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Editorial: Parents camp out for a school that works

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Last week some 200 parents camped outside PS 251 in Springfield Gardens for the chance to get their children in the school's kindergarten program. Some of these parents spent two bone-chilling days waiting in line in the cold, damp air just to make sure that their kid would get a seat in this school.

No parent should be compelled to endure such misery and humiliation to get a quality education for his or her child. It's too bad that the school chancellor was not on hand to witness this scene in person. Nevertheless, beneath this disgraceful spectacle, we see reason for hope.

We have seen parents camp out before because they wanted their child to be registered in the neighborhood school and not be bussed far away. But this camp out was different. These parents came because of the excellent reputation of PS 251. They have heard that the kindergarten teachers are determined that the children placed in their care will read by age 5. They know parents who say this school works.

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of debate about the quality of public education in New York City. In fact, we support a number of initiatives, such as vouchers and charter schools, that give parents greater choice in the education of their children. But the parents camped out at PS 251 are testimony to the potential of traditional public schools.

We assume that PS 251 has had to deal with the same challenges facing other schools in southeast Queens. And yet this school has found a formula that works. Parents believe that if they send a child to this school that child will learn. The challenge now for the district and perhaps other districts in Queens is to replicate the success of PS 251.

The camp-out also puts the lie to the myth that parents in New York City don't care about the education of their children. To spend two nights camped out on a cold parking lot in the middle of March is a remarkable demonstration of commitment and concern. We applaud these parents.

Even so, this spectacle must not be repeated next year. There must be a better way to help parents compete for limited space in the best schools. The principal and the district must find a better way than first come, first serve to run the registration process. Camping out is fine for teenagers hoping to get tickets to a rock concert. It is not suitable for parents hoping to get their children into a decent public school.

One caveat. There is a danger here that some politician will look at the success of PS 251 and decide that the key is leadership, that the state is spending enough money on public education. That is far from the truth.

At the risk of being ranked among those who want to “throw money” at the education problem, we repeat what we have said often before: All of the schools in Queens are overcrowded. All of the teachers in the public school system are underpaid. Few schools create a bright, clean environment conducive to learning. The success of PS 251 and other schools notwithstanding, the public education system in New York City is woefully underfunded.

In conclusion, while we are dismayed that so many parents were forced to endure the degrading experience of camping out just to register their children for kindergarten, we see great hope that there is a school that parents believe is worth the sacrifice. With all the bad that has been said about the public school system, this is powerfully good news.

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