LISTEN: Drama over a school arts program, and who gets to swim

Left, A young person swimming in a pool and right, a photo of a student with long dark hair in two ponytails and wearing a green shirt and a white sign with black numbers reading "99" around her neck during a competition.
A swimmer does the backstroke (left), right Zelda Zynszajn, a student at the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan. (Getty Images Signature |Image courtesy of Zelda Zynszajn)

For our final P.S. Weekly episode of the season, we have a special two-for-one show. For Act I, we look at drama over funding for an arts program at a Manhattan school. In Act II, as summer approaches, we’re diving into swimming pools and looking at who has access to swimming lessons.

P.S. Weekly is available on major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Be sure to drop a review in your app or shoot an email to PSWeekly@chalkbeat.org. Tell us what you learned today or what you’re still wondering. We just might read your comment on a future episode.

P.S. Weekly is a collaboration between Chalkbeat and The Bell. Listen for new episodes Wednesdays this spring.


Read the full episode transcript below

Ava (co-host): Welcome to PS Weekly… The sound of the New York City School System.

Salma (co-host): P.S. Weekly is a collaboration between The Bell and Chalkbeat New York.

Ava (co-host): We’re your hosts this week. I’m Ava Stryker-Robbins

Salma (co-host): And I’m Salma Baksh.

Ava (co-host): Welcome to our last P.S. Weekly episode of our first season. Today we have a special two-for-one episode about funding for arts programs at NYC schools and, as we gear up for summer… we’re diving into swimming pools.

Salma (co-host): But first, the Chalkbeat Bulletin….

I’m Mike Elsen-Rooney, a reporter from Chalkbeat. Here’s a recap of the week’s biggest education stories:

New York Governor Kathy Hochul said she’s considering legislation to ban student cell phone use at schools. After the governor’s comments, city schools chancellor David Banks said he’s also interested in exploring the issue. Hundreds of New York City schools already have their own cell phone bans.

The city’s Education Department gave the Brooklyn School of Inquiry a waiver from following the new citywide literacy curriculum mandate. The gifted and talented school is the first in the city to receive an exemption. That means the school won’t have to use their district’s curriculum, which students and parents said was dry and relied on excerpts instead of full books.

And, Isaac Regnier,  a Brooklyn seventh grader, collected over 6,000 signatures on his petition to cancel school on Monday, Dec. 23 of this  year. Without the cancellation, there would be a one-day school week before winter break starts on Tuesday, December 24. But the 12-year-old argues few people will show up that day.

To stay up to date on local education news throughout the week, go to chalkbeat.org/newsletters and sign up for the New York Daily Roundup.

Salma: Thanks, Chalkbeat!

Ava (co-host): Every day, hundreds of thousands of NYC students come to school. It’s a given that in time they will learn their multiplication tables, the American Revolution, and other important academic subjects. But classes in the arts can be just as important in helping students enjoy their school day and stimulating their creativity.

Salma (co-host): We also know that historically, schools in lower-income neighborhoods are less likely to have access to a full range of arts and extracurriculars.

Ava (co-host):  In 2014, NYC released a report, providing a first-ever school-by-school breakdown of the state of arts education. In that report, we learned that 306 schools — almost 20% — did not have a certified arts teacher.

Salma (co-host): 10 years later this number remains the same.

Ava (co-host): For P.S. Weekly reporter Sanaa Stokes, the issue became personal earlier this spring. She has the story.…

SCENE TAPE [WARM UP EXERCISE with teacher]: Alright we will start with our vocal resonators can I ask someone to please lead us… next year you will have to lead each other….

NARR (Sanaa): It’s 2 pm at the Professional Performing Art School–or PPAS–in Hell’s Kitchen and I’m in my Voice & Speech class. We’re doing a warm up exercise before we start the class.

SCENE TAPE [Drama teacher in class]: “Who would like to start? Let’s go Andre..... Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… Good one more time exhale”

NARR  (Sanaa): I’ve been a student at PPAS since 6th grade. The rigorous drama classes at PPAS are a core part of our education and the reason ALL of us go here. High school students take drama for two hours a day, five days a week. For Middle schoolers, musical theater classes run 1 1⁄2 hours each day. We love the drama.

SCENE TAPE Continues: Heh heh good good, ok what about teeth…

NARR  (Sanaa):  Speaking of drama, the drama in this story reached me late one night in March...  My friend Nina called me to break the news…

NARR  (Sanaa):  The drama program would be ending in April, two months earlier than usual. Waterwell, the company that has staffed and managed the PPAS drama program for 13 years, explained in an email that the decision was the result of a 20% budget  cut.

The NYC Department of Education said it was NOT due to budget cuts. But WAS a result of WaterWell increasing its prices.

NARR  (Sanaa): See–DRAMA! Regardless of the reason, I couldn’t believe it was real... I was not ready to see the program end. And I wasn’t the only one who was disappointed.

