Brooklyn Heights: How Parents Rescued a Principal

Brooklyn Heights: How Parents Rescued a Principal

On July 26, parents at Brooklyn Heights’ P.S. 8 Robert Fulton School finally got their wish, as Patricia Peterson was named the new principal by the Department of Education. For some time, it looked like she would not get the job, but the parents came to her rescue. Now the hard work begins. 

Peterson’s appointment did not come without some uncertainty. A 2016 article by the New York Post, headlined “Fariña ‘pushed’ rule-bending pal through ranks to tune of $118K salary,” accused Peterson of receiving numerous promotions throughout her career thanks to her close relationship with New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. The article claimed Peterson lacked the required licenses and credentials for several jobs. In 2002, the article said, she taught at P.S. 29 despite her state certification having been expired. In 2003, she was promoted to a math coach, but according to the article was still missing her certification. The NY Post also claimed that according to Department of Education records, Peterson was lacking a required city license when she was promoted to interim assistant principal at P.S. 58 in 2004.

Devora Kaye, a DOE spokeswoman denied the claims in the article. In the story, she said, “Any theory that Chancellor Fariña was involved in any of these issues is false.”

Still, a committee of parents and representatives of the teachers and principal’s union at P.S. 8 recommended Peterson as the next principal in December.  The DOE’s decision was not announced until the end of July, lending weight to parents’ fear that the negative press Peterson had received perhaps had influenced the DOE decision, and that Fariña was blocking her appointment in order diminish the appearance of favoritism. 

Despite the attacks on Peterson, parents strongly backed her up from the start as the next leader of P.S. 8. On June 28, they marched on the department’s headquarters to support her.

Peterson had been brought on for the 2016-2017 school year to serve as assistant principal under Seth Phillips, who had announced he would be retiring as the school’s principal at the end of the year. Peterson has worked at Brooklyn schools since 1993. Her charm and generosity are some of the attributes parents pointed out. “She’s genuinely a nice person,” said Enrique Figueroa, a father of a fourth-grader and seventh-grader at P.S. 8. 

In just a year, Peterson made a strong enough impression to have parents rally behind her. In May, the executive board of the Parents and Teacher’s Association stated in a petition that Peterson “has a deep knowledge of opportunities, partnerships, and grants which have strengthened P.S. 8’s curriculum and programming.” The 16-member board described her as having “demonstrated impressively steady and strong leadership.” Among the achievements the board highlighted were the adoption of an anti-bullying program called “No Place for Hate,” and the pursuit of a STEM grant for 2017-2018 to strengthen the science curriculum.

Elsie Hsieh, who has three kids at P.S. 8, said Peterson was a prime candidate for principal, “because she knew the school. It just seemed like an easy transition for everyone instead of bringing in someone new, an unknown quantity,” she said.

Figueroa thought the same. “She has skills. She was there through the transition. … I certainly supported her,” he said. 

But for quite a while, Peterson’s track record at the school and support from the parents seemed insufficient to land her the job. Under the Chancellor’s Regulation C-30, a committee of parents, teacher’s union representatives, and principals’ union members are allowed to recommend a selection for a new principal. The district superintendent can veto a nomination if issues arise during a background check, but nominations are rarely rejected. In this case, though, the P.S. 8 committee unanimously selected Peterson in December, but the DOE did not announce her appointment for months. It was not until late July that she was appointed,  after the DOE said it would choose a new principal on June 28.

The delay left some parents like Hsieh nervous. “I was kind of worried because they were searching for a new principal,” she said. “The parent community kind of went and stood behind Peterson, but it wasn’t clear that she was going to get the job.”

Now Peterson’s real challenge lies ahead—trying to fill the shoes of Phillips, the previous principal who is widely credited for the school’s turnaround. In Phillips’ 14 years at the helm, P.S. 8 went from being under enrolled to overcrowded, and from struggling in state tests, to posting above average scores. The DOE’s 2015-2016 School Quality Snapshot report found that 96 percent of students at the school pass their math, English, social studies, and science classes. The report stated that 70 percent of students met state standards in the English test, compared to 38 percent in the city. In math, 64 percent met standards, versus 36 percent citywide. 

Peterson did not respond to interview requests via email, phone calls, and Facebook Messenger.

Parents are confident Peterson will continue to build on P.S. 8’s reputation. “I know from friends of mine who are very passionate about it that they’re super excited,” Alexis Barad-Cutler, mother of a first-grader said about Peterson’s appointment. “My husband is really involved in it and he was happy about it.”

But some parents, like Brian Rivera, father of a third-grader and kindergartener, believe the successful environment at P.S. 8 is due to the teacher’s and the parents. “With the way public schools are moving, this is one of the schools that still feel like it’s got that love and family vibe to it,” Rivera said.

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