The struggle for P.S. 84: After a battle between white and Latino parents, signs of hope for a public school in rapidly changing Williamsburg

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P.S. 84, on Berry Street at Grand in Williamsburg. ()
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Earlier this month, an energetic young mother named Stephanie Anderson stood before a group of parents that had gathered in the library of Williamsburg’s P.S. 84 (also known as “The Jose de Diego School”) for an early-morning tour. Anderson has a daughter in Kindergarten and a career running a boutique marketing firm for artists. She was putting her professional skills to use by guiding tours to sell neighborhood parents on the merits of the school.

Behind Anderson, on the wall of the library that was renovated by the parents last year, was a large painting of one of the monsters from “Where the Wild Things Are.” In front of her were 20 or so parents, most of whom, like Anderson, could be described as belonging to the neighborhood’s newcomer demographic. “Newcomer” is an imprecise term—many of these people have lived in Williamsburg for more than a decade—but it’s less jarring in this context than the term for which it is often euphemistically substituted in these parts, which is "white."

P.S. 84 is situated right on the fault line of a tectonic population shift that has taken place in Williamsburg over the past two decades. It's on Berry Street at the southwest corner of Berry and Grand: at the crossroads of the still heavily Latino Southside, the hipstery Northside, and the recently rezoned waterfront, where high-rise towers are steadily approaching their projected population of 17,000.

In 1990, the census tract the school occupies was 85 percent Latino and 12 percent white. Now it’s 50 percent Latino and 39 percent white. In the broader area that also includes the five biggest census tracts bordering this one, the numbers have flipped from 70 percent Latino and 25 percent white in 1990 to 37 percent Latino and 52 percent white today. While the area’s overall population has swelled by 4,500, there are approximately 4,000 fewer Latinos than there were 20 years ago.

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Four years ago, P.S. 84 became a cautionary tale about gentrification and displacement, the challenges of integrating disparate cultures, and what can happen when well-meaning activism goes awry.

During the 2006-2007 school year, the building became a battleground among the newcomer, mostly white parents on one side and the pre-existing, mostly Latino parents on another, with the school administration and Department of Education caught in the middle and disparaged by both sides for their inactivity and lack of foresight.

By year’s end, there was a consistent police presence at monthly parent-teacher association meetings, with each side accusing the other of using ethnic slurs. The P.T.A. resigned en masse at the end of the year, and by the following fall, nearly all of the white parents with children in the next year's incoming class had removed them.

But that was four years ago, and four years is a long time when it comes to the warp-speed evolution of New York City neighborhoods. It’s been long enough for a new wave of white parents to have made the decision to try out the neighborhood school, and for a new rising-star principal, a Latina who was raised in Williamsburg, to have established a foothold.

And it’s been long enough for Anderson to be there, standing before a group of prospective P.S. 84 parents, speaking with a missionary zeal about a school that still suffers from severe under-enrollment and chronically low test scores.

“There’s plenty of room here and we have a great leader,” she told them. “This is an amazing opportunity.”

NEARLY FIVE YEARS AGO, A DIFFERENT GROUP of Williamsburg parents heard a similar pep talk. It was delivered to them by the city's deputy schools chancellor Carmen Farina at a large meeting of mostly white parents held at the Brooklyn Brewery, an appropriate venue for a neighborhood that once teemed with factory jobs and now teems with people who drink craft beer in former factories. Farina had been largely credited several years before with the turnaround of P.S. 8, a once-struggling school in Brooklyn Heights that had successfully integrated the children of well-heeled parents and subsequently saw test scores rise.

Her message: Stay local, and integrate your kids into the existing public schools. Why send your kids to progressive East Village schools as previous waves of Williamsburg parents had done when you can help create schools just as good in your own neighborhood? (Besides, those schools are rapidly becoming overcrowded as both erstwhile artist havens mature.) Why try to buck the steep odds of getting into a “talented and gifted” program? Why send your kids to Catholic schools, whose regimented curriculum is anathema to many of your sensibilities? Why entertain the idea of private school?

Sure, test scores in many of the local public schools were low, including in P.S. 84, which had just received an F on the student-performance metric, which is based on test scores, in the latest school-progress reports. But Farina pointed to her own experience, and told parents it only took 10 families to turn a school around. Ten was the magic number, and there were more than 10 families represented in the brewery that night.

It was an appealing message to people sensitive about the stigma that came with living in a neighborhood but not being of it. That fall, P.S. 84 welcomed its largest group of white students in recent memory. The school was still 83 percent Latino, but the 8 percent of white students comprised nearly half of the Pre-K and Kindergarten classes.

On the surface, it seemed like a win-win for everybody. The enrollment at P.S. 84 had been in decline for years, dropping from 876 in 1995 to 449 in 2005, operating at less than half its occupancy rate, according to Department of Education stats. (Those figures are often disputed in the debate about schools, but the fact that the school was severely underenrolled is beyond argument.)

Schools are always trying to increase enrollment because it’s their lifeblood; from it flow funding and resources. Since the start of the Bloomberg administration, increasing enrollment in a public school has yielded another advantage: It buffers a school from the incursion of a charter school. P.S. 84, which until this year did not use one of its three floors, has always seen itself as a prime target.

