Volume 17, Number 46 | April 8 — 14, 2005

Downtown Express photos by Lorenzo Ciniglio

Region 9 Superintendent Peter Heaney and Councilmember Alan Gerson at a town hall meeting Wednesday.

School crowds draw parents to town hall

By Ronda Kaysen

Downtown needs more zoned schools for its growing school age children from pre-kindergarten through middle school, parents told representatives from the Department of Education, the New York City Council and Community Board 1 at a Town Hall meeting on Wednesday night.

Peter Heaney, superintendent for Region 9 who spoke at length at the meeting, agreed that overcrowding was suffocating Downtown’s elementary schools, particularly P.S. 234 in Tribeca and a zoned middle school was needed for the area as well. He did not, however, offer suggestions as to how to resolve the looming crisis.

“We need more seats in the Downtown schools. That is a shared goal that we need to work towards,” Heaney told a roomful of about 100 parents at the meeting co-sponsored by C.B. 1 and City Councilmember Alan Gerson.

Several parents spoke out about a need for a zoned middle school for the neighborhood, although they expressed deep divisions about where they would like to see the school go. Currently, the only zoned middle school for children living south of Canal St. from the Hudson to the East River is the Simon Baruch School on E. 21st, with no direct bus or subway route for most children.

“Logistically, the only way I see my life working and to be able to be involved in the school and to have my son participate in the after school programs – he starts Little League on Friday — is to be able to be close and to have a school that’s in the neighborhood,” said Deb Summerville, a B.P.C. resident for eight years whose child attends P.S. 89. Summerville works Downtown and expressed concern that if her child were forced to attend a middle school far afield, she would consider moving or changing jobs to cope with the change. “Knowing that he is close is very important to me,” she added.

Several parents — mainly from Battery Park City-zoned P.S. 89, which shares a building with I.S. 89 — have long maintained that the solution to the zoning problem is to zone I.S. 89 for the neighborhood, a suggestion that received little support from Region 9 representatives and I.S. 89 parents.

According to Heaney, the vast majority of P.S. 89 and P.S. 234 children who choose I.S. 89 as their first choice middle school are accepted. Of the 23 P.S. 89 children who live in the P.S. 89 zone who chose I.S. 89 as their first choice school last year, only two were denied a spot last year. “In most cases, we’re able to honor people’s choices,” he said.

The I.S. 89 parents who attended the meeting were united on one point: leave their school as it is. “It is much more difficult to build something than it is to tear it down. If we have something that’s working we need to preserve,” said Catherine Skopic, a 32-year Tribeca resident with an eighth grader at I.S. 89. “We need to work together for a zoned school down here in Manhattan on the lower West Side.... We need to combine our forces, not fight each other, but fight for a zoned middle school that is large enough not just for our current population, but look towards the future.”

Already in the works is a 600-seat pre-K-8 for the East Side, which was part of a deal brokered last year for the community by Gerson and Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff. Recently, C.B. 1 members have suggested looking to the new school, and considering various zoning options, as a way to resolve some of the issues plaguing Downtown schools.

“There’s an opportunity here with the new school coming on,” said C.B. 1 chairperson Madelyn Wils, who was removed from the board by Borough President C. Virginia Fields earlier in the day. “We all have to stay very open-minded with the three schools. Whether it’s best going forward with a K-8 or not, we’ll have discussions about what makes sense for the community.”

The parents at P.S. 234 in Tribeca are already feeling the squeeze of an overcrowded school. But when the two residential developments going up across the street from their small school open, with a total of 700 units, they expect the crowding to only intensify.

“In the next couple of years, if these apartments open first, we’re going to have a major, major problem on our hands,” Sandy Bridges, principal of P.S. 234, said at the meeting.

Last week, the School Leadership Team recommended shutting down the school’s pre-K program for the foreseeable future to make room for more children and Bridges expects that the art or science room will soon follow suit. Even a new annex, expected to open in 2007 as part of the development agreement brokered by Gerson, will only temporarily alleviate the crowding. Bridges expects 80 new children alone from the two new residential developments outside her school’s windows.

“I wish the new school were bigger,” she said of the planned pre-K-8 across town. The planned school is slated for a 75-story residential tower on Beekman St., which will bring with it its own flood of new school aged children.

Kevin Fisher, P.S. 234 P.T.A. president, suggested capping enrollment on P.S. 234, much like nearby P.S. 150, which is not a zoned school. “Are we really doing [incoming parents] any favors by jamming their kids in the janitor’s closet to make room for them?”

P.S. 234 is not the only school closing its pre-K programs. Judy Levine, co-chairperson of the School Leadership team at P.S. 150 in Tribeca, announced the school’s decision to change its pre-K program next year. Instead of offering two half-day programs serving 36 students, the school will now offer one full-day program for 18 tots, allowing the kindergarten class to be open to more children who have not gone through the pre-K program.

For parents of pre-K children, the changes at P.S. 234 and P.S. 150 mean 54 less seats for their children. “I am really wondering why 150 would choose this year of all years to go to a full day [program]?” said Shannon Burkett, a Downtown parent of a three and a half year old. “I just don’t know why they can’t wait until the new school is built…. The community is in dire need of more seats.”

In the next five years, 13,000 new residential units of housing will be built in the neighborhood and with only one new school – offering 600 seats – in the works, many parents expressed mounting concern. “Getting schools that match our population growth is more of a right than a gift,” said Brad Bodwell, a Downtown parent. “How did we find ourselves in this position?”

Ronda@DowntownExpress.com

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