downtownexpress.com
Volume 19 • Issue 22 | October 13 - 19, 2006

Tribeca school annex will be last to open

By Skye H. McFarlane

At a construction site with three projects rushing towards fruition, it appears that Downtown school children will be left in last place.

The residential units within the three towers at 200 Chambers St. are set to open in early spring 2007. A 30,000 square foot community center, to be administered by Manhattan Youth within one of the towers, is also keeping pace for its targeted finish in the fall of 2007. But the Department of Education confirmed Wednesday that the annex to P.S. 234, slated to occupy the two floors above the community center, will arrive a year late, in Sept. 2008.

“The schedule is different than originally anticipated because of funding delays and school opening being tied to progress of development,” said Education spokesperson Marge Feinberg in an email.

According to Feinberg, the annex will seat 126 pupils when it is completed. Because the project is still in the design phase, the number of classrooms within the annex and how they will be utilized remain to be decided.

The annex and a new K-8 school on Beekman St. were both conceived to alleviate overcrowding at P.S. 234, the only zoned elementary school for the residentially booming neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan.

However, progress on the annex, the Beekman school and 19 other education projects citywide came to a halt for two months starting in March 2006, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut city funding for the construction. The strategic move was an attempt by the mayor to force the hands of Albany lawmakers, pressuring the state into giving city schools several billion dollars in court-ordered capital funds. By the time the city and state reached an agreement, the Beekman St. school was forced to push back its scheduled opening date from 2008 to Sept. 2009. Now, the annex is a year behind as well.

“We who live down here are feeling more than slightly betrayed,” said John Jiler, a P.S. 234 parent. “This annex was promised to us by the mayor for the fall of 2007, but apparently that promise is not going to be kept.”

Bob Townley, the executive director of Manhattan Youth, suggested that in addition to the budget snafu, plain old bureaucracy may be to blame for the annex delay. Townley said that his own experience in getting funding and approval for the community center has been a lengthy process and that the school likely requires even more layers of oversight.

“Getting government approval for funding is both a job and an art form,” Townley said. “Government dollars are different than regular dollars. They’re not the same as cold cash.”

Regardless of what happens with the annex, Townley said he is committed to finishing the $8.5 million community center on time. If everything goes smoothly, the center, which will house a pool, art and music rooms, and a great hall, may even be able to offer limited programming before its official opening date.

“Over 1,000 children attend [Manhattan Youth’s] after-school programs,” Townley said. “Working parents rely on us. The schools always get attention, but it’s very important for us to open on time.”

Unfortunately, the community center cannot take the pressure off of swelling class sizes at P.S. 234. Academically, the Greenwich St. school ranks among the best in the system, consistently scoring above city averages in standardized math, science and English Language Arts exams. It’s growing register, however, put the school at 120 percent of capacity last year.

This year the school has 675 pupils and an average class size of 25, well above the New York State-recommended number of 20 for the elementary grades. Unlike many city schools, the overcrowding at P.S. 234 does not stem from a dearth of qualified teachers, but rather from a sheer lack of space.

In 2005, the school’s universal pre-K was cut to make room for more students. Though the original annex plan called for bringing pre-K back, P.S. 234’s new principal, Lisa Ripperger, did not confirm that the pre-K will return when tshe new classrooms open.

The school’s computer room has also been sacrificed to create more classroom space and according to Jiler, the science room and auditorium could be in jeopardy if the annex does not open in time.

“This is the story of Lower Manhattan,” Jiler said. “There is a complete absence of city planning. They put up these residential towers, but there’s no place for the kids to go. It’s a gold rush mentality … and we are the victims.”

With reporting by Ronda Kaysen



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