P.S. 39 Principal Anita de Paz tells us what keeps her coming back
by Talia Berman
from the Park Slope Reader, Issue 27 - Winter 2009
When she first started as a teacher at P.S. 39 21 years ago, principal Anita de Paz shared a portable blackboard - and a classroom - with another teacher.
"The chalkboard divided one classroom in half, and I wrote on one half and my colleague wrote on the other side," de Paz told me this past November as we sat together in her large and sunny office on the second floor of the tiny elementary school (P.S. 39 has 338 students; nearby P.S. 321 has 1,289). "Now we have walls, and we have doors," de Paz said, which has cut down on the noise level, "but I always say the education at P.S. 39 is the most public education you will find anywhere."
De Paz was referring in part to the transparency she has worked to create in the environment at P.S. 39, but she must also have been thinking about the physical structure of the school. The Henry Bristow school (as it is called officially) is built like a railroad apartment - there are no hallways, so the fifth graders have to walk through a first grade class to get to their classroom.
A Windsor Terrace native, de Paz remembers running through the classrooms at P.S. 39 as a kid when her mother was a teacher there. De Paz has been principal of P.S. 39 for three years, and the accolades keep coming in, in an article at the Brooklyn Eagle about 4th and 5th graders mock voting exercise this fall or in comments on websites like insideschools.org, greatschools.net and trulia.com, a real estate search engine that keeps tabs on public education in the neighborhood. De Paz is quick to point out, however, that she isn't responsible for making the school great - she is responsible for telling everyone how great it is. "We can't be these humble wallflowers," de Paz said. "I want people, when you walk around with your P.S. 39 t-shirt, to say, "Oh, I know P.S. 39. That's such a nice school!'"
In addition to raising the school's public profile, de Paz has made P.S. 39 a "neighborhood school of choice," which means that students living in the zone are guaranteed admission to P.S. 39 over students from outside the zone. The pre-kindergarten class of 2007 was the first class to admit only students from the P.S. 39 zone in Park Slope which, de Paz says, has upgraded the educational experience there in innumerable ways. Prior to becoming a neighborhood school of choice, P.S. 39 benefited from Title 1 funding, which is Federal money given to schools with families making under a certain income, dependant on the available funding, which is divided among the boroughs (P.S. 39 was getting $250,000 a year). Beginning in 2007, P.S. 39 lost their Title 1 funding. I asked de Paz how she is making up the lost money, why a neighborhood school of choice is better, and what drives her to keep coming back to the place she has known her whole life.
When I was 22 — and I was a young 22 — the principal who was here kept saying to me, 'You're going to be a principal one day, and you're probably going to be a principal here.'
What brought you back to P.S. 39?
There's a parent in kindergarten this year who was a student in my first grade class. When I was teaching her the kindergarten teacher at that time had been my kindergarten teacher. Because it is so small and we have no hallways, everyone knows each other. The fifth grade teachers know the first graders names - we all know each other. We have some staff members who are former parents who became PTA members who became paraprofessionals who became teachers. There is very little staff turnover - most people make it a career school.
What is it like for the students to have no hallways? Do they get distracted?
They all know each other and it is such a small school, I think the distractions are minimal. I like the transparency of everyone knowing what everyone else is doing and being open about everything.
When did you decide to become an administrator?
When I was 22 - and I was a young 22 - and the principal who was here kept saying to me, "You're going to be a principal one day," and I said, "I'm not even sure I want to be a teacher! I'm still testing the waters." And he said, "And you're probably going to be a principal here." He was pretty astute - look at me now! I had been teaching here, and I finished my certification to be a principal, and I left to be an assistant principal at P.S. 38 in Boerum Hill (there is no assistant position at P.S. 39) to get the experience, and when I was done, the principals at both P.S. 39 and 38 were retiring, and they asked me if I was interested in either school, and I said, "Oh, yes, I am interested in P.S. 39!"
What was your first order of business as principal?
Because I had been working here for so long, as a literacy coach (and a teacher), I had more of an external look. I wanted to see more enrichment, and I wanted to see innovations in the kindergarten that would address our space limitations. The first thing I did was reorganize the kindergarten. There are three kindergarten classes - three separate rooms that the kids travel through. They have a literacy room, math and science, and an art and social studies dramatic playroom. So they have more room than most kindergarteners - three rooms instead of one. They start and end the day in the same room.
