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At P.S. 161, a renewed call for more time to show improvement

At the same time that supporters of Satellite III were laying blame for their school’s decline Thursday night, backers of Crown Heights’ P.S. 161 said they were confident their new principal could reverse that school’s slide.

Three years ago, P.S. 161 was an in-demand primary school, with more than three quarters of its students performing at or above grade-level. This year, the school is under-enrolled, D-rated, and set to lose its middle school grades, according to a Department of Education proposal.

Citing the school’s low test scores, which show less than half of students passing state tests, and a steep drop in enrollment between fifth and sixth grades, city officials said truncating the middle school grades will benefit the school in the long-run. Without a middle school, they said, the school could focus efforts to boost achievement in the elementary grades.

“Let me be clear that the school is not closing,” Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg told the crowd of 70-some parents, students, and education activists peppered through the school auditorium. “We see the truncation of the middle school as an opportunity to focus on the existing strengths of the school and reinvest in what is working here.”

Parents and community leaders said the middle school remains a high point in a district with dwindling middle school options.

“The CEC is very concerned about what is going on in general in District 17 this January,” said Claudette Agard, a member of the elected Community Education Council for the district. “We have four schools on this [closure] list. We are not defending failure, but the failure that you are citing and you are speaking of is not under this leadership.”

PTA President Demetrius Lawrence, the father of two current students and one graduate, said the school’s new principal, Michael Johnson, has the skills to turn the middle school around but needs more time.

Standing with his wife, son, and two daughters who now attend P.S. 161 — fourth-grader Tiara and sixth-grader Anahiah — Lawrence echoed appeals to the school’s longstanding community presence that several parents noted in their testimonies.

“My daughter will never have the opportunity to say I went to this school like her other siblings,” he said. “Give Mr. Johnson and the new leadership of the school a fighting chance.”

As the meeting wrapped up, Joan Thomas pressed Sternberg to describe middle school options for her fifth-grader, who would have enrolled in P.S. 161’s sixth grade this fall.

A single mother who has had three children graduate from P.S. 161 and now sends two daughters to the school, Thomas said she needs to send her youngest somewhere close by, and the aging brick building on Crown Street is a prime location.

“I’m wondering, who’s going to take her to school? She cannot go to Bushwick or Flatbush by herself,” she said.

“There are charter schools. Sixty percent of the middle schools in District 17 are A or B schools,” Sternberg responded, before offering his contact information.

Afterward, Thomas said that answer was disheartening to hear as a parent who remembers the school in its not-too-distant heyday, when it put her eldest daughter, Samantha, and many of her peers on the path to college.

“The school used to be the top school,” said Samantha Thomas, now a student at Kingsborough Community College. “It put me and my siblings in the place we are now.”

The Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal, will vote on the truncation plan next month.

Tonight, closure hearings will take place at two other schools on the chopping block. One is Brownsville’s P.S. 298, where a mother was killed in an after-school shooting this fall. The other is P.S. 215, a Far Rockaway school that is the zoned option for many students set to be displaced by the closure of Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School.

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