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BY SARA HENDRICKSON | At a March 25 town hall meeting hosted by City Councilmember Corey Johnson, the Department of Education’s newly minted leadership was quick to thank the community for advocating so relentlessly to open a new middle school at 75 Morton St. in the West Village.
“This school would not have been possible without your advocacy,” proclaimed Sadye Campoamor, the schools chancellor’s special assistant. It was, coincidentally, the same day that the city finally took ownership (a year behind schedule) of the massive 177,000-square-foot, seven-story building.
D.O.E. promised a new collaborative approach in designing the school. Campoamor’s commitment that the agency would be in “lockstep with the community…in an inclusive process” was followed up by action, as senior D.O.E. staffers across departments were soon mobilized to work closely with the various community groups: the 75 Morton Task Force (formed by Community Board 2 and the Community Education Council District 2), the 75 Morton Community Alliance, local elected officials and community boards across the sprawling School District 2.
Alliance members spent hours in meetings over the last two years developing a shared vision for the new school’s facilities and programming. As the sister agency to D.O.E., the School Construction Authority is in charge of the “bricks and mortar” and is the de facto general contractor for all D.O.E. schools.
The Alliance had coalesced around some must-haves. At the top of the list were a full gymnasium and an auditorium with a stage that could seat the whole school community. Given New York State’s physical education requirements, there might not be any periods left in the school day to even use a hybrid “gymnatorium” for an auditorium. It sounded like new Chancellor Carmen Fariña was on the same page in her 100-day speech espousing her vision of a robust middle school education, when she said: “Team sports can hook kids into school when other things may not. There is no better incentive to stay in school than to stand before an audience and share your talent!”
One of the community’s concerns was how to avoid the “sardine can model,” since S.C.A. had hinted at an enrollment of 1,000 students, which would squelch any hope for an enriching learning environment. The community is calling for a 600-to-800-seat middle school, right-sized for a cohesive and intimate community of adolescents, along with a 70-to-100-seat District 75 school for children with disabilities, such as autistic spectrum disorder. The C.E.C. and C.B. 2 passed resolutions endorsing the Alliance’s comprehensive vision, which included elements like well-equipped science labs and alcoves for small-group work among students.
Thankfully, cramming students into city school buildings may become a problem of the past. Early in her tenure, Fariña formed a task force (with wide representation, including parents) to scrutinize D.O.E.’s “Blue Book” that dictates formulas for enrollment capacity and school space allocation. That task force will likely propose major changes to alleviate overcrowding and better balance classroom space with other space, such as gyms and art rooms.
With the community unsure whether ink was drying on blueprints for the building, local politicians helped ratchet up pressure to make room for a community seat at the planning table.
Fortuitously, a town hall meeting with Fariña was also coming up at the May 19 C.E.C. meeting. Michael Markowitz, a 75 Morton Task Force member, as well as a civil engineer experienced in school construction, stepped up to the mic at that town hall with “one urgent request — we need a place at the table with the S.C.A.”
The chancellor did not hesitate to respond.
“The answer is yes,” she said. “You can have a seat at the table.”
But what does a real seat at the table look like?
“It is not the model where a city agency makes a presentation at a big public meeting, and the public can say something at the meeting or submit something in writing,” explained Shino Tanikawa, a task force member and president of C.E.C. District 2. “We want an iterative process where they give us something, we give feedback, revisions are made, they come back for more feedback, and more compromises are made. It’s a collaboration we are looking for.”
David Gruber, a task force member and Community Board 2 chairperson, has a consistent refrain at every task force meeting: “We need transparency. We need a dialogue.”
The community is thrilled that S.C.A. kicked off the conversation by sharing its draft plans at an Alliance forum on June 16 to gather feedback from the community. Ongoing community meetings have been promised by S.C.A. to finalize the building design. Hot topics for discussion at the forum included a full-size gym versus a “gymatorium,” keeping student enrollment below 1,000, and ensuring “flex space” in hallways and alcoves for students to work together in small groups, a widely used approach in suburban and private schools that is particularly effective with middle schoolers. The tug between a traditional versus a progressive approach to education will likely filter into future planning sessions.
Design plans for the building should be completed by late summer or early fall by S.C.A. and its chosen architectural firm, John Ciardullo Associates, whose portfolio includes the Beacon School, on W. 61st St., a 1,200-student high school. Beacon School offers a 400-seat performing arts theater, regulation-sized gym, science labs, art and music rooms and black-box theater — almost a mirror image of what the community has asked for in the Morton St. school.
By early 2015, the project — a gut-rehabilitation of the existing building — would be put out to bid. Construction could take 30 months, up through mid-2017, but the community has not given up on a fall 2016 opening and will propose ideas on how time can be saved.
On a parallel path, planning for the school’s programming will begin this fall with what D.O.E. calls a community mapping and needs assessment. Jackie Lee of D.O.E. says of this groundbreaking approach, “We are trying to develop new processes in big foundational ways because we’re trying to do this across the city — have real communication with communities.”
Through a series of neighborhood meetings throughout School District 2, a “map” of the district would be created showing student population, demographic information, middle school locations and, importantly, the programming that middle schools currently offer. Given the chancellor’s laser focus on a middle school curriculum filled with physical activity and the arts, this exercise might reveal, for example, that more dance studios are needed in new middle schools coming online. Or, given the needs of District 2 children, more sensory gyms for special-needs students might have to be built.
The Alliance and C.E.C. are already working hand in hand with D.O.E. in sketching out this district mapping and needs assessment process.
Anticipation of construction crews arriving next year has made Alliance parents and community members more energized than ever.
Future topics for school advocates will include the job description and hiring process of the new middle school’s principal, and identifying local organizations — like the Downtown Whitney and Google — that could partner with the school to bring the curriculum even more alive. The Alliance is hopeful to receive a grant from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s Office to pay for a professional facilitation firm, NYC Public, to orchestrate its ongoing meetings, a tactic that was effective for consensus building in past meetings.
The local C.E.C. will continue its work on proposing to D.O.E. an overhaul of the middle school admissions process. The dysfunction of three simultaneous systems — lottery, selective screen and zones — has created an agonizing process for parents and their fifth graders. Tanikawa sees this as an opportunity to also achieve more diversity in District 2 schools.
“Diversity has to be done through the admissions process,” she said. “We need to weigh the opinion of all parents, and it’s a huge discussion that needs to happen.”
Keen Berger, the task force’s chairperson, is an author of bestselling textbooks on child psychology and the mother of four graduates of P.S. 3 in the Village 20 years ago.
She said, “There’s a mantra in developmental psychology that parents are children’s first teachers and have to be involved in their education every step of the way.”
Alliance member Heather Lortie chimed in, “The old administration planted new schools. We want to grow our own.”