Volume 21, Number 41 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 20 - 26, 2009

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

Terri Ruyter, principal of P.S./I.S. 276, left, and Nancy Harris, principal of the Spruce Street School, have started blogs to give prospective parents information about their new schools.

City willing to reverse school selections in 2010

By Julie Shapiro

The Dept. of Education will give some local children who don’t get into P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 this fall a second chance to attend.

The D.O.E.’s decision, outlined to Downtown Express Wednesday, comes in the wake of parent uproar over the city’s kindergarten enrollment plan for next fall. City officials told parents last month that if more children want to enter kindergarten at P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 than the schools can hold, the city would use a lottery to decide who gets seats. Living near the school — or even right on top of it — won’t help kids get in.

The children who do not get into P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 will start school at Tweed Courthouse instead, in an incubator for Lower Manhattan’s two new schools: the Spruce Street School and P.S./I.S. 276 in Battery Park City.

Now, the D.O.E. has decided that children who live near P.S. 234 or P.S. 89 but get diverted to Tweed through the lottery will be guaranteed a seat in 234 or 89’s first grade the following year, spokesperson Will Havemann said Wednesday.

No one will know exactly who will be eligible for this offer until the D.O.E. rezones the neighborhood next year. Any child who applies to one of the two new schools for next fall will not be eligible. No children will be forced to transfer.

Michael Bacon, who lives near P.S. 234 and wants his son to go there next fall, said he would consider moving his son to 234 for first grade if he didn’t get in this year.

“It’s better than not considering it at all,” he said of the D.O.E. giving children the opportunity to transfer. “But your child would still lose out on something — then he’s like the new kid in school in first grade…. Your child would lose a year of relationships, leverage and community.”

Pressure has been building for the D.O.E. to rezone this fall, not the following year, which would eliminate the lottery and the question of transferring altogether. More than 230 people have signed an online petition Bacon started asking the D.O.E. to consider geography when assigning kindergarteners to schools next fall.

“I don’t think it’s a long-term or viable solution to have people just randomly assigned to schools,” Bacon said.

Bacon said his son already knows many P.S. 234 students from playing with them in the park or bumping into them around the neighborhood. Bacon also has a younger daughter and another child on the way, and he and his wife do not want to have to trek across town with all three children every morning for drop-off.

Another parent who signed the petition is Gerri DiBenedetto, who moved from the West Village to Tribeca two years ago so her daughter Mia could attend P.S. 234 in fall 2009. She lives two blocks from the school and was certain that would guarantee her daughter a seat.

“I moved here to walk to school,” DiBenedetto said. “An elementary kid should walk to school and know her neighborhood…. Community is very important, especially in a big city like New York City.”

Like Bacon, DiBenedetto wants the city to draw at least preliminary zones separating the new schools from the existing ones, using natural barriers like major roads.

But Havemann, the D.O.E. spokesperson, said the city wants to wait until next year to zone the schools, since the zones will depend on how many families move into the many new buildings under construction.

“The goal of the kindergarten admissions policy in Downtown Manhattan is to maximize parents’ options next year while making sure that all students have the same opportunity to attend their zoned school,” Havemann wrote in an e-mail to Downtown Express.

DiBenedetto said there’s no reason to delay considering geography.

“I don’t understand the bureaucratic issues preventing them from looking at a map,” she said. “[The city] gave permission for all these buildings to go up, but they can’t rezone?… Now they’re being forced to think about it, and to me they’re not taking action — they’re passing the buck. A lottery is not taking care of the zoning.”

Terri Ruyter, principal of P.S./I.S. 276, had heard about the zoning petition and told Downtown Express it was good for parents to be active if they have concerns. She tries to avoid using the word “lottery” when speaking to parents, because it “brings up a lot of scary images,” she said.

“I don’t know what the level of the problem will be,” she said of the predicted surplus of applications for P.S. 234 and P.S. 89. “It might not be a problem at all. I would hesitate to offer an opinion until I knew the scale of the problem.”

Ruyter and Nancy Harris, principal of the Spruce Street School, have both started blogs to answer parents’ questions about their schools. Harris’s blog, sprucestreetschool.blogspot.com, has only one post so far, focusing on the application process. Ruyter’s blog, ps276.blogspot.com, has seven posts, addressing everything from homework policies to inventive spelling.

“It’s a place I can post the information a lot of people want,” Ruyter said.

The blog is also helpful for Ruyter — while she had already mapped out some features of the school when applying to run it, writing about her plans helps her focus them, she said.

One parent asked how Ruyter will make the large, divided Tweed classrooms work for young children. Ruyter wrote that she and Harris are visiting Tweed to look at how the students move around the space, and they are also examining old photographs showing the classrooms in different configurations.

“We will be getting new furniture that is appropriate for kindergarteners and arranging the rooms to provide adequate spaces for kindergarten activities including dramatic play, blocks, a library and comfortable place to explore books, and spaces for science, math, art and other learning centers,” Ruyter wrote. “We will also have a carpeted meeting area for children to gather together as a class.”

Elda Rotor, whose son will likely enter the Spruce Street School next fall, said the blogs are a great idea. Rotor is one of a growing group of parents who live near the Spruce Street School who are effectively zoning themselves by choosing Spruce Street over P.S. 234.

Her choice was ironic, Rotor said, because she moved to the Financial District specifically to send her children to P.S. 234, where her friends’ children are in school.

“I’d like the same experience for my son,” she said, referring to 234’s academic reputation. “If it has to be at a different school, so be it.”

Rotor and other parents have started an online message board for future Spruce Street parents to begin building their school’s community. They have until March 2 to apply for kindergarten. She estimates that 10 to 15 parents on the message board picked Spruce Street as their first choice for next fall.

That’s what Laura Wahnon, another Financial District resident, decided to do. She said her husband was dead set on sending their son to P.S. 234, but after touring Tweed and meeting the new principals, he began to see the advantages of Spruce Street.

“The option of walking to school is always better,” Wahnon said. She is still sad that her son will be separated from friends in their building who are already students at P.S. 234, but she thinks Spruce Street will be just as good a school.

Wahnon and Rotor both signed the petition asking the D.O.E. to consider geography in making admissions decisions.

“For people who live right next to 234 to have to go to a different school is just ridiculous,” Wahnon said. If her Financial District son took one of those Tribeca children’s spots, “I would feel bad,” she said.

The city is holding two more open houses for parents to meet the new principals: Feb. 25 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Tweed Courthouse at 52 Chambers St. and Feb. 26 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Manhattan Youth’s Downtown Community Center at 120 Warren St.




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