By Skye H. McFarlane
Using part of the Battery Park City Community Center as a school annex for P.S./I.S. 89 may not sound like a revolutionary thought, but in a few short months it has morphed from a lonely, out-of-left-field idea into a bona fide community cause.
The annex idea, though still in its early stages, is seen as a potential midterm solution to swelling class size at the Battery Park City school. Community leaders have begun to promote the idea publicly, and P.S. 89 parents will have no less than four opportunities to hear about the community center concept, as well as other crowding solutions, this January. The current flurry of discussion is in stark contrast to what happened when Parent Teacher Association co-president Dennis Gault first voiced the idea at a Community Board 1 meeting in July.
“I guess no one had considered it before. There was an awkward silence,” Gault said of his original suggestion that P.S./I.S. children have daytime access to the community center facilities, which will include a pool, an auditorium, a culinary center and a number of classrooms. The center will occupy the lower floors of two Milstein residential towers being built along North End Ave., adjacent to the B.P.C. ballfields and across the street from P.S./I.S. 89.
“It was as if he’d just asked daddy for ten bucks,” said C.B. 1 Community Center Task Force co-chairperson Tom Goodkind, recalling Gault’s chilly July reception. “People were like, who is this person interrupting our meeting?”
Initially brushed off as complicated and unfair to other community populations, such as seniors and students from other neighborhood schools, the annex concept gradually gained supporters. The school year began with large classes in several grades and parents began to speak out, asking for solutions. P.S. 89 parent Joe Lombardi championed the annex concept at a fall P.T.A. meeting and by the time Gault brought it up at a Battery Park City Committee meeting on Dec. 4, the idea’s reception temperature had risen to lukewarm.
Along the way, Gault’s vague suggestion of school “access” coalesced into a more concrete idea to lease classroom and facility space for school use. C.B. 1 members, including Goodkind and board chairperson Julie Menin, began to investigate the possibilities.
In mid-December, the community learned from the Department of Education, via a data analysis by the Downtown Express, that P.S. 89’s fourth grade general education class was the third most crowded fourth-grade class and one of the 40 most crowded K-8 classes in the entire city. The data, Gault said, made the crowding problem real for many parents and inspired high attendance at a Dec. 13 New Schools Task Force meeting.
“It’s sinking in that classes are getting overcrowded and that it’s not good for our students,” Gault said.
At the Dec. 13 meeting, a variety of solutions were discussed. In the long term, community members agree that Downtown needs more school seats. In the short term, P.S. 89 administrators will work with parents on the newly elected School Leadership Team to ameliorate the immediate crowding issues from within the school. But many people at the meeting agreed that leasing space in the community center could be a viable solution for the interim time, until a new school is built.
“To me this was a breakthrough,” Goodkind said of the recent dialogue. “It’s never been fully discussed before.”
Menin threw her support behind the annex, support she reiterated at the board’s monthly meeting, where she announced that C.B. 1 will host a town hall meeting on Jan. 10 to discuss the idea with the public in detail. Reportedly, Menin has brought up the idea in her recent talks with D.O.E. officials, but she could not be reached for comment by press time.
Several board members have said publicly that the Battery Park City Authority, which oversees the community center, is also supportive of the idea. After speaking with Leticia Remauro of the B.P.C.A., Goodkind told board members that the authority felt it has a mandate to provide school seats for the neighborhood’s children and that it was willing, at least in principle, to lease space in the community center. The idea still poses many questions, but Remauro did say that the B.P.C.A. continues to talk with the Community Center Task Force about finding the best uses for the center.
“Several members of C.B. 1 have called to investigate whether this is a possibility and we are happy to continue to discuss it with them,” Remauro said Wednesday.
The board has yet to pass a formal resolution supporting the annex and the Jan. 10 meeting will give the community a chance to air out specifics for the proposal. The topic is also likely to pop up at the Jan. 4 News Schools Task Force meeting, the Jan. 11 Community Center Task Force meeting and a Jan. 17 P.T.A. meeting.
Before the annex could become a reality, the board and the school would need to figure out which spaces to lease, for what purpose and for how long. Three ideas that have been floated so far are: Move specialty classes, such as art and music, into the community center and use the vacated spaces as classrooms; use the center for middle school classes, since the older children will be more comfortable crossing Warren St. to get to class; and use the pool and fitness facilities for physical education classes.
Any concept would have to be approved, at least nominally, by the D.O.E., particularly if the D.O.E must pay to lease the classrooms. While there has been no word yet from the higher-ups, Gault said that P.S. 89 principal Ronnie Najjar supports the annex concept and that the P.T.A. plans to draft a resolution in favor of the idea.
There are also the issues of security and logistics. Although both Stuyvesant High School on Chambers St. and the annex to P.S. 234, set to open next fall, share buildings with community centers, neither arrangement is as integrated as what is being proposed for B.P.C. Stuyvesant’s center is only open when school is out of session (evenings, weekends and summers) and the P.S. 234 annex will not have a direct connection to the Warren St. community center. Annex proponents must also convince the public that school use of the facilities will not keep other groups from enjoying the long-wished-for amenity.
One thing that all parties seem to agree on is that the community center annex, unlike the annex at P.S. 234, would be a temporary solution David Feiner, an aide to Councilmember Alan Gerson, called it a “Band-Aid” and that the school would stop leasing classrooms as soon as a new school became available. The community center itself is set to open in late 2009 or early 2010.
“I think that’s a good way to go about it,” said Goodkind of the temporary timeline. “You certainly don’t want any perceived amenities to be scaled back and thinking of [the annex] as a temporary solution keeps those amenities in place. We want classes for the community, not just the school.”
Gault agreed, pointing out that sharing the space with other community groups could help P.S./I.S. 89’s children become more involved in their neighborhood and provide opportunities for community service, such as helping out with cooking classes for seniors.
“Here’s a great public space, and here’s a public school next door to that public space. It’s a natural fit,” said Gault. “Children are part of public.”
With reporting by Lori Haught