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A school day in East New York: bright students, bored restless

Where can you find the most bored children in New York?

Last week I visited P.S. 13 in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, a school where you would expect to see some anxiety before the high-stakes English exam that will be given next Monday. Instead, I met a cast of bright and precocious students plodding through test prep worksheets with little supervision.

P.S. 13 has been a troubled school for years though its last city-issued progress report calls it a “B” school. In 2004, it managed to remove itself from the state’s list of schools at risk of being closed, but it’s now in danger of landing back on that list. Students know a lot is riding on their test scores. During my visit, many could rattle off the dates of the upcoming tests from memory.

Morning announcements over the loud speaker included test tips like encouraging students to get a good night’s rest and eat a full breakfast (84 percent of P.S. 13 students qualify for free or reduced lunch). In advance of the test, the regular schedule had been altered so that on Thursdays students only focused on reading and writing and Fridays were math-only days.

I visited on a Thursday. In classroom after classroom, students in yellow shirts and navy blue bottoms sat hunched over “Comprehensive Assessment of Reading Strategy” and “Strategies to Achieve Reading Success” workbooks, which are published by Curriculum Associates. Some read the questions aloud to themselves and dutifully circled their answers. Others read books or played computer games. Several stared into space.

For the most motivated and experienced of teachers, making test prep engaging is difficult. But in the three P.S. 13 classrooms I spent time in that day, the teachers were barely present.

I walked into one room carrying a reporter’s notepad and made my way to the teacher’s desk. She looked up from her cell phone, paused to say it’d be fine if I watched the class for a bit, and then went back to her conversation. She was still on the phone 20 minutes later when I left.

Without a teacher’s supervision, students’ eyes glazed and more than a few rested their heads on desks. Papers had graphite trails where students had begun to write but dozed off.

I sat down next to a third grader who’d begun an acrostic of the word “spring” rather than read the short story she’d been assigned. “Do you know any flowers that start with the letter ‘n’ or ‘g’?” she asked. I offered “narcissus” and “geranium” and while we worked on spelling them out, another girl showed me her math workbook. Page after page was marked with her penciled-in answers, but a teacher’s corrections or affirmations were no where to be found.

Next door students were rotating through work stations, each of which was set up to test a skill likely to appear on the state exam. While some students listened to a story and filled in a worksheet, others matched vocabulary words to their corresponding sentences. In the back of the room, three second graders played reading computer games — their teacher was absent that day and the students had been scattered across other classes. Next to them, two third graders played a math game. When I walked over and asked why they weren’t working on their reading, they smiled shyly and switched to ELA-based computer games.

Last year, too few of P.S. 13’s special education students met the state’s proficiency bar in reading and writing, putting the school’s future in jeopardy. According to the city’s Department of Education, P.S. 13 is on the state’s “Joint Intervention Team” list, a step away from the list of schools under review for closure.

Before its current principal arrived in 2002, P.S. 13 went through seven principals in as many years, giving shape to the chaos long associated with one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Now, the school is about to lose its principal, Barbara Ashby, who is planning to retire at the end of this year.

Ashby did not respond to requests for comment.