In Bedford-Stuyvesant, an Elementary School Overcomes City Efforts to Close It

The shouts of children bounce off the main hallway and into the lobby of Public School 25 in Brooklyn as they rush to meet their parents at the end of the school day.

For now, that scene will remain unchanged. But until this spring, the fate of the decades old elementary school with fewer than 100 students was anything but certain.

The school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, named for the African-American showman Eubie Blake, has room for up to 1,000 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. But over the past few years, enrollment has dropped dramatically.

In 2013-14, 235 were enrolled. Today, that is down to 82.

With the loss of enrollment and the high cost of maintaining a large 77-year-old building, P.S. 25 was a clear candidate for closing. But parents and advocates pushed back after the city, under the leadership of a previous schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, moved to shut the school.

Though most of the students are from the poor families and nearly a third of them have special needs, parents and other advocates assert that the students are doing better academically than students with similar challenges at other schools and performing above the citywide average.

After more than a year of hearings, P.S. 25, one of hundreds of elementary schools in the largest school system in the country, won its battle to stay open through the 2019-20 academic year.

But it was not easy.

In January 2018, the city’s education department proposed to close the school, citing its drop in enrollment and “lack of demand from students and families.” The governing body of the department, the Panel for Educational Policy, voted the next month to close the school.

In March 2018, Laura Barbieri, a lawyer with the Advocates for Justice firm, sued the Department of Education on behalf of parents at the school. “The attempt to close P.S. 25 was, in our view, unlawful,” Ms. Barbieri said.

Under state law, proposals to close schools or change school zone lines requires a vote from a local education council. The District 16 Council for P.S. 25 supported the move to close the school but did not vote on the matter.

Ms. Barbieri also argued in State Supreme Court that the closure would cause irreparable harm to the children because they would have less desirable alternatives to transfer to.

A main concern of parents and their advocates was the school population’s fragile nature. Most students are from minority groups, with 96 percent facing economic hardship and 27 percent with disabilities or special needs. In New York City Schools overall, 72 percent are economically disadvantaged and 21 percent are categorized as disabled.

Crystal Williams, vice president of the P.S. 25 Parent Teacher Association and one of the plaintiffs, said she was concerned the closure would put the children in danger. She has two children ages 9 and 10 enrolled at P.S. 25.

“They ain’t going to do nothing but run back to the streets,” Mrs. Williams said. “Why close the school where they’re comfortable at?”

Students at P.S. 25 have excelled academically. Between 2015 and 2018, they outperformed their comparison groups, or students with similar demographics and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as city averages in Math and English and Language Arts.

Some believe the small class sizes, which range from 10 to 18, and the ability to give children individual attention are the secret to the students’ success. Those with disabilities also work under an Individualized Education Program to receive an optimal learning experience.

Le-Joelle Lawrence, 10, is one of 13 students in her fourth-grade class this year.

Her mother, Hope Lawrence, said the teaching and learning mode is “more personalized.” Le-Joelle said she sees differences between her learning experience in P.S. 25 and her native Jamaica, where she had 50 students in her class.

But the city sees a school hosting less than 10 percent of its potential student population as a detriment to the institution’s success. For example, teachers who instruct one grade on their own may lose the opportunity to collaborate with one another, and students may have fewer extracurricular activities available to them.

As a result of the challenges at P.S. 25, there has been a loss of funding for students along with an excess of elementary school seats that could be redistributed across the district, according to the Educational Impact Statement.

However, parents and advocates say they want the Department of Education to play their part in supporting P.S. 25 as it stands.

Ms. Barbieri said Richard Carranza, the current schools chancellor, is willing to keep the school open and work with the community to increase enrollment.

“I think the chancellor’s whole message has been in favor of community support and outreach,” Ms. Barbieri said.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, an advocacy group, said that Chancellor Fariña was against small schools.

“When you have a school that’s excelling to this degree, like P.S. 25, you don’t close it down,” Ms. Haimson said. “You do everything you can to replicate it and expand it.”

Nehosmary Ortiz, 33, has two children ages 5 and 6 enrolled at P.S. 25. She said her children are “very happy” at the school.

“The teachers make the kids feel special,” Mrs. Ortiz said in Spanish.

The Department of Education plans to work with the community to increase enrollment and support the school, according to spokesman Doug Cohen.

Ms. Barbieri has requested that the department notify Advocates for Justice should the city consider shutting the school again.

Mrs. Williams said she will continue to advocate for the school.

“I do it for the kids,” Mrs. Williams said. “We just need some help.”