Volume 17, Number 47 | April 15 — 21, 2005

Board’s school debate resolved quietly

By Ronda Kaysen

Community Board 1 asked the Dept. of Education to create a new locally zoned middle school Downtown, drawing months of wrangling to a close.

“I was rather surprised we had everyone in favor,” Youth and Education Committee Chairperson Paul Hovitz said after the April 18 committee meeting, which ended with a unanimous vote in support of the resolution. “I thought it was going to be an all-night affair.”

The community has long been mired in a debate over how to address the dearth of locally zoned middle school seats available to Downtown kids, with some parents advocating zoning the only middle school in the area–I.S. 89 in Battery Park City–- for local children despite the city’s insistence that the school is too small to accommodate all of the children in the neighborhood.

More than 100 parents and educators gathered at a heated town hall meeting earlier this month to voice their opinions about the state of Downtown schools. All agreed on one point: the time has come for a zoned middle school.

But the consensus ended there and parents expressed deep divisions about how to resolve the dilemma. A strong contingent of parents emerged – virtually silent until the town hall meeting – voicing a vehement opposition to the possibility of changing the structure of I.S. 89.

“I.S. 89 is a small school,” Kathy Sussell, parent coordinator for P.S. 234 and a former I.S. 89 P.T.A. co-president, told the Youth Committee this week. “To propose that I.S. 89 expand is ludicrous.”

At the committee meeting, the board finally dropped discussions about zoning the 90-seat school. “We’ve been trying to make I.S. 89 a higher performance school, and making it a zoned school may defeat that,” said board member George Olsen at the meeting.

The resulting resolution passed by the full board Tuesday “strongly urges the immediate creation of additional middle school seats… so as to insure that local parents have an option to send their children to a community middle school.”
It also requests the creation of “new locally zoned middle school(s),” although it does not indicate whether the Dept. of Ed. should build an entirely new school or create one out of a school in the planning stages, such as the new Beekman St. pre-K-8 planned for the East Side.

“Everything is on the table,” Hovitz told Downtown Express, indicating that the Beekman St. school’s structure is still up for discussion, although he does not expect it will be stand alone middle school.

The resolution also requests Region 9 give “preference to local children seeking admission to I.S. 89 if they list the school as their first choice,” although both the region and I.S. 89 principal Ellen Foote have long maintained local children already have preference. Last year only two children from P.S. 89 who live in the district and chose I.S. 89 as their first choice middle school were rejected.

In a creative step to ease the transition for pre-teens trudging far a field for the first time, the board requested the region “look into the feasibility of extending the yellow school bus service for all 6th grade students in the region… to 6th grade middle school students traveling outside the area.”

Not all board members expect to see yellow school buses carrying their moppets off to school anytime soon. “I don’t think we have a prayer of getting a yellow school bus to take our 6th graders to school when the other kids don’t have a yellow school bus,” board member Bob Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, said at the meeting

The region does provide school bus service for 6th graders attending K-6 schools, a precedent Hovitz thinks will make the request feasible.

With the 600-seat Beekman St. school in the works – it is scheduled to open in the fall of 2008 in a new 75-story Frank Gehry-designed tower – the board suggested establishing a joint advisory and planning committee to look at how the school will “serve our ever-growing Lower Manhattan district.” It also suggested creating a committee to “oversee the planning of the new middle schools and I.S. 89.”

With the discussion finally closed, board members expressed relief to be able to move on from the topic. “This debate has gone on too long,” said Townley at the meeting, voicing concern that by spending an inordinate amount of time fretting about the state of its schools–which are ranked among the top in the city–the might send a message to Downtown parents that the neighborhood schools have fallen into disrepair. “The debate becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You get what you wish for.”


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