New York Schools, our journey from PS 397 to PS 150

How better to catch you up on life than beginning with the one thing that everyone with even a little experience of New York told us would be an all-consuming issue for our family: schooling for the kids.

The New York City Public School System is not all that chaotic. It’s just that New Yorkers looking to figure out where to send their kids to school suffer from a common big apple problem – too many choices, and limited options.

Inside Schools should be your first stop when navigating a move to the city with kids. We (well, mostly Jason) looked over the various public elementary schools (neighborhood, district-wide, city-wide, and charter). We knew where we were working and used the school information (test scores, admittance information, etc) to narrow down potential neighborhoods. Here, in a nutshell, is how it works.

Anywhere you live, you will have a “zoned” school – a school that kids at your address are assigned to attend. In theory, you could just go to the DOE website and find out where you needed to live in order to have your child in the zoned public school. In practice, however, the most sought-after public schools are not able to accommodate everyone who lives in the zone. Overflow students are assigned to another nearby school. If you are just moving to the city, this is particularly problematic because you cannot register your child for school without proof-of-residence in the zone. So, it is possible that you might pay a premium to live within the zone of a popular school and then end up schlepping your kid to some other school not too far away but surrounded by apartments that are slightly more reasonably priced (relatively speaking, that is, I am talking about Manhattan, after all).

Jason and I decided that we didn’t want to deal with the uncertainties of such things. Since our close-to-work neighborhood choices basically included Seaport/Financial District (relatively lower rents and no concerns about zoned school running out of space) and TriBeCa (higher rents and schools that are unable to accommodate all zoned kids with the overflow kids are sent to the school in FiDi where we would be placed if we went for a less expensive apartment), we decided to focus our apartment hunt on FiDi. Of course, we read what we could find about PS 397 – the relatively new school that is zoned for that area as well as taking TriBeCa overflow. We toured the school, which is actually a gorgeous facility in the bottom 5 floors of New York by Gehry (a.k.a the wave building). On the eve of the start of school, as we were moved into our apartment and prepared to start our new jobs, we felt like we had beaten the system by managing to get ourselves set up without all the drama around school choice. So we thought.

PS 397 offers gorgeous facilities, friendly and largely well-off downtown parents, a rosy-cheeked corps of young teachers in their first years out of training, a perky, smiling principal ushering students into the building in the morning and admitting parents in to collect them in the afternoon. Blinded by the bright and shiny exterior, it took a little while for us to realize that we had some issues with this school.

The first problem was the chaos of drop off and pick up. It turns out the school has a serious design flaw – the lack of a large public space on the ground floor of the school. Because of the lack of space, school pick-up was a melee in the cafeteria with nannies and parents basically throwing elbows to get to kids. Stressful and unpleasant.

When I asked about moving pick-up outside, I learned of a 2nd big problem: the courtyard the school doors opened on to was a private/public space shared with the hospital next door. During this academic year half of that space will become the driveway and entry to an underground parking facility which will be under the school. So, kids will literally be coming in and out of the school right at a place were cars are coming in and out of parking.

Meanwhile, some issues began to arise with the kids. It started with small things – strange homework assignments, kids forced to read books way below their levels, kids coming home and saying that they weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom and that there were cameras everywhere in the school and they were watching you so you had to be absolutely sure not to run or talk in the hallway. These might have been small things – misunderstandings, etc, but we had no way to find out because at PS 397 most parents are effectively barred from the school.

Very quickly we got the feeling that we were not welcomed – since everyone seemed so nice, at first I chalked it up to our newcomer status. By the second week, however, I realized that the problem was much larger than me feeling new and out of sorts. Here are just a few examples of the closed nature of the school vis-a-vis parents:

1. Parents were given no contact information (neither email nor phone) for the teachers or school leadership. We asked for said information and were denied. Instead, we were told that we could communicate with teachers by sending a note in with child and the teachers would send a note in return. Parents were also instructed that we should not chat with teachers during afternoon pick-up. Instead we should get our kids and leave. Parents were also not allowed to enter the building in the morning. I did send a note in with Jie-jie one time. The teacher sent a brief note of acknowledgement. Then, a couple of days later, Jie-jie came home and told me that her teacher had disagreed with my note and went on the divulge the conversation my 8 year old daughter had with the teacher regarding communication that I had not intended to make my child privy to.

2. We thought we felt basically locked out of our children’s school because we were new. However, as we moved into the 2nd and 3rd weeks of school and started chatting with other parents, we were dismayed to discover that the majority of parents we spoke with were unhappy with the school in general and the principal in particular. The failure of having open, 2-way lines of communication with the parents was the main gripe.

3. We had no way of knowing what was going on in the classrooms. We left after the 4th week of school, still having never seen the kids’ classrooms.

