2 Schools, 1 Space: Scars Linger from Controversy on Adelphi Street

Photo by: Marc Fader
P.S. 20 is home to both a long-tenured elementary school and a newer middle school. When the latter began to recruit younger students, the partnership between the neighbors was severely strained.

The elementary school and the middle school shared a building without strife. But when one school felt compelled to grow, tensions arose around race, class and space.

By: Helen Zelon

Brooklyn grade school P.S. 20 and the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters middle school had, for six years, shared P.S. 20's school building on Adelphi Street in leafy, gentrifying Fort Greene/Clinton Hill. This year, that marriage has faced serious challenges, as one school's growth challenged the status quo and roiled the surrounding community.

In a system where nearly half of the city's schools share a building with other schools – 770 of the DOE's nearly 1,700 schools are co-located – anecdotal accounts of conflict and petty behavior abound, especially, it seems, in sites where charter schools share space with traditional public schools.

But 90 percent of co-location matches involve two or more traditional schools. Sometimes, schools that share buildings serve different age ranges of students, or serve children with differing needs (such as recent immigrants learning English, profoundly learning-challenged students or overage high-schoolers at risk of dropping out). Dozens of small high schools share vast high-school campus buildings, where four or more schools share facilities like lunchrooms, playing fields and labs, all of which require ongoing communication and often-delicate negotiations among school principals.

The pairing of P.S. 20 and Arts and Letters had been something different, however. Their student bodies complemented one another: P.S. 20, which has existed in the neighborhood for generations, served local children, while Art and Letters, founded in 2006, was open to children from a much broader swath of brownstone Brooklyn, covering four Brooklyn school districts.

So rather than pitting their separate political and capital resources against each other, the two principals banded together on behalf of all the children in the building. Their principals pooled their talents, wrote grants and found funders for projects that would benefit both schools, like a shared science classroom, a playground renovation and a million-dollar library rehab.

That collegial relationship persists. But like a cracked piece of china that's been mended and put back to use, it's functional, but scarred, after Arts and Letters decided to expand to serve the same grades as P.S. 20 – and the community reacted to a perceived threat to their school, freighted with potential race and class overtones.

A mandate to grow

Arts and Letters came into being as a middle school, with the intent that it grow upward into a high school, as has been the course for all Urban Assembly schools citywide. Urban Assembly is a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing college-focused small schools in high-need communities. Founded by Richard Kahan, who headed the New York State Urban Development Corporation and supervised the development of Battery Park City and the Jacob Javits Center, the network now has 20 DOE schools.

But in Arts and Letters middle school's first year, it became clear to school leaders that the high-school plan wouldn't work: For one thing, “eighth-graders are big,” says John O'Reilly, the school's new co-director. Educating adult-sized students in an elementary school building seemed impractical.

There were concerns beyond the physical, according to O'Reilly and principal Allison Gaines Pell, who helped found the school. Their vision for Arts and Letters is steeped in a school culture that celebrates robust academics and diversity. That culture could be threatened, Pell says, if students opt for other high-school settings when they finish eighth grade, as high school students often do. As these students left the school, the school would welcome new ninth-graders, likely less attuned to school culture and possibly less academically prepared. Rebuilding the culture every year seemed a daunting challenge, according to Pell.

Instead, its leaders believed, the school could better serve the community by bringing in younger children, holding onto students through the tumultuous middle-school years and graduating youngster who will be well-prepared for rigorous, college-prep high schools. This would also give the school access to a better-prepared set of middle-school students, because most Arts and Letters middle-schoolers would have started there in grade school.

“We wanted the relationships with children and families that could take place over time,” Pell tells City Limits. Working with kids for nine years, from K-8, meant three times the opportunity as three years of middle school. While the school could theoretically have foregone plans to grow, it decided that growing downward was its better option.

Abandoning the high-school plan mean leaving the well-financed Urban Assembly network; Kahan tells City Limits that the parting was entirely amicable. And expanding into the lower grades had the DOE's active support. For one thing, Pell's background is in early-elementary education; it made sense, DOE sources told City Limits, to take advantage of her expertise with younger kids. For another, DOE's aim to foster principal autonomy means that sometimes, schools don't grow the way they're first envisioned. Arts and Letters had a solid track record as a middle school – it's earned straight B grades on its school progress reports – and the principal's success was strongly influential.

“Arts and Letters expressed an interest in expanding,” DOE spokesperson Frank Thomas says. “We worked with them to do that in a way that was a good fit for them and the community. They have created more quality seats that are rooted in their experience and their ability to serve students well.”   

Not everyone was as sanguine about the plan. Arts and Letters will eventually enroll 450 children, school leaders say—50 on a grade, reducing its current 100-student grades but adding new grades for several years. This means that 300 Arts and Letters children will be the same age as their peers downstairs at P.S. 20 – where total enrollment has been hovering at about 350 students. Arts and Letters will eventually outpace P.S. 20 in size, unless enrollment climbs steeply at P.S. 20—an outcome that seems potentially curtailed by the growth of the school upstairs.

A changing community reacts

While many families have sent three or four generations through P.S. 20, plenty of recent arrivals to Fort Greene/Clinton Hill came to the neighborhood uncertain of the area schools. One mother we spoke to, who moved to the neighborhood in 2007, had a back-up plan if no new schools surfaced: She thought she'd send her kids to school in her parents' Manhattan neighborhood. For long-time residents, however, P.S. 20 is their school, where the family goes and has always gone.

At Panel for Education policy and community meetings, a chorus of voices, including those with and without children enrolled at P.S. 20, protested what was perceived as a two-tier school culture, separated by money and race. They protested the additional space that would be used by Arts and Letters, which was housed on the third floor of the P.S. 20 building, and now shares part of the second floor as well.

