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Toy bigwig principal for day at Flushing’s PS 107

Michael Goldstein, former chief executive officer of Toys ‘R’ Us, is no stranger to many students at PS 107 in Flushing.

On a visit several years ago, he got involved in a long conversation with a student with spina bifida, a birth defect to the spinal cord that causes paralysis in parts of the body.

After talking for several minutes, the girl interrupted Goldstein.

“She said to me, ‘Could you stop talking now because I want to make sure I can finish my lunch and get on the bus,’” Goldstein recalled.

But when Goldstein returned the next year, the girl was happy to resume the conversation.

“She asked me, ‘Is there anything else you would like to chat about?’” said Goldstein.

After a visit to the school Friday as the “Principal for a Day,” Goldstein said he plans to have the girl and her family over to his home for dinner sometime soon.

Goldstein’s relationship with the students at PS 107 at 167-62 45th Ave. in Flushing is one of the successes recorded by a non-profit group known as Public Education Needs Civic Involvement Program, or PENCIL.

As part of PENCIL’s work, Queens public schools hosted dozens of men and women, from politicians to newspaper publishers who acted as “Principal for a Day” Friday. The day is designed to increase ties between the schools and the community. Goldstein has participated in the “Principal for a Day” program at PS107 for the past five years.

The program is a welcome at PS 107, one of the more unique schools in the city. The Flushing school is one of the city’s premier ABR Architectural Barriers Removed schools. Fourteen years ago, the school was redesigned with wide doors, bar handles and bathrooms that accommodate wheelchairs. Since then, the school has become a destination for physically handicapped students.

Some 70 of the schools 1,200 students are physically handicapped. The students attend classes like every other student and attend sessions with the school’s nine physical therapists everyday.

“It’s a normal educational experience for kids who years ago may have spent their days in hospitals,” said Jim Phair, who has served as the school’s principal for 10 years.

As chairman of the Toys ‘R’ Us Children’s Fund, Goldstein has taken an interest in the PS 107 students. His fund raises more than $10 million a year to give to children’s charities and since he began visiting PS 107, Goldstein has secured nearly $65,000 for the school.

“With children with disabilities there is an esteem issue, a confidence issue,” said Goldstein. “One of the outstanding things here are that children are treated equally, which is enormous for the development of these children.”

Phair said the students who are not physically handicapped are very accepting of their counterparts. One girl with a prosthetic leg was recently elected captain of the cheerleading team.

“For the 1,100 children who are not physically challenged, when they see someone with a disability they’ll know to help them,” he said.

The physically handicapped students are of varying abilities. One student has a severe allergy to peanuts, so that the smells of peanut butter causes the student to collapse. Another student has a skin disorder and always needs to be in an air-conditioned environment.

The school accommodates the students on an individual basis. For example, the cafeteria never serves any food made with peanuts. Oftentimes, the school has to purchase physical therapy equipment for new students.

Nearly half of the students are of Asian descent, while a quarter of the students are Hispanic, Phair said.

With some of the students are afflicted with serious medical problems, the school faces particular challenges. Two years ago, a sixth-grade student died after battling a heart condition.

The student’s father came to the school to express his sadness at his son’s death and his appreciation.

“He spoke and thanked the school and said they made sure he had a good life,” said Goldstein.

In addition to the services that the school offers to its physically handicapped students, PS 107 is known for its arts program. From 1998-2001, the school received $750,000 in funding from the New York Foundation of the Arts.

Goldstein watched one of the school’s art performances on his visit Friday.

After PS 107 students performed “Project Rescue,” a musical about respecting the environment, Goldstein addressed the crowd.

“This is the best school in the city of New York, maybe even the country,” said Goldstein. “Every year I’m surprised how good things are.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

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