Zelda: Oh, yes. So I was at. Home and I was just like sitting on my couch. I think I was doing homework or something. No, I Was watching YouTube. And then I saw the email and then I clicked on it.

NARR  (Sanaa): This is 16 year old Zelda Zynszajn. She’s a junior drama major at the school where she takes Water Well classes.

Zelda: And I didn’t really understand what it meant. It said like drama classes. were ending like much earlier. I didn’t realize that that meant like no more water. Well, it didn’t really sink in immediately. But then after, like I started. Talking to my mom about it, I was like, Oh my gosh. No more WaterWell, does that also mean no more WaterWell, next year, which basically means we don’t have a program like at all, which is insane.

NARR Sanaa: What is your favorite part of drama class with Water Well?

Zelda: My favorite of our four acting classes is definitely like our regular acting classes. I really like doing our scenes. One project that stood out to me was the podcast project in voice and speech. That was just a lot of fun because we got to like, write our own scripts, we got to do some voice acting, which I feel like we don’t do a lot.

NARR  (Sanaa): To say Zelda was “bummed” when the program was cut–is an understatement…

Zelda: A lot of people were really, really pissed. I was also really pissed. Our voice in speech class people were just like, what’s the point, if it’s all about to end and we’re not going to get juries, it feels kind of pointless. It was just really sad, honestly.

NARR (Sanaa): And while the students were upset, some teachers were at risk of losing their jobs…

Malafronte: That was not a good day.

NARR (Sanaa): This is Ashely Malfronte, a Water Well Theatre History teacher at the School. The day she found out about the cuts in March, she had taught a class earlier that day about living newspapers. It’s a form of theater where people collaborate to make a play out of current events.

Malafronte: And I remember having a conversation with one of the groups in the room about how maybe cuts to budgets and arts funding in the city might be an interesting topic. And then I went straight to this staff meeting where all of the faculty were sitting around a table at the Water Well office, and we were told that there was a budget shortage and that our contracts would be ending early. I felt shock and immediately I was thinking about how do I preserve the last month of school for these students. These students work really hard and deserve really excellent arts training. And I also didn’t know about the future of my own employment

NARR  (Sanaa): The students and teachers sulked for a day–and then got to work the very next day! After all, we only had a month to find a solution to save the program.

NARR  (Sanaa): One 7th grade student, Tennyson Artigliere , started a GoFundMe campaign to save the program.

NARR  (Sanaa): The donations started trickling in, $5, $10, $15, $50! As well as heartfelt messages like, “Support the arts–Life isn’t life without them!”

Famous alumni like actor Jermey Allen White donated. And singer songwriter Alicia Keys helped by sharing hashtags on instagram under the account P-P-A-S Alum.

And after nearly $60,000 was raised the students got a big surprise…

NEWS CLIP TENNYSON: Today we found out Roc Nation is going to be donating $60,000.

NARR  (Sanaa): That was Tennyson on the news.

Zelda: There wasn’t a lot of other things that we could have done other than donating, other than promoting.

NARR  (Sanaa): And here’s Zelda again.

Zelda: It’s also like we’re kids. Like a lot of us don’t have jobs. The most we can do is like ask adults And our parents for money. So it feels really like we’re helpless. And it really sucks. All the Alumni who donated. Like, I think that’s really great, it was really, really helpful and we really needed them. So yeah. Like thank you so much to the alumni.

NARR  (Sanaa): Do you think that the funding is a permanent fix or will there be the same issue next year?

Zelda: Unfortunately, I think there might be the same issue next year. I just, I’m trying not to be too hopeful because like, we don’t know exactly what’s happening.

NARR  (Sanaa): And this is the problem. The uncertainty. While the drama program was saved this year. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next year… What we do know is that art matters.

Zelda: So usually I’m afraid of public speaking and stuff, but when I’m performing, it’s just different. It feels a lot more comfortable for me. And it’s also like a big form of self-expression. If I’m really angry, for example, like there’s nothing that helps me, like, let my emotions out than doing a really angry scene.

NARR  (Sanaa): Ms. Malafronte, the theater history teacher, says funding for the arts also gives more people the opportunity to participate in the arts, which in turn expands the art form.

Malafronte: Arts programs like this need to exist, because if there is not excellent training provided for free to our young artists, then the only people getting training are going to be the ones who can afford it. And then the only artists we have are going to be a smaller percentage of the population and it’s going to cut some folks off.

NARR  (Sanaa): As of now we are unsure about the future of Waterwell’s partnership with PPAS. What I do know is that art education matters and every student in New York deserves an access to art education.  Most NYC schools don’t have the robust drama programs and famous alumni to help generate thousands of dollars. All schools, not only performing arts schools should have performing art programs.

Ava (co-host): Once again, that was Sanaa Stokes.

