What It Takes to Make the Grade at P.S. 81

We are thrilled to share the news that school grades are out and P.S. 81 received an A! Within their school network, P.S. 81 was one of only two schools to achieve that grade and, according to the network leader, it was a high A.

We are not at all surprised, of course. Under the leadership of the amazing Principal Cheryl Ault-Barker and the stellar team at P.S. 81, the school continues to reach for and achieve its goals.


Earlier this month, I had the chance to spend a morning with Principal Barker, talking with her about her school’s achievement and the challenges facing P.S. 81.

AH: What does an A mean for P.S. 81?

CAB: It means that we are growing, and that we are getting better. It also means that we will attract people who are willing to work.

AH: Explain how you and your team approach your goals.

CAB: Data is the key and we understand that if we know where each child is we can better be able individualize [our response] to their needs and their goals. Sometimes you hear IEP [Individualized Education Plan] and you think, “Special Education,” but General Education students need individualized plans, too. And we try to foster that understanding in our teachers, get them to use the data to drive the instruction and meet the needs of each child.

What we do as an instructional team (and I say “we” because I am a part of that team) is to look at data—from tests or from any kind of assessment—by class, by grade, and highlight strengths and weaknesses. We compare our results with our teachers’ so that we make sure we are seeing all the information through the same lens. If we see there is a trend across a grade, we try to have our teachers use each other as resources, visit other schools with a great program. We are using the data to drive instruction and then making sure all hands are on deck to make things happen.


AH: Do you think it is harder for a school like P.S. 81, which educates children from five local shelters, to achieve this grade?

CAB: Yes. Every school has its challenges. And this is ours. The population is very transient. We’re still accepting children, right now. And it doesn’t matter where they come from—Special Ed, English Language Learners—we have to take them. Because my school houses five shelters, once children are placed in the shelter in the neighborhood, I have to take them.

A lot of the local children go to the Charter Schools in October or September, but if they don’t measure up to the expectations, the charter schools are allowed to kick them out. Those students come here, too.

But what we’re striving for is access and high expectations. You need to have high expectations for the children and give them the access and the tools that they need to compete and that’s what we do each and every day. We expose our teachers to the professional development that they need to become better at their craft so that they can better disseminate information to the children.

The people who are here love teaching. It’s not for the dollars. Our teachers go above and beyond. Mentoring students, coming early, staying late, just to make sure that there is growth. Reaching out to families, visiting homes. We really do some things that are not average. They give their phone numbers to parents and families. I think that’s what really has helped us to grow and to become better—the dedication, the commitment, the collaboration. You will see these signs around our building, “Team Work Makes the Dream Work.” That’s really the truth. It’s a collaborative effort here, where we have conversations around what’s working, what’s not working and what we need to try next.


AH: What are some of the other major obstacles your teachers face?

CAB: Of course, parental involvement is big. That’s the key, so we encourage our teachers to think outside the box. The parents are not involved with their children, so we are trying our best and we cannot give up. We do a lot of correspondence, communications, and invitations to events. We use food, and I have to say that. We get our agenda out first and we feed last. We celebrate the children a lot. Parents will come out for the celebrations and we use those events as vehicles to get information and messages out to our parents.

AH: What struggles do you think your students’ parents face?

CAB: I asked—because I don’t live in this community—I asked some of the residents, especially those who are “successful” with their children: what do you do? What are some things that interest you in terms of helping your children to become better? And they say it is a mindset, it is generational, something their parents expected from them and that they want for their children.

What I find is that most of our parents are young. Most of them have not completed high school and forget about college. Many of them are single parents just trying to make it, so, I guess there is a little bit of intimidation. But there shouldn’t be. We offer things on their level. We try to have parents come to school events with their children, so if there is that fear, they have their children as a safety net. The children are a vehicle to reach the parents, too. Once we excite and motivate the children, they take that excitement to their parents and say, “You have to come, you have to be there,” and it works.


AH: What is your favorite CFK program?

CAB: I don’t want to choose just one, but I love Story Pirates, because I have seen my writers grow. I am in there when the students are doing their drafts and their performances and I have seen their writing really develop. I have seen the strategies that the Story Pirates use and they really stretch the children’s writing.

This year, we asked that the Story Pirates demonstrate nonfiction writing so that’s the focus this year and it is helping, too.


AH: How can CFK help P.S. 81 get to where you want the school to be?

Continue and increase the support you are giving us, especially in the arts, with one-on-one tutoring and small group instruction. Nutrition is also key, because if the child is not healthy they are not able to perform.

Any other programs that will enhance learning for our students, for example chess or robotics or those extras we cannot afford. Just to continue what you are doing and grow it, we’d be grateful. We are grateful, we truly are.

When I finished my conversation with Principal Barker, she asked that we invite everyone on Team 81 to come visit. She is eager to share the school with you.