Queens Village literacy fair brings together PS 23 kids

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"I wrote about pain, rejection, heartache and redemption," the 10th-grader said last Thursday during the three-day fair. "It helps people know we're here," she said of the event. "Just because we're in this school, we're not what you think we are."

Samantha S. is one of 385 students enrolled in eastern Queens' PS 23, a group of five locations that functions as a school for emotionally disturbed children.

The K-to-12 school falls under the auspices of School District 75 for special education and uses space inside Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, St. Mary's Hospital for Children in Bayside, Queens Children's Center in Bellerose and the Lifeline Center.

The children usually have family issues or problems with interpersonal skills and benefit from the small class sizes, personal attention and therapy provided by PS 23, staying one to three years before going back to special education at mainstream schools, Principal Phyllis Weinfeld said.

The literacy fair and a science fair held every April give the students from the separate sites a chance to socialize and learn with one another, she added.

"By having the celebrations, we're all able to come together and share together," Weinfeld said.

This year's literacy fair featured the theme "writing from the heart" and included pop-up books, poetry and autobiographies, among other works by the students. HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Chinaberry also donated volumes.

Staff members said the fair helped the students with their self-esteem and taught them how to work in groups.

"It's a reflection of what the kids are able to do with the teachers, that they can focus and create a book from beginning to end," said Martha de Anfrasio, a paraprofessional for the school. "We go back and say, 'Look, you were able to write this whole book.'"       

Candice Naftal, a teacher for the past 23 years at the Lifeline Center, said "in the beginning of the year some of them can't write one word. To see all of this work done is amazing." Even the children at St. Mary's, the most limited in their abilities, turned something in, she added, with a little boy in her class diligently improving his handwriting just for the project.

For other students, the fair gave them a chance to explore their feelings and express themselves.

"It helped me realize who I am and the things I've done, how I've changed over the year," Samantha S. said.

Christian M., an 11th-grader, wrote a book of love poems, including one letting his father know how appreciative he was to have the man back in his life.

"Doing this gave me an opportunity to show them I'm not a bad person," he said, acknowledging that he messed up when he first arrived at PS 23. "A lot of kids here have just been through a lot."

Teachers and staff stressed that PS 23's students were just as capable as those at mainstream schools and responded well to the personalized instruction.

"It's what you expect; it's what standards you set," said Mitchell Goldstein, a fine arts and music instructor.

Still, the staff said the school is often misunderstood and underappreciated. Speaking about how many political leaders could not seem to fit the fair into their schedule, group coordinator Tavia Trusch said, "I wish they would come so they could see the great work the students did here."

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Updated 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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