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P.S. 133′s innovative admissions model aims for more diversity

One day after the country honored the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, city officials cut the ribbon on a school building in Brooklyn constructed to advance a new model for school integration.

P.S. 133 in Park Slope opened the doors of its $66 million building this morning to an eager and enthusiastic group of parents and students. Along with the 45 classrooms, shiny gymnasium, and an auditorium that incorporates the school’s historic facade, P.S. 133 also got a brand-new admissions policy.

Instead of drawing students from its old zone in District 13, the school accepts students from across all of District 13 and adjoining District 15. A third of seats are earmarked for students from District 13, and 30 percent of kindergarten seats are reserved for English language learners and children who quality for free or reduced-price lunch.

It’s the first time the Bloomberg administration has engineered a specific mix of students based on socioeconomic status and English proficiency. The admissions process also marks a collaboration between two districts with markedly different demographics.

“We wanted to make sure if you couldn’t afford to live in expensive homes in Park Slope, it didn’t matter,” said Principal Heather Foster-Mann. “If you live on the other side of District 15 or if you were coming from Sunset Park and you spoke a foreign language, you can come to our school and it would be fine.”

A city press release today touted the new building’s many amenities and state-of-the art features but barely mentioned the innovative admissions policy. Chancellor Dennis Walcott, speaking at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, said he thought the school’s unique admissions model could be replicated, but he didn’t mention any plans to do so.

Initially the new building was going to house two different schools — P.S. 133, and a new school that would enroll students from District 15. District 15 has many more white students and middle-class students than District 13, and its average test scores are higher. District 15, which includes Sunset Park, also has more English language learners than District 13.

That plan drew fire for advancing a “separate but equal” arrangement. Later, the department and elected parent leaders voted to merge the two schools and call for the admissions quotas.

Foster-Mann said she is glad that the building now houses one school. “To have one unified school, it sends the message we can exist and have a diverse school that serves everybody’s needs and get along, because that’s exactly what Dr. King would want us to do,” she said.

In a large playground and basketball court area behind the school, students were getting their faces painted, jumping on an inflatable bouncy castle and playing mini-golf while a live-deejay played top-40 hits. Dozens of booths were set up advertising after-school programs and selling P.S. 133 paraphernalia to parents and students.

While standing near the bouncy castle, parents Jebel and Ghessycka Bennett, who live in District 15, described their last-minute scramble to find a pre-kindergarten program for their son. Their zoned school, P.S. 10 in District 15, cancelled its pre-kindergarten program this year because of crowding that required additional sections of kindergarten. They said they signed up for 12 different schools and were lucky enough to land a spot at P.S. 133. The couple, who isn’t originally from New York, said they appreciated the chance to attend a school outside of their district.

“It just offers us, and other people, an opportunity to just find the best school for their kid regardless of where they happen to live,” she said. “And I think it will expose our son to meeting new people beyond his neighborhood.”

Ghessycka Bennett added that she likes P.S. 133 admissions policy because it doesn’t put pressure on parents to find the right apartment in the right school district just so their child can get into a certain school.

Inside the school building, with its fresh coats of paint and squeaky-clean hallways, pre-kindergarten teacher Jacqueline Didier stood in her new classroom and greeted parents and students.

Didier, who has taught at P.S. 133 for 17 years, said Bloomberg could take credit for the new admissions policy but it was really the staff who pushed hard for the dream to become a reality.

“He can say whatever he wants, but this is what we stressed we wanted … we wanted an equal opportunity for all kids,” she said. She added that she’s a firm believer that exposing children to others from different backgrounds when they’re younger creates a foundation of more acceptance as they grow up.

“You get away from when they get to high school, ‘Oh you’re Hispanic, you’re black you’re this you’re that… Oh I’m wearing Jordans, you have on Payless,'” she said. “It doesn’t make a difference. It’s equal opportunity because you’re all getting the same education.”

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