Why a neighborhood school of choice?
It is important to the environment of the school to have parents and children close enough that they can participate in the life of the school. It's important to set up play dates if you're not living on opposite ends of the borough. Which is not to say I would never accept children from out of the zone - we do - but we want our primary student body to be neighborhood-based.
How did you recruit neighborhood students?
This was problematic because we have a lot of great schools surrounding us and we were always very silent about our successes, just kind of doing our good work quietly. When I came on board, I said, "No, I want everyone to know about all the great work we are doing, for them to be aware of it, because we've been doing really great work for a really long time. So we've made a huge effort to make the community at large aware of what we are doing. We reached out to community organizations, we have partnerships with the Y and the library. I conduct parent tours all the time, and update our website, all to attract people who live nearby to consider us. Once that was communicated, we found them responding in kind: "Wow, this is a fantastic school, we had no idea."
And it's not like it wasn't a wonderful school before I became principal. It was a wonderful school when I was a teacher and before that, when my mother worked here it was a wonderful school, but we were always under the radar. We are close to 321, which is a highly-regarded school with great public relations.
At insideschools.org, you were quoted as saying that you have shifted the focus of the school from "remediation" to "enrichment." Can you explain that?
Our populations needs have changed based on two things. First, children coming in are coming from families where it is not necessarily a high needs family because Brooklyn is gentrifying. The second is teachers get a lot of training on how to remediate and intervene with children who are suffering, and we do that really well here, so when children have learning needs we can address them and move them forward. Now we are finding that kids are coming in with not those needs but with the needs of kids already performing at grade level or above.
Why is a neighborhood school of choice better?
It's not that concrete - there are a lot of variables going on all the time. As a neighborhood school of choice, our family and school events are better attended because people are nearby. We are a small school and we can't accommodate everyone, even though we would like to.
Tell me about what happened when you lost your Title 1 funding (Federal money for schools with high percentages of low-income families; P.S. 39 was awarded $250,000 annually)
You know the possibility of getting cut off was always looming for us, even when I was a classroom teacher here. It was never 100% we were going to get our funding, and when we lost it, I don't think anyone was surprised. We talked a lot about it happening before it actually did, making plans for what we were going to do.
What have you done to make up for the lost money?
The PTA stepped right in - they really did. They became very proactive. The PTA filed for tax exempt status which made a big difference - if people make a contribution, it's tax deductable. Each year I've been here, the PTA have doubled the amount of money they've raised.
Doesn't making P.S. 39 a neighborhood school of choice make it very homogenous? Do you worry that you will lose the diversity of the students at P.S. 39 now that it is a neighborhood school of choice?
We don't want to lose our diversity, and because our pre kindergarten class is 100 % zoned it is less diverse than it used to be, but when we go up to Kindergarten we go from two pre-K classes to three kindergarten classes, and that is when we can accept children from beyond the zone. Even if all the pre k's move up we still have a pool of 12-15 seats for children from out of the zone. The demographic change is not dramatic. Park Slope is not as diverse as P.S. 39.
Note: demographics have shifted from 29% white students in the 2005-6 school year to 37% in the 2007-8 school year. Black, Hispanic and Asian student populations have all decreased over that period by less than five percentage points. By contrast, neighboring P.S. 321 is 63% white, increased by two points since 2007. Black and Hispanic students have decreased slightly since 2007 and Asian students' percentage is up by two points to 7.6%, still the smallest minority.
What do you hope to focus on in the coming months and years at P.S. 39?
I want to work on establishing stronger partnerships with our families. In the area of enrichment, I'm a big supporter of the school-wide enrichment model, which is a very specific kind of teaching model about gifted and talented kids - it includes all people - it's not exclusionary, because everyone has gifts and talents. I want to apply the ideas and principles of gifted and talented programs to all children then the children will rise to meet them.
The other cornerstone of the program is so simple and basic that it's mind-boggling - children work longer, harder and deeper when they like what they are studying.
We start off with surveying the kids with, "what do you want to know about?" and it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous - from robotics to tap dancing, to photography to flower arranging to knitting you never know what they are going to say because it's coming from the student. Then you go to the staff and say, "This is what they want to learn. Let's facilitate it." It's completely flipped, and the kids love it. We call them enrichment clusters.
I hope to be here for a really long time - that is my dream.