One day, for a performance at PS 52 in Springfield Gardens, Queens, Elena Ellis’ 1st-grade students were instructed to wear white T-shirts and jeans. One student showed up in a shirt that was far too small.
“It looked like she was wearing her little sister’s top,” said Ellis. Luckily, PS 52 had a solution: a little room called the community closet, fully stocked with children’s clothes in all sizes.
“We found something that was a better fit for her, and she was able to perform without standing out,” said Ellis.
PS 52 has a large population of students living in shelters or doubled up with relatives and often “in need of some of the basics,” explained Sarah Fay, the magnet director at the school.
Ellis recalled a student who arrived on her first day without a warm-enough jacket. If not for the closet, she said, the student “would have had to stay inside and not interact with her peers at recess.”
Other times, as in every elementary school, accidents happen and students need a change of clothes to get through the day. Thanks to the community closet, “the parent is able to stay at work and the child doesn’t miss any school — that’s huge,” said Fay.
PS 52 is part of the UFT’s United Community Schools (UCS) initiative. UFT Chapter Leader Sparkle Spencer-Edwards said educators collaborate with families to identify needs — such as clothing, medical care or food — and provide wraparound services, often through partnership organizations, to address them.
The community closet is the product of a recent partnership with the Fashion Foundation, which gave the room a fresh coat of paint, installed furniture and fixtures, and brought $5,000 worth of brand-new children’s clothing.
The community closet is just the latest iteration of work that PS 52 staff have been doing for five years. “I’d have clothing in my office in cardboard boxes and storage containers,” said Tanisha A’See, the UCS community school director at PS 52, from donations and a partnership with The Gap. Staff members would help fold, sort and organize, and alert A’See to students who needed clothing.
“We were making it work,” she said, but the program is much improved by a fully dedicated space.
As they collaborate to meet families’ clothing needs, PS 52 educators are mindful of privacy concerns. They ask parents for permission to provide clothes, then discreetly give clothing to the students.
“We don’t beat the drum about it, but it quietly fills a need and allows for dignity,” said Ellis.
The giving of clothes is part of the school’s larger mission to fill the equity gap.
“Whatever their needs are,” said Fay of PS 52 families, “they should have whatever other people have.”