“We want the best for the kids in P.S. 20, the same way Arts and Letters parents do,” says Conna Cook, whose granddaughter, Amira James, started at P.S. 20 this fall. “It's a question of space. The feeling is, we were here first,” Cook adds.

P.S. 20's historic challenges are legion. For starters, its former principal, Sean Keaton, faced criminal charges for assaulting a teacher on school property (he was acquitted earlier this year). In his stead, Acting Interim Principal Lena Barbera came to P.S. 20 in 2009 and inherited the co-location of her school.

But Amira's mom Ashley never once considered Arts and Letters for Amira; she says. She likes that her daughter can learn French and sing in the school chorus, and the family had fun at the P.S. 20 spring carnival. Amira, decked out in a brand-new school uniform and glitter shoes, listens patiently while her mother and grandmother chat. Finally, she asks when she can go home; she has homework to do.

That the neighborhood has undergone a dramatic change is as plain as the sparkles on Amira's party shoes: While in 2000, the district's poverty rate was 25 percent, a decade later—even after the 2008 economic nosedive—it was 17 percent, according to statistics from NYU's Furman Center. Housing prices, $225,000 on average in 2000, had nearly doubled, to $413,000 a decade later.

The racial scales had tilted as well: In 2000, about 30 percent of the area's residents were white, and about 45 percent African-American. By 2010, nearly half of the neighborhood's residents were white, and no more than one in three black. (The Hispanic population dropped slightly in the same interval, from about 30 to about 25 percent.)   

But strong local protest against Arts and Letter's growth, and requests for longer deliberation from City Council Member Leticia James and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, did not undermine the plan or derail the DOE's support.

The reaction to the plan produced its own fallout. Nadine Brambilla's son Beckett was home-schooled until they “won the lottery” at Arts and Letters. P.S. 20 was not an option: Brambilla was put off by the vitriolic response by the community and by local district leaders after Arts and Letters announced it would open the grade school. In addition, she was looking for a more progressive option for her family (she also has an infant son, Dashiell).   

“I wanted to send my kids to public school,” Brambilla says, “but when I saw acrimony of the P.S. 20 parents, turning things into a black/white issue, it turned me off. If these are the parents, reacting to a progressive idea – well, I have ideas about lunch, about healthy food in school, about no TV, all kinds of progressive, wonky ideas. If this is how they're reacting, it didn't sound like a very open and positive environment.”

“People didn't know what they were fighting against,” Brambilla adds. “And we didn't know what we were fighting for; we didn't know what would happen with the school. It was a leap of faith,” but one that her family, and dozens more, were willing to make.

Collaboration in the wake of conflict

Speaking at length with City Limits, both Barbera and Pell praise one another and talk movingly of the effort to build a relationship that will make school better for all children in the building.

“These are the conditions that are set up by the mayor and the DOE. It's a competing business framework, but we're not a business,” says Barbera. “We're professionals; we collaborate; we both want what's in the best interest of the children.”

Barbara says that adding a new grade school to P.S. 20's building and the District 13 mix is a real concern – especially one that offers parents a new feature, continuity through eighth grade. For Barbera, it's basic: “You lose kids, you lose money. People lose jobs.” But she is quick to defend Pell against charges some have made that Arts and Letters was designed to be a “white” school, created to serve the newest families in the neighborhood. “That's not what she set out to do,” Barbera says.

“I'm not the bad guy,” Pell says. “A lot of people feel change is a euphemism, that change is dangerous.” That preconception is central to the misunderstandings that plagued the growth of her school, she says. “We're committed to creating a diverse school where children can learn to understand one another,” Pell says. “I want to be in the business of creating a place that undoes some of the misunderstandings – that's what we're trying to do.”

Sharing the building is still a thorn that pricks sharp, both school leaders say. With 100 new students in the building, DOE has not provided any additional custodial staff, Barbera says, despite extra bathrooms and classrooms in active use. The school nurse, kitchen staff and school safety agents don't look at Arts and Letters kids and the P.S. 20 kids the same way, Pell says, treating her students like relative strangers.

And the principals' rapprochement has yet to ripple outward to the greater community, where parents say that the divide between the two schools is rooted in more than educational philosophy.

“Arts and Letters has a long history of foundation support; we have bake sales,” P.S. 20 parent Derek Stroup told the New York Times. Stroup noted that P.S. 20 had experienced staff and funding cuts in recent years. “That looks like separate and unequal public accommodations,” Stroup said. “It's like a scientific experiment.”

A wide impact

Meanwhile, the decision to expand Arts and Letter's grade offerings have effects far beyond the building on Adelphi Street.

Arts and Letters, originally created to offer students in four Brooklyn districts (13, 14, 15, and 16) a choice in what has long been considered a middle-school desert, will now prioritize enrollment for children in District 13 – limiting needed middle-school options for South Brooklyn kids.

Even within the district, middle-school options will be limited, as Arts and Letters reduces its middle-school seats and gives priority to students rising from the K-5 grades it is now hosting. DOE sources acknowledge that Arts and Letter's expansion will results in a contraction of middle-school seats, but say that “no school can be a panacea” for a district's needs.

This year, Arts and Letters was granted permission to enroll Kindergarten and first-grade students. First-graders found their way to the school from P.S. 11, P.S. 46, and its neighbor, P.S. 20.

Both principals remain committed to moving past the conflict and working together. “We had an open and honest conversation, just the two of us,” Pell says. “We're on the same side, of what's good for the kids. Even with mistakes, we're always focused on what's good for the children.”