Ava (co-host): Salma, the weather outside is getting —

Salma (co-host): Hotter. I know. It’s almost summer!

Ava (co-host):I’m so excited. No homework, ice cream, shorts, and, swimming pools.

Salma (co-host): Do you know how to swim, Ava?

Ava(co-host): Yeah, I took classes at a local community center when I was little.

Salma (co-host): I also took paid lessons when I was like 10.

Ava (co-host): I think that’s how most people learn how to swim in NYC. Because access to pools and swimming lessons here isn’t universal.

Salma (co-host): That’s true. Our reporter Marcellino Melika discovered that NYC lags well behind other cities when it comes to swim safety. The consequences can be severe.

Ava co-host): Here’s the story.

Marcellino: How old were you when you started learning how to swim?

Maya: I would say I was about 4 to 5 years old. So it’s been almost more than 10 years now.

NARR (Marcellino): This is Maya Escobar– a junior at Francis Lewis High School.

Marcellino: Why did you start going to the lessons, especially at 4 or 5 years old?

Maya: So it was mostly my mother’s choice, because not to trauma, dump, But she had a really hard experience with like drowning. So she put me in swimming at a very young age. She also put my brother through it as well.

NARR (Marcellino):  Maya’s mother almost drowned as a child, so she wanted to make sure Maya didn’t have any close calls … And those lessons paid off. Not only did Maya learn to swim, she also joined her school’s swim team in 2022– and she’s good. She won a first place medal for swimming relay and came in 4th for the 100 yard backstroke. Her swim team is undefeated this year.

NARR (Marcellino):: But those early lessons weren’t cheap.

Maya: I would say it was over a hundred dollars for one class. and for, for that time it was a lot.

NARR (Marcellino): Maya’s family had to pay for swim lessons because back in 2012 free lessons in New York were scarce. Maya is lucky her family could afford to pay for swim lessons. But for many others, learning life-saving swimming techniques is not an option. Especially for marginalized groups.

NARR (Marcellino):: In 2017, for every white person who couldn’t swim, there were nearly 3 latino, 4 black, and 4 asian New Yorkers who couldn’t swim.

NARR (Marcellino): NYC has fewer public pools per capita than any other major US city. More than two thirds of New Yorkers don’t have access to a pool near their homes.

NARR (Marcellino): And I can confirm–I never learned to swim. I go to one of the biggest high schools in the city–the same one as Maya–and we don’t have a pool. Growing up, my family and I never heard of any free swim lessons either.

NARR (Marcellino):: As a New Yorker–I probably won’t learn how to drive any time soon. But NOT knowing how to drive — isn’t a threat to my life, while NOT knowing how to swim — is. After all–we’re surrounded by 500 miles of waterfront.

Maya: If you don’t know how to swim, how will you survive in a situation where you’re like fully surrounded by water? You don’t know what to do, so learning how to swim should be a basic skill that someone should know like from when they were very young.

NARR (Marcellino): Should the city be actively working on teaching more people how to swim?

Maya: I believe they should be, because New York is surrounded by water. If Nyc Wants to keep their citizens safe as well as citizens from all different generations, they should be keeping their citizens in mind and having them take swimming classes.

NARR (Marcellino): And staying alive is not the only benefit.

Maya: But as I grow older now, I see all the new opportunities swimming can give me like being on a swim team, being a lifeguard, being a teacher, a volunteer. and to all the different fields that swimming has some type of impact on.

NARR (Marcellino): If learning how to swim early on has a lot of benefits, why hasn’t the city done more to teach its citizens how to swim?

NARR (Marcellino): I called up Katie Honan, a reporter at the nonprofit newsite THE CITY, to find out. She’s reported on pools and swim education for years. And for her, it’s personal.

Katie: I always talk about this experience growing up by the beach. You did not want to hear a helicopter cause that’s when you knew there was a rescue. And you know you hear enough of that growing up, and it’s just depressing.

NARR (Marcellino): So why haven’t more NYC kids learned to swim...

Katie: It’s a lot of issues. I think, like, in so many issues in New York City, there are financial barriers. Learning how to swim if you want to get private swim lessons is so insanely expensive.

NARR (Marcellino): NYC has 48 pools within their public school system–many needing repairs totaling in the millions before they can be used.

NARR (Marcellino): People are missing out on more than just public pool access and learning how to swim–this means that some won’t even learn basic water safety.

Katie: What to do if you get caught in a riptide, what to do to remain safe. To know not to go into the water, to know not go into an ocean or pool without a lifeguard present, all this kind of stuff is not. It’s unfortunately not really taught in schools or in any other way in the city, in a way that I think is enough.

