Park Slope: A Public School Preps for New Homeless Students

Park Slope: A Public School Preps for New Homeless Students

Parents of children at P.S. 124 are both welcoming and worried.

The fall semester has just begun, but there’s already a lot on P.S. 124’s back-to-school agenda. And with two homeless shelters opening nearby, the to-do list is only getting longer.

The news of the shelters, to be located on blocks next to the school on Fourth Avenue, has sparked heated debate among local residents, parents, and business owners. It’s culminated in a petition opposing the shelters, which has gathered 1,500 signatures. One criticism is the potential strain on P.S. 124, a so-called Title 1 school serving children from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, which the petition labels as “struggling” and contends that its resources may further be strained by the “large influx of high needs students.”

A staff member leads a small group of students back to school. | Photo by Yoonji Han for The Brooklyn Ink

P.S. 124, however, is determined to change that. During the school’s first PTA meeting this fall, principal Maria Interlandi informed parents of a total overhaul of the curriculum—replacing old math, writing, and science programs with new ones—is starting this academic year, an effort to address “gaps” and boost proficiency to the state level.

The school is also working with the city to obtain permanent counseling services for students, the principal said. Due to its small size, P.S. 124 does not have a full-time counselor. During the same forum at which Andrix voiced her concerns, council member Brad Lander announced that the DOE has committed to providing four new staff members to the school to help with incoming students from the shelters, including a guidance counselor, school aides, and special education

For parents at the school, the additional staff members is a small, but welcomed, step toward increasing support for the homeless children—many of whom have experienced stresses associated with displacement and loss of their home to, say, a fire or flood. Domenica Ruta, 40, whose son is in pre-K at P.S. 124, has worked with victims of domestic violence, and says she strongly believes that the school should have permanent counselors and other resources in place to ensure a smooth transition for homeless students. She says she understands from experience that disadvantaged people, especially children, can bring a great deal of “stress at minimum, trauma at maximum.”

But there’s one big problem. The promises made by local officials have not been fulfilled yet, according to Andrix. Despite Lander’s assurance in July that the support will be in place for the entire school year “before the shelters open,” P.S. 124 has yet to receive the four staff members they were promised. It’s been nearly a month since school started.

The lack of action from the DOE has some parents worried. Because the school is so small—it is currently under-enrolled, and so has less funding—it doesn’t have the financial “ability to absorb additional students without the extra support,” said Andrix.

The two large homeless shelters along Fourth Avenue are each a block wide. | Photo by Yoonji Han for The Brooklyn Ink

Compounding the funding problem is uncertainty over when the shelters will open. One shelter was originally slated to open last month, but all is still quiet on Fourth Avenue. Because it now seems likely that any new students from the shelters will not enroll until after October 31—the cutoff date for calculating funding, based on the number of students—Andrix is concerned that the funding allocated to the school won’t be enough to support any additional children who may join after.

“The shelters present a real challenge from a timing standpoint,” she says. She wonders if there is any flexibility in the “rigid” DOE system to accommodate “unique circumstances” like the opening of two large shelters with children. “It’s
a wild card,” Andrix said.

If the promised early funding and additional staff don’t arrive in time, the school already has a few programs in place that may allow it to support incoming students and help keep the boat afloat, at least for a while. As part of the DOE’s Community Schools initiative, P.S. 124 was granted extra federal funding for enrichment opportunities, like karate classes and after-school dance and theater activities.

Ruta says that programs like these, which are free for all students at the school, are great “at taking the stigma off.” She hopes they can continue to “foster that same spirit” for any higher-need students who may join her son in the

Ruta’s husband, Stephen Taylor, 41, agrees that it’s important that children from shelters be part of a “normal school community.” He points to the kids running and yelling in the playground and says, “Park Slope is a great community, and we
should be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, to everyone.”

Some opponents of the shelters—especially those who don’t know that they will house families with young children—fear that homelessness means crime. Ruta disagrees. “Families in transition aren’t unsafe,” she explains. She and Taylor live with their son next to a women’s shelter on Eighth Avenue, she said, and have not encountered any trouble.

At the playground at P.S. 124, seen through a fence, kids play tag and slip down slides. | Photo by Yoonji Han for The Brooklyn Ink

Other P.S. 124 parents feel the same way. Matt Whelan, 49, is the father of Sam, who just started in pre-K, and Phil, a second-grader. Like a few other parents, he initially thought that the two shelters, which loom over the school, would be men’s halfway houses, and thus possibly dangerous. The news that they would be housing families with young children, however, swiftly “allayed those fears.” Trying to wrangle his energetic sons, he said, “Park Slope is a great area, and if we can help them, then I think that’s great.”

But there are still unknowns, which, as Andrix explained, hinder the school from being fully prepared. “The only thing we can do is to make sure everybody follows through with their promises for support,” she said.

The DOE told The Brooklyn Ink that projections on funding and the number of homeless students expected to attend P.S. 124 will not be available for another month or so. The shelters will likely open by the end of the year, though the Department of Homeless Services did not respond to requests for confirmation.

It’s a waiting game for now, but that doesn’t mean hands must remain tied. “Help us. Help talk about this school,” Superintendent Skop urged at the community board forum. “Please hold us accountable.”

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