I would like to tell you a secret my husband and I swore to each other we’d never tell. “We can never tell anyone,” we said. “If more people came it would ruin it.”
This conversation happened after we toured - The Samuel Mills Sprole School at the corner of Hoyt and Union - for the first time. After walking in near silence to the closest bagel shop, we ordered sandwiches and stared at each other wide eyed from opposite sides of the table.
“We have to get her in there,” I said, “even if she doesn’t get into the Nest program.”
My husband agreed. When our daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome a few months earlier, confirming what we had long suspected, did all they could for us. I, myself, went into my daughter’s classroom and sat down with the students to discuss the condition so the other children would understand her better. She went to a social group once a week and received practical speech therapy. Her teacher, Ms. Claire Benner, surpassed her obligations and was a true friend and helper. But it simply was not enough.
There were times, when I came to pick her up in the crowded school yard, when my daughter was so panicked that she simply froze. Sometimes this happened right in the gate where people were trying to get in and out, brushing past with irritated glances in her direction, and admonishing ones in mine. If I tried to move her she would scream and dig into her spot even further. Tantrums were a twice daily occurrence. Increasingly, she shut herself off to me, became more and more depressed, and suffered from mouth ulcers and stomach aches. And, as the social gap between her and her peers widened, I witnessed tongue clucks and eye-rolls from children who once coveted her friendship. I know these kids. They are kind, patient children, who often tried to help my daughter, but they are just kids. They want to play, and they simply don’t understand.
I had heard about the ASD/Nest program at PS 32. “She doesn’t need to go there,” I was told by two different specialists. I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t ask “Why not?” I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking, except that it was probably one of two things: Either I assumed they meant the Nest program was for children who were further down the spectrum than my daughter, or I thought they meant that PS 32 was not a place I would want to send my child.
Because I had heard the stories. People I knew had falsified their addresses so they wouldn’t have to send their children there. “You can’t believe what goes on there,” one of them said to me. The kids fight in the school yard and set fires. Every day the sirens go past my house.”
Then, one day, I volunteered for lunch and recess duty at my daughter’s school. I saw my six-year-old sitting in the noisy lunchroom, fighting back the anxiety, panic, and fear that played itself out across her face like bubbles breaking the surface of a boiling pot. Her eyes bulged as she chewed her food, I’m sure without tasting. At recess she huddled in a corner of the school yard that had a scrap of shade, shielding her eyes, and trying to shrug her jacket up to cover her ears.
I ran over to her. She couldn’t even look up at me. I said, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she insisted. I could hear the repressed tears in her voice. “Could you ask G---- to come over here and play with me?”
I looked up. The boy in question was engaged in a frenzied ball game. I bit my lip to check my own emotions.
“I think he’s busy,” I said.
Recess ended and there was no question about where I was going next. There could have been hell fires and tornadoes on that school yard. But suddenly I didn’t think so. Suddenly it dawned on me that they would not put a Nest program in a school where the kids were not nice. I made a sharp right and walked the short block down President Street to PS 32.
Standing at the fence to the recess yard at PS 32 was to be greeted with about as sharp a contrast to what had been described to me as you can possibly imagine. The school yard itself was well laid out with a track, chess tables, benches, and a fabulous climbing structure with two rock wall faces, twisting slide, straight slides, and about three different kinds of monkey bars.
There were about a third as many children there as the yard I had just come from. They played happily and nicely with one another; no fires, no fights. Classroom teachers were in the yard also, throwing the occasional ball, offering a cheer of encouragement to someone who just scored a basket, and crouching over to speak with someone who sat alone.
I inched a little closer and tried to catch the eye of a teacher not too far away. He saw me and I waved him over. I explained my business.
“Okay, gotcha,” he said, nodding and fingering the short stubble of his goatee. With his black felt fedora and cuffed jeans, he looked more like a regular at than a school teacher but he had a kind, honest quality, and I instantly liked him.
“Well, here’s the deal,” he said. “Most of our students come from the Gowanus Housing Projects. They’re nice kids. That’s not to say we don’t have our bad days; we do. A lot of them come in with low skill levels, but we do our best for them, and, by the time they graduate, some of them get into the best middle schools, like MS 51, or 447.”
I asked about crowded lunchrooms, school yards, and classrooms. He laughed.
“There’s only about three hundred kids in the whole school,” he said. “I think our biggest classroom has fifteen kids in it. And all the classrooms have two teachers.”
He said more, but in truth I barely heard. He had provided what reassurance I needed, and my eyes were witness to the rest. I revved into high gear.
ADOS, Wechsler Intelligence test, speech evaluation test, interviews, class visits, observations…I can’t remember how many tests my daughter took at how many different locations. I called, I sent emails. They told me there wasn’t a spot. I kept calling. Suddenly, there was a spot. The waiting list was a mile long. But we got it. We got it!
When my daughter was invited to spend her first visit day at 32, before the end of her year at 58, my husband and I picked her up from the recess yard and we got to see something we had never seen before: Our daughter running around and playing with other children her age. We stood there for a moment, not wanting to break the spell. Finally she spotted us and came running over. She jumped into my husbands arms, wrapping her arms and legs around him. He laughed.
He said, “Sara, you’re so happy.”
She buried her head in the crook between his shoulder and neck.
She said, “Thank you, Daddy.”
That day was wonderful, and so has every other day been since she started second grade there in September. The children in the ASD/Nest program are in regular classes with all the other children, but are pulled out for special services several times a day, and take physical education separately. Three days a week they eat lunch in a separate location where they discuss social skills and play board games. I learned that there is a special kindness curriculum in place school wide which teaches children about respecting individual differences, and the personal and community rewards that come from treating one another with compassion.
Since starting at PS 32, my daughter has been calm and happy. There have been no tantrums, no depression, no mouth ulcers and no stomach aches. She constantly talks about how much she lo-o-ves PS 32. Whereas before she would refuse to speak about her day, she now bubbles with all the delightful details of her experiences on the way home, often skipping, often singing. I see the other children putting their arms around my daughter and I can tell they are guiding her; letting her know what she needs to do, now, and how to behave. I can tell they love my daughter. What sweet kids these are!
And now, my God, why am I telling you all this?? This is private stuff; family stuff. And didn’t my husband and I promise never to tell about how great 32 was?
Yes, it is, and yes, we did. But now I feel I must break that promise and risk losing one of the greatest things about 32: its obscurity. For I have learned that this school faces a terrible battle every year, and this year is no exception.
Because of their low numbers, every year there is a charter school that applies to take up half their space. (with the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School.) This would mean losing their art room, music room, special service trailers, and the ASD/Nest program. Classes would increase in size; possibly double. has a philosophy so contrary to the warm and nurturing environment which exists there now, it is as if to supply a bizarre character foil. Inside Schools offers the following description of them: “All schools in the network feature orange and blue uniforms, a fast-paced curriculum, and strict rules of conduct. Children who are tardy must attend Saturday academy with their parents."
Success Charter is trying to mislead parents in our neighborhood by telling them that the new school is an option to alleviate overcrowding at 29 and 58, an outright lie since the lottery encompasses all of District 15 – a huge area spanning from Sunset Park to Brooklyn Heights, and from Carroll Gardens to Kensington. The extra several hundred students coming in from other neighborhoods would, in fact, only contribute to overcrowding in the parks and other public areas after school.
So now I need to tell you something; something important that I was hoping I wouldn’t have to reveal. You can send your children to 32. It’s a wonderful place; an embracing place. If you are worried about overcrowding at 58, you can send your child to 32. They will get an outstanding education in every sense of the word, just as my daughter is getting and yes, just as I am getting.