P.S. 84’s new parents became active immediately. P.T.A. meetings, which had been sparsely attended for years, became packed, mostly with parents of children in the Pre-K and Kindergarten classes. It was clear that a new era of parental involvement was underway and that changes were in store.

“Here come these white middle-class families, and we’re all trained that we can be active on P.T.A.s,” remembered Brooke Parker, who enrolled her daughter in Pre-K that year. “We went into that school thinking they’d be excited about parental involvement—those were the buzzwords the D.O.E. was throwing around. We imagined a diverse school where people were working together for the common good. We thought, ‘We can give you what you need in terms of parental support. We can be in the classrooms, we can fund-raise, we can write grants. We have skills that we come with, and we can contribute them toward the school.’”

THE FIRST SIGN THAT THINGS WOULDN'T go as smoothly as hoped came during elections for the School Leadership Team, a council that comprises parents and staff. Parker, the Pre-K parent, stood up to give her stump speech. Depending on whom you ask, the speech was either a galvanizing call to improve the school or an affront to its teachers and pre-existing parents. Also depending on whom you ask, Parker was rudely heckled or duly called out for her own rudeness.

This was Parker’s take: “I’m giving my speech—and granted, I was really green—but I took the concept of parental engagement to heart. And I was heckled by the faculty, in front of my kids. I was astounded. The faculty was like, ‘Who are you to come in here?’ The insinuation was that I couldn’t be accountable to anyone except my constituency, which was perceived to be middle-class.”

This was the take of Jaime Estades, a longtime parent advocate known for his often-abrasive style who later became P.T.A. president: “A parent stood up and talked about how bad the teaching in the school was and that changes had to be made. You can’t just say that to a bunch of teachers.”

It was the beginning of a several-month period during which changes proposed by the newcomer parents were perceived as threatening or patronizing by the pre-existing school community. Some of these were obvious cultural hot-buttons. The newcomers’ complaints about school’s annual Three Kings Day parade, for instance, showed how one parent-group’s breach of the principle of separation of church and state could be another’s treasured cultural tradition. The longstanding practice of selling ice cream in Pre-K classes to help fund the P.T.A. exposed similar cultural fault lines: For some parents it was a harmless and convenient way to do something nice for their children, and for the other group of parents it was Bad Parenting 101. There was also the matter of the progressive education generally favored by the newcomers, many of whom were artists or involved in the arts, versus the traditional brand favored by the first- or second-generation-immigrant parent community.

But as tempting as it is to characterize the dispute as one about definable cultural differences, the truth is that it usually didn’t get that far before a more basic power-struggle dynamic took hold.

Take, for instance, the bad blood resulting from the seemingly noncontroversial issue of opening the school’s new computer room, which despite its gleaming Macs had sat dormant for the first few months of the year because of staffing and logistical issues. The mostly Latino parents of the older students pushed to open the room as soon as possible. The white parents, whose children were predominantly in Kindergarten and Pre-K and therefore wouldn’t use the room, didn’t see it as their issue. Something as minor as that metastatized to the point where Estades, whose wife is white, swears he overheard a parent of a younger student say to her, “All the Hispanics care about is the computer room.”

The nastiness festered all year long and escalated with each P.T.A. meeting. It didn’t help that the school had separate entrances—one for Pre-K and Kindergarteners and another for the rest of the student body—which reinforced the notion that there were two distinct classes within one school.

The reception they received shocked the newcomer parents. As they saw it, they were working hard to turn a bad school into a good one only to run into opponents who kept making it about race.

“What was said outright to me was that I was not a member of the community and I have no right, and it was because I was white and middle-class,” Parker said. “It was really difficult to function in an atmosphere where it was assumed that there were sides, and everything you were saying was because you were on one side or another.”

But to many of the Latino parents, it was about race and power dynamics, and in the local historical context, a certain wariness was understandable.

District 14 public schools have a sad legacy of being exploited by a white minority at the expense of the Latino majority. In the 1980s and '90s, a district with a public-school student population that was 90 percent minority had a school board of six white people and three people of color. Included among the white members were three Hasids, even though Williamsburg’s Hasidic children almost exclusively attend yeshivas. Long-time rumors of rampant corruption on the board were shown to be true in 1999, when a rabbi pleaded guilty to funneling at least $6 million in government funding through the board over a 20-year period. The money went to 59 no-show jobs at a girl’s yeshiva.

“There were these Hasidic women whose job it was to cash a check,” remembered Luis Garden Acosta, Founder and President of El Puente, a local Latino community organization. “In a way I felt bad for them. They had no idea what they were doing.”

Intermingled with the history of exploitation was one of Latino response. In 1986, Williamsburg’s P.S. 16, less than a mile from P.S. 84, became the venue of a month-long boycott by Latino families after a section of the school was partitioned off to make way for a girls' remedial yeshiva program administered by what was then called the Board of Ed.

P.S. 84 itself has become a symbol of the Latino community’s longstanding fight against environmental discrimination, which is partly to blame for some of the highest asthma rates in the city. The school sits a block away from a medical-radioactive waste-transfer facility, and neighbors have protested against its presence for decades. Last year, a bill that would have banned hazardous-waste facilities within 1,500 feet of schools was passed by the State Assembly and Senate but vetoed by then-governor David Paterson.