Schoolhouse block: Peck Slip teachers protect play street with their own cars

Teachers at Peck Slip School use their own cars to reinforce the saw-horse police barriers used to block off the school’s play street, but Community Board 1 wants the city to fund a better solution.
Photo by Milo Hess

BY COLIN MIXSON

Teachers at Downtown’s Peck Slip School are asking for city funding to install permanent safety barriers to protect kids on its daily “play street,” where students are currently protected by the teachers’ own strategically parked cars at either end of the block.

Parents are content their kids are relatively safe behind the instructors’ sedans, but would nonetheless appreciate a little taxpayer support in funding a more permanent solution, according to the president of the school’s parent-teacher association.

“It’s weird to use cars. It’s safe, but it’s not perfect, and it’s a temporary situation,” said Emily Hellstrom, mother of three Peck Slip School students.

The city built Peck Slip School with a rooftop play area that isn’t large enough to provide all students with outdoor playtime, so Principal Maggie Sienna worked with the Department of Education, members of Community Board 1, and the operator of a parking lot across the street to close off a block of Peck Slip to car traffic during school hours.

The cobblestone play space has seen plenty of use since its debut in 2016, but parents and community members have expressed safety concerns regarding the ad-hoc recess area, which was initially only protected by light, moveable rails that left parents concerned, especially in the wake of last year’s Halloween truck attack that claimed eight lives on West Street.

Now, faculty deploy their own vehicles as heavy, but still moveable barriers, which parents hailed as a sensible safety solution, according to Hellstrom.

“You’re not going to drive through somebody’s car,” the mom said.

But members of Community Board 1’s Youth and Education Committee have expressed skepticism that using teacher’s cars as barricades is wise, and the group’s vice chairman said any deterrent that includes a tank full of gasoline should be considered less than ideal.

“What if somebody sets fire to the gas tank?” asked Paul Hovitz. “It’s too much of a liability to use cars belonging to teachers.”

The education committee reviewed Sienna’s budget request on April 10, and approved a draft resolution endorsing the additional funds that the main board approved on April 24.

This isn’t the school’s only funding request, but the board championed this cause largely due to its long involvement in helping implement the play street, according to a planning consultant for the committee, who said the board plans on sending its endorsement to both Councilwoman Margaret Chin, whose district includes the school, and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, whose constituents also attend Peck Slip.

“We felt it was appropriate for us to lend our support to this one request, because we had worked on creating the play street, and we felt an allegiance to that project,” said Michael Levine.

Councilwoman Chin has already agreed to provide funding for the barriers,

“As a mother and a former public school parent, nothing is more important to me than the safety of our children,” said Chin. “I am committed to securing the necessary funding to install bollards at Peck Slip School, and in other schools throughout my district without delay.”

The school’s $35,000 funding request also includes money for benches to spruce up the play street, and for a rooftop garden, despite concerns that a nearby cellphone tower may be dosing kids with radiation.

The Department of Education recently conducted a study at the behest of community members to measure radiation the tower directed at kids on the rooftop, and the results shown to Hovitz and school parents showed a level of exposure below federal safety standards, but still higher than locals feel comfortable with, Hellstrom said.

“Our [federal safety] norms are not up to the standards of other countries that are taking this environmental stuff seriously,” she said. “I feel like our next step is to go to those companies and say, ‘you don’t want this.’ ”

Nevertheless, they’d be happy to have a rooftop garden, she said with parents expecting the cellphone tower issue to be tackled before the garden is finished.

“We feel like we’ll prevail in the end and get this thing moved,” said Hellstrom.

Education department spokesman Douglas Cohen would not provide a copy of the study, but insisted that the city cares deeply about the health of children, and claimed the kids are safe.

“Nothing is more important than the well-being of our students, and a thorough review commissioned by DOE found there is no health risk to students at the school,” said Cohen.

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