Brooklyn’s oldest, continuously operating public school officially welcomed its newest Principal last week, when the Department of Education told Carmen Asselta she could drop the “interim, acting” from her job title at PS 34. The former Assistant Principal at Sunset Park’s PS 94 had replaced Alicja Winnicki, who became the District 14 (still “interim, acting”) Superintendent this past September.
Asselta comes to PS 34 at a time when the Norman Avenue School is firing on all cylinders. Winnicki built a strong staff, increased the level of parental involvement and raised the school’s profile at community events like Character Counts Week and their annual Flag Day celebrations. Under her watch, the school shined, winning the Federal Blue Ribbon Award for Excellence in 2012. It’s now Asselta’s ship to navigate and she has definite plans for the direction it should take.
“I want to take it to the next phase of what our children need,” Asselta explained. “Our children need to prepare for college and career readiness. They need to think about their futures now, in elementary school, so by Middle School they see themselves on the track to college or following their dreams. When they get to High School, it won’t be a question of whether they’re going to college, but where.”
That’s the same thought process Asselta, the mother of a 16 and a 10 year old, applies to her own children. Like most parents, she recognizes the economic shifts in the US as well as the changing job market from technological advances, and wants to see her kids prepared for whatever awaits them.
“We need talented scientists and engineers that will help us figure out some of the toughest questions that we’re facing now,” she said. “There are careers now that didn’t exist even 10 or 20 years ago. G-d knows what careers will exist 10 or 20 years from now. Our children, the generation we’re seeing now, needs to see their place in that world.”
To achieve that goal, the new Principal is implementing Science-Technology-Engineering and Math (STEM) programming at the school to increase her students’ opportunities. She stresses, however, that the new direction will not overshadow the importance of literacy and enrichment programs, “the things that excite and get their creative juices flowing.”
Asselta intends to encourage continued strong parental involvement at PS 34. Parents have played a large part in advancing the school, including establishing parent-to-parent networks to update each other about goings on in the classroom, upcoming trips and special events. Some parents have set up college tours for the fifth graders. Others are focused on afterschool programs. This year the school launched a chess club in partnership with national champion IS 318 and with the St. Nick’s School Alliance Settlement program. The school leadership team, an advisory committee consisting of parents, has been in forefront of many of these initiatives.
One program everyone is eager to expand is their Young Environmentalists Club, which was primarily established by AP Maria Lo Re and Winnicki. Club members are taught to think about environmental issues and learn about environmentally-friendly activities like composting, planting and growing gardens. This Spring, several parents will help set up vertical gardens on school grounds and the kids will help cultivate Lentol Garden.
Unlike her previous job, Asselta said her new responsibilities have given her a wider view of a school’s relationship with its community. “It amazes me to see how it all works together, the parents, students, teachers and the community. None of it can exist in isolation.” Of course, holding the top spot has its pressures. “The role is humbling. I want every child to walk out these doors knowing that they are capable of success. Every morning I impart a message to the students: ‘We’re powerful, we’re smart, we’re going to go into those classrooms and we’re going to give it our best shot. Whatever it is we have to do, we’re going to do our very best. And if we stumble, we’re going to pick ourselves up and we’re going to move forward. We have to. There’s no choice.’”
The Kindergarten application period is now open and runs until March 22nd. Parents wishing to enroll their kids at PS 34 can pick up applications at the school, which is located at 131 Norman Avenue.