Volume 20 Issue 7 | June 29 - July 5, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Peter Napolitano, who has taught kindergarten at P.S. 150 for nine years, dressed up as a crossing guard one Halloween, below. He has just left the school to continue his massage therapy studies. He hopes to return to the classroom at a “needier” school.

Beloved P.S. 150 teacher says goodbye to Tribeca

By Anindita Dasgupta

Twenty-eight pairs of eyes followed Peter Napolitano as he walked to the class calendar. Despite the heat and the end of school in sight, the kindergarten class calmly waited for their teacher to begin their “morning meeting.”

A hushed argument broke out in the back of the classroom. Two little boys argued about whether or not to tell their teacher that a few days hadn’t been marked off on the calendar. “Peter knows that!” one of them whispered urgently.

Less than a minute later, Napolitano said: “Looks like we forgot to cross off a few days. When was our last school day?”

“I told you,” the little boy whispered to his friend confidently. “Peter knows everything.”

Many parents at P.S. 150 say kindergarten teacher Peter Napolitano is their resident rock star. Known to impersonate school faculty and staff on Halloween, Napolitano is one of the most beloved teachers at the school. After nine years of teaching kindergarten, Napolitano has decided to leave Tribeca.

Next year, Napolitano, 44, plans to complete his training to become a licensed massage therapist from the Swedish Institute. He has been working on his degree part time since May 2006 and expects to graduate in December 2008. “It’s been like living two lives,” he said of taking classes at night and teaching during the day. He is working on a specialty in neo-natal massage to help newborn premature babies thrive through human warmth and touch.

However, he hopes to be teaching again by the beginning of school in 2008. He said after teaching in relatively affluent Tribeca, he hopes to work with a “needier community.” “I don’t really know what to expect,” he said. “I hope I can live up to it.”

While he’s armed with the experience from his last nine years and his belief in the importance in a sense of community, he is nervous about the size of the school being undoubtedly larger than P.S. 150. “I’m going to miss knowing every kid in the school’s name.”

As the school’s only kindergarten teacher, he has taught almost every student in the school.

Napolitano’s mark on the school is clear. His students worship him, parents crow about his effect on their children, and administrators – past and present – commend his creative teaching style and dedication to the community.

“It’s so important for them to feel like they’re part of the community,” he said. “At home it may be all about them but here it’s only one twenty-eighth about them.”

In December, Napolitano’s students donated toys to the school’s Toys for Tots drive. But instead of just bringing in toys, his class first raised money through a bake sale, then went with him to buy the toys and then donated them to the cause. “They learned the whole process,” he said.

Last year, Napolitano’s class raised $184 for a toy drive by selling raffle tickets to vote on Napolitano’s next hairstyle. To the students’ delight, Napolitano sported a mullet for the next month.

In addition to raising money and participating in community service projects, Napolitano makes his students feel like part of the community by familiarizing them with main attractions in the city. “Our children have been made citizens of the city,” said Randi Larowitz, a parent of a student in Napolitano’s class. “He makes it so it’s not a big deal to visit Central Park.”

Napolitano finds subtle ways to teach his students inside the classroom as well. Everything turns into a lesson. When he picks four names out of a bag to determine who gets to sit on the classroom couch during their morning meeting, he asks his students to put them in alphabetical order before the “couch people” spring onto the cushy couch.

Similarly, when a Downtown Express reporter and photographer sat in on his class that morning, we were integrated into a lesson about careers.

“Can anyone guess what these ladies are doing?” he asked his students, who are only starting to recognize words. With some gentle coaxing from Napolitano, the students decided on our occupations. “Now, make sure you guys all read the Downtown Express on Friday, ok? Even though we don’t have school.” They nodded seriously, occasionally stealing glances back at us.

Napolitano’s dedication to his students stems from his passion for them, parents said. “He plays a really important and loving role in children’s families’ lives,” Maggie Siena, P.S. 150’s principal said. “That’s one of the places he really shows his affection and love for the kids.”

Napolitano said his fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Debs, helped him learn how to break down the wall between teacher and student. He remembers how she used to take students to her house on Fridays and make them lunch. “We used to play in her finished basement,” he said. Napolitano recalls another instance when Mrs. Debs came to his house after she heard from his mother that he had been too nervous about a test to go to school. “All of a sudden, I saw her car pull up to our house,” he said. “She came in and we talked about why I was so nervous and I felt so much better!”

Today, he follows her example. For P.S. 150’s annual auction, he offers “lunch and a movie with Peter” to two kindergarten students.

This year, he’s added a day at Coney Island with him for three past students. The lunch and a movie went for $500 each and the trip to Coney Island went for $1,300 each, with a grand total of $4,900.

Another influence on Napolitano has been Alyssa Polack, P.S. 150 founder and former principal. “I was teaching first or second grade when I met Peter,” she said. “We were part of the same professional development team.” When Polack joined the Early Childhood Center – before it was P.S. 150, she had the option of bringing one person with her to teach kindergarten. “It was clear that he was a creative and thoughtful soul,” she said. “His passion for children was really clear. I knew he would add a lot of enthusiasm to the staff.”

Napolitano realized his passion for teaching late in his education. After he received an undergraduate degree in business from Farleigh Dickinson University and a masters in interior design from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he took a job in social work as a teacher at a school for developmentally handicapped adults. “I realized that I loved being in the classroom,” he said. “But I hated that I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Napolitano enrolled in a masters program in early childhood education at Bank Street College on the Upper West Side, where he currently lives. After he completed his degree he worked in a professional development lab in District 2. Soon after he met Polack and joined the E.C.C.

“He was always willing to take on more, dig a little more and think about his practice” Polack said. “People have embraced him and he’s embraced them as well. It’s no secret that he’s extremely beloved.”

“We’re entering a new phase,” said Christine Walford, the school’s secretary. “The school – his class just won’t be the same without him.”

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