Volume 20 Issue 17 | September 7 - 13, 2007

Back to School

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel

Patricia Sanabria, a P.S. 234 kindergarten teacher, picked an earthy orange for her room in the school’s new annex.

On Day One, P.S. 234 teachers rave about annex

By Skye H. McFarlane

The children were gone from the P.S. 234 annex late Tuesday afternoon, but the teachers lingered, labeling storage bins and setting up their classrooms for day No. 2 in the newly opened building.
“Everything is so brand new and so beautiful, it’s hard to find anything to complain about,” said first-grade teacher Mara Sombrotto, whose new fourth-floor classroom has built-in wooden shelves, two storage closets and a sweeping view of the Woolworth Building.

Among the teachers who spoke to the Downtown Express during a tour Tuesday after the first day of school, there were few complaints indeed — although two of the teachers did hint that the three- to four-flight stair climb to get to the annex had been an “adjustment.” Overall, the teachers expressed gratitude for the new facilities, the return of the school’s playground and the lower class sizes made possible by the annex.

“The kids adjust really quickly,” Sombrotto said of the stair climb, which students must tackle each time they go back to the main school building for activities like lunch, gym or art. “I have first-graders, so I think their attitude is, ‘Oh, those kindergarteners, they might be tired, but I’m not tired. I’m cool.’”
The teachers were all impressed by the design of the new space, which features vaulted ceilings and oversized windows. The seven classrooms are being used by kindergarten and first grade students this year.

“I think the natural light is so good for the kids,” said Kelly Grady, a new hire who is teaching special education in the annex. “They don’t feel as cooped up.”

The teachers also got to help design their spaces. Sombrotto said she felt that the architects had listened to the teachers’ needs, building in ample storage, accessible student bathrooms, and fixtures with kid-appropriate heights. One of the architects even came into her classroom to show her how to use her window shades and tell her to close the shades at night so that the morning sun would not make the room too hot.

Although Grady was not around for the advisory process, she said she was happy that the school had installed a sound system in her class, so that if she ever had a hearing impaired student, she would be able to amplify her voice and project it throughout the room.

Each teacher picked out a wall to emphasize in their room and then chose what color to paint it. Patricia Sanabria, who has been teaching at P.S. 234 for 23 years, picked an earthy orange for her room’s far wall.

“I think the color looks really nice with the red,” principal Lisa Ripperger said in approval, pointing out the many red storage bins that Sanabria had set in the shelves beneath the colored wall.

More important than colorful and functional design, however, is the impact that the annex is having on P.S. 234’s crowding situation. Due to the development boom in Lower Manhattan, the school has been over-capacity since 2003. The State Dept. of Education recommends class sizes of 20, especially in the youngest grades, but P.S. 234’s teachers have often been tasked with classes in the mid to high 20s. According to Ripperger, the 140 new seats in the annex have allowed the school to reduce class sizes in nearly every grade, despite an 85-student jump in enrollment.

For Sombrotto, that meant a drop from 26 students at the start of last school year to 21 on Tuesday. Sombrotto said she felt that the lower numbers would definitely help with both class discipline and individual instruction. However, she noted that with all the large residential developments under construction nearby, the annex will only be a temporary solution to the neighborhood’s rising class sizes. A new K-8 school is scheduled to open on Beekman St. in 2009, but it is not yet clear whether the school will be zoned to serve the Downtown neighborhood exclusively.

“I think with class size in the early childhood grades, the smaller, the better,” Sombrotto said. “From 26 students to 21, you can really feel the difference.”

Although there were some doubts last fall as to whether the annex would be completed on time, the annex space was only short a few odds and ends, such as speaker boxes, when the students climbed in on Tuesday. The school’s playground, which has been closed for the last two school years to accommodate the construction, was also ready for both the kids and Borough President Scott Stringer. Stringer joined teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten, a Battery Park City resident, on a tour of the annex space Tuesday afternoon.

The main thing the annex needs now, the teachers said, is for the children to settle in and fill its stark white walls with artwork.

“The building is so great,” Sombrotto said. “All it needs now is the color and life that the kids add to it.”

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