NARR (Marcellino): And if the city doesn’t have enough money, then it can’t do a lot of things, like fix pools or provide free or inexpensive swimming lessons. But also…

Katie: Well, you know, if you’re not teaching hundreds or thousands of kids how to swim when they’re 8, 9, 10, 11. That means at 16, they’re not gonna become lifeguards. That means you’re continuing to prevent having these programs to teach people how to swim. People who are wealthier are going to be able to afford private swim lessons. They’re going to have access to pools.

Katie: You need to have a crop of people who learn how to swim, learn how to know how to swim well and then know how to teach it.

NARR (Marcellino): This essentially creates a lifeguard shortage.

Katie: That’s the biggest issue and that also points to systemic and decades long issues with the union that represents these lifeguards. It’s this sort of like slow moving disaster and a slow moving crisis.

NARR (Marcellino): Is the city doing anything to address these issues?

ARCHIVAL Mayor Adams: [Whistle] Get in the shallow end of the pool….

NARR (Marcellino): In response to the critical lifeguard shortage, on May 24th, Mayor Adams made a deal with the union representing lifeguards. This deal loosened requirements on lifeguard physical qualifications. The deal also gave the Parks department more control over lifeguard training operations. These changes will allow for more people to work as lifeguards and use public pools.

ARCHIVAL Mayor Adams continued:  That’s been the hallmark of this administration, there’s just too many outdated rules that got in the way. It was clear that we had to do more to get lifeguards on our beaches. These just common sense changes…

NARR (Marcellino) The lifeguard issue is being addressed, but what is the city doing to directly teach its people to swim?

Katie: Yeah, the Learn to Swim program teaches kids how to swim. and adults also. There have been some efforts to, you know, fund more people learning how to swim.

NARR (Marcellino): The Learn to Swim program is funded by the parks department–which is ALSO having part of its budget cut by the city. And even if the city did have more money–it would only go so far…

Katie: It is a another pun, a drop in the bucket for teaching so many people how to swim. There have been efforts to just increase funding and increase access. But again, you’re going to hit a wall because there’s only so many pools. There’s only so many people who can be instructors. There’s only so many Lifeguards.

NARR (Marcellino) So what CAN the city do to teach more people how to swim?

NARR (Marcellino): It can start early on.

Katie: If it’s baked into the public education system. People are going to learn how to swim that way…

NARR (Marcellino): Some organizations are already finding success with teaching kids how to swim. Asphalt Green, a Manhattan-based nonprofit, runs a program called Waterproofing in locations across the city. It’s given over THIRTY FIVE THOUSAND second graders swim education–all within 45 minute classes held 5 times a week–like a normal school class.

NARR (Marcellino): And as Maya knows first-hand, exposure to swim lessons isn’t just about keeping you safe, it can be about creating community and lasting bonds.

Maya: Sophomore year, I joined the swimming team, and I was introduced to a whole new community of people that had the same interest as me, and I’m still friends with a bunch of the people I knew from sophomore year because of swimming.

NARR (Marcellino): City beaches opened last week, and city pools open June 27. For more information about the Parks department and the Learn to Swim program, take a look at the links in our show notes.

NARR (Marcellino): Stay cool, and stay safe. This is Marcellino Melika reporting for P.S. Weekly.

Ava (co-host): Thanks, Marcel! That’s it for today.

Salma (co-host): Ava, I can’t believe it’s the official last episode of this season of PS Weekly..

Ava (co-host): Yeah, it’s crazy. Time really flies. We’ve covered a lot of ground.

Salma (co-host): Yeah, you produced that episode about special education, I recently produced the one about mental health. I think it’s really cool that we were able to make episodes about issues we’re each passionate about.

Ava (co-host):  Yeah I agree. And as sad as I am that it’s the end, I can’t wait to hear the stories future reporters will share with the world as well.

Salma (co-host): Listeners, we’re so grateful for your support. This would not have been possible without you

Ava (co-host): We’ve had so much fun being reporters for the first official season of P.S Weekly. After this summer, you’ll be hearing a batch of new voices from the next cohort.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t still stay in touch with you all.

Salma(co-host): We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences related to New York City schools. Have a story to share? Email us at P.S. Weekly@chaklbeat.org

Ava (co-host): Thank you so much again for your support and for listening. Until next school year,

CLASS DISMISSED!

CREDITS

Salma (co-host): PS Weekly is a collaboration between The Bell and Chalkbeat, made possible by generous support from The Pinkerton Foundation, The Summerfield Foundation, FJC, and Hindenburg Systems.

This episode was hosted by Ava Stryker-Robbins and Salma Baksh

Producers for this episode were: Sanaa Stokes, Marcellino Melika, AND with reporting help from Chalkbeat reporter Alex Zimmerman AND Mike Elsen Rooney.

Our marketing lead this week was Sabrina DuQuesnay.

Our executive producer for the show is JoAnn DeLuna.

Santana: Executive editors include Amy Zimmer AND Taylor McGraw.

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