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Canarsie school, saved from closing, starts new year with fresh plans and spirit

Integrated co-teaching classroom colleagues Inger Beatty (left) and Christina Ta Bruce Cotler

Integrated co-teaching classroom colleagues Inger Beatty (left) and Christina Tavares (center) and 3rd grade teacher Marlene Meade all give positive ratings to the new school leadership.

Speaking a medley of tongues, mostly English, Creole and Spanish, fresh-faced and crisply uniformed students at PS 114 in Canarsie on Sept. 8 excitedly greeted friends, hugged teachers and said they were glad to be back. So were the teachers. PS 114 narrowly escaped the mayor’s chopping block last year.

Scarred and bruised, the PS 114 community is made up of survivors. Their elementary school got battered in the four years leading up to the 2009 ouster of principal Maria Peña-Herrera, who ran up a $180,000 deficit that successor principals initially were obligated to repay to the Department of Education. 

A kindergarten student follows his mother and little sister to his new class.Bruce CotlerA kindergarten student follows his mother and little sister to his new class.

Peña-Herrera also alienated parents and made working at the school a nightmare, former Chapter Leader Keith Peterson remembers. Staff positions were lost, other staff quit and cuts in reading, math and after- school programs led to a drop in the school’s progress report from a B to a D, which prompted the DOE to seek to close the school. 

It took joint work by teachers, parents, community leaders, elected officials and the union who made the point that the DOE was punishing the school for its own lack of oversight. PS 114 got its reprieve last spring when agitation by supporters made it the only school to be removed from the DOE’s closing list. Now it has to prove itself, the DOE says. 

“This is a school that was failed by Tweed, failed by its district superintendent, failed by its network, but not failed by its staff, parents or community,” said Scott Schwartz, the chapter leader.  

The school’s once bleak atmosphere is now hopeful. Teacher morale is high, a new school leader popular with staff and parents was installed in May and enrollment is up significantly.

Part of the change, teachers say, stems from the new principal, Darwin Smith, who is viewed as someone who listens and values cooperation. He has instituted professional development programs in math, reading instruction and classroom management at a cost of some $200,000 — money well spent, the teachers say. 

Smith also secured smartboards for classrooms, confers regularly with the chapter leader, plans consultation committee meetings, solicits parent and teacher advice and actually split his own capacious office in two to make room for a Teacher Center, a large, sunlit, airy and fully equipped facility. Smith even does lunch duty. 

“He’s not a principals’ academy grad,” said Schwartz, “He was here all summer, and many of us came to help — unpaid. He wants input.” 

The school staff echoes that sentiment. 

“We’ve already seen a difference, and not just in mood. He has brought more resources here in the last two days than we’ve seen in the last five years,” including  desktop computers and lap tops, said Nicole Valvo, the school’s technology teacher, as she put the finishing touches on a room that will see much use this year. 

“It’s a refreshing change, and I’m very excited.”

Busy helping to get the library ready for the first crop of students, Parent Association Vice President Jimmy Orr attested that “before Smith, parents couldn’t talk to the principals.” Added parent Agatha Phillip, “When you walk in the school, you feel like you’re welcome. It’s a good feeling.”

Still, it’s not all win-win. The school community had to accept co-location with the Explore Excel Charter School, which means sharing the gym, lunchroom, auditorium and schoolyard with the much smaller charter.

Much of the school’s success will depend on whether the DOE supports it.

“My concern is with the DOE,” said District 18 Representative Richard Mantell. “It made promises to support the school; we’ll see if it lasts.”

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