3. We attended the first PTA meeting and thought it was odd. The primary emphasis was on raising money and banking that money. The PTA didn’t seem to have any plan for the funds (unlike our new school, where the PTA purchased a new math curriculum). When parents raised tough questions, the principal brushed them aside by saying, “Trust me, I had good reasons for making the decision I did,” but never shared the reasons. When parents asked what would be done about the merely average test scores of the school, the principal said that average was just fine.

We started talking about pulling the kids but I insisted we should stick with it. So, Jason and I decided to get involved and see if we could shake things up a bit. He made it known that he would be interested in being class parent and volunteered to strategize around blocking the aforementioned parking garage. I spoke with the head of the PTA about making fresh fruit available as a snack and about serving on the School Leadership Team. No one ever got back to Jason about the parking garage and when he volunteered for class parent, he was laughed at (we assume, because he is man, but who knows). I went to the first SLT meeting. Non-team members were treated awfully. After they asked us to help set up the tables, the head of the PTA indicated with a wave of her hand that visiting parents “just sit at the other tables” and then went on to tell us (me and the other 4 visiting parents) that we had not asked in advance to be on the agenda so we would not have a chance to speak. I stayed for a bit – long enough not to be included in introductions, to hear that no seats on the team would be available for 2 years, and to witness a discussion about whether they wanted to give parents an email address for the team (someone callously stated that they would never be willing to make their email available to the entire parent body of the school).

Our last week at the school was a disaster. On Monday when I picked up the children, Jie-jie desperately needed to go to the bathroom. She felt she had to go at the end of class but the teacher made her come downstairs instead. The cafeteria tables were shoved against the only downstairs student bathroom. I took Jie-jie to the base of the stairs so she could go to the bathroom. The assistant principal was standing at the bottom of the stairs and refused to let us (or even just Jie-jie) back upstairs to go to the bathroom. We ended up running to a nearby deli with Jie-jie crying in pain in desperation. The next day Jie-jie went to the bathroom 8 times during the school day and took herself to the nurse twice. She later reported to me that she was just so nervous about needing to go to the bathroom. As we walked toward school Wednesday morning Jie-jie was subdued and started walking closer to me and holding my hand. After I dropped them off I went to work and started calling other schools.

PS 150 is a small, 186-student, district wide school. This means the school is open to people from all over lower Manhattan. Students are admitted by lottery (with preference for people whose siblings are already enrolled). The school is 20 years old, in a well-used, packed to the gills, old building in a public, straight out of Soviet-Russia, apartment complex. The school has no gym, no cafeteria, no playground, its science lab is its computer lab, is its library.

When we went to visit the school on the Thursday of the last week at PS 397, we were struck by how friendly and open the principal and school staff were. They gave us a tour of the school, let us poke our heads into the classrooms, and stopped to chat with us. When we spoke with parents, they all seemed so happy with the school and content with their children’s progress.

The kids started at PS 150 on a Monday (the Monday after the last week at PS 397). By Wednesday, it was as if we had been there all along. We managed to get in because we were lucky. The school almost never has space but last spring the DOE considered closing the school and merging it into another school in Chelsea. Some parents decided to pull their children. It just so happened that when I called, they had space in grades 3 and 1.

PS 150 is in the heart of TriBeCa, about a mile (20 minute walk with kids) from our place while PS 397 was a mere 5 minutes from our apartment. The school has provided the kids with metro cards so we can take the subway on rainy and cold days, but so far we have enjoyed the walk out of FiDi, through City Hall Park, and across TriBeCa. We are very happy with the teachers, school administrators, and enjoy the economic and cultural diversity of the families served by the school (something lacking at PS 397). PS 150 consistently ranks highly on measures of educational effectiveness despite the fact that it draws a much more diverse student body. In addition to strong academics, the kids are out in the city constantly. Jie-jie’s class is studying bridges so they have been taking field trips to various bridges in the city. They have also been to the theatre and the NY Public Library. Mei-mei’s class is studying playground so they have been all over lower Manhattan sampling the playgrounds. They have also been to the Children’s Museum of Art and the theatre.

On the downside, because the school draws from a larger area, the children’s classmates live all over – mostly Midtown and points south with the occasional Brooklyn and Queens household. Mei-mei actually has 2 classmates in our building, but Jie-jie’s friends are further flung. We still bump into the kids and parents from 397 and have been fortunate to have formed some fast friends in the short time we were there.

Lessons learned? Nothing really earth-shattering.

  1. Trust your gut.
  2. If you are willing to move your child a few weeks into the school year, you may have access to schools that you wouldn’t otherwise.
  3. School facilities are only as great as the people administering them. Looking back on things at PS 397, I remember how the parent coordinator gave us a tour even though she said that the principal said she wasn’t supposed to, and how we never once saw or met the principal in all our visits to the school, etc. Next time around I would see those as potential signs of trouble.
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