch,
senior research scholar,
New York University

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. When Kurz runs into such naysayers, they dismiss the school's test results with comments like: "You've got a special population," "Your neighborhood is better than mine," and "You've creamed off the best kids."

None of these accusations--some tinged with more than a bit of racism--is true, according to Kurz. 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."

Education historian Diane Ravitch agrees. In a recent Forbes magazine column, she writes, "If anyone wants proof that poor children can meet the same standards as their peers, visit P.S. 161." Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, believes that 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."

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

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