Volume 22, Number 11 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | July 31 - August 6, 2009

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

Downtown Day Campers played in the P.S. 234 schoolyard Wednesday. With two new schools opening in temporary space this September, the city is asking for feedback on two possible ideas for new school zones starting in 2010.

Where will they go? City considers 2 ideas for Downtown school zones

By Julie Shapiro

Hoping to avoid the confusion and anger that surrounded Lower Manhattan kindergarten admissions this year, the Dept. of Education has unveiled two options for next fall.

The key question is how to decide which students will enroll in Lower Manhattan’s two new schools — P.S./I.S. 276 and the Spruce Street School — and which students will attend the existing schools, P.S. 234 and P.S. 89.

One option is to carve Downtown’s two existing school zones into four zones, one for each of the schools. Children would then be guaranteed a seat in the school assigned to their zone.

The other option is to create one large zone for the entire area below Canal St. and the Brooklyn Bridge to have parents apply to whichever schools they like best. If too many students wanted a particular school, the D.O.E. would prioritize parents living closest to the school.

John White, head of the D.O.E.’s Office of Portfolio Development, described the two options Tuesday at a meeting of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s school overcrowding taskforce. The taskforce, made up of parents, principals, community leaders and D.O.E. officials, has been meeting for more than a year, but this was the first time it has been open to the press.

At the meeting, White said he hopes to work with parents and the District 2 Community Education Council to hammer out a final zoning plan by the end of the year.

“This past spring…there was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of unhappiness,” Silver said at the meeting. “Hopefully we’ll get resolution so there’ll be a little more certainty next year…[and] people will know and understand exactly what the process is.”

This year, the city held lotteries for P.S. 234 and P.S. 89, because more students wanted to attend than the schools could hold. Parents were upset about the lack of communication regarding the lotteries, and some were also angry that the lotteries did not take geography into account, so children living far from a school had the same chance of getting in as children who lived nearby.

At Silver’s meeting, White promised that in the future, geography would be a factor in kindergarten admissions. He also said the city would rezone the neighborhood with an eye toward limiting young elementary classes to 20 students, making room for pre-K and preserving “cluster rooms” for classes like art and science.

The simplest way to take geography into account would be through the first zoning option, which would carve Lower Manhattan into four school zones. Families in Tribeca would go to P.S. 234, northern Battery Park City would go to P.S. 89, southern B.P.C. and the southern Financial District would go to P.S. 276 and the Seaport and northern Financial District would go to the Spruce Street School, White said.

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

A school bus just happened to be driving by the P.S./I.S. 276 site this week, but officials hope the Battery Park City school will be open next year.

White did not give exact street boundaries, but he said all children would be within 0.6 miles of their zoned school. As examples, he said the Holland Tunnel is 0.6 miles from P.S. 234, and the eastern edge of Wall St. is 0.6 miles from P.S. 276.

White said he wanted to hear from the community before defining the exact lines of the zones.

“We know there are lines that exist in the community that as outsiders we’re not privy to,” he said.

The other option the D.O.E. is considering would combine all of Lower Manhattan into one zone, creating a process similar to the one that took place this year in which parents ranked their school choices. But unlike this year, the D.O.E. would use geography to make decisions if too many children applied to a certain school.

The advantage of the one-zone plan is that it gives parents more options, while the disadvantage is that more options often mean more uncertainty and stress.

“Just in terms of clarity, the geographic zones would be preferable,” said Ronnie Najjar, principal of P.S. 89. “It’s very clear: I am moving into this building; this is my school. It will take away a lot of the anxiety…experienced this spring.”

Lisa Ripperger, principal of P.S. 234, agreed, saying parents prefer to have certainty about what will happen with their child.

This spring’s lottery “created an awful lot of disequilibrium and chaos for families,” Ripperger said. “I really don’t relish the thought of going back and doing it again.”

Carolyn Happy, whose daughter is at P.S. 89, said she liked the one-zone idea at first, but then other parents pointed out “that it would be a colossal nightmare,” she said. Hundreds of parents would suddenly want to tour all four of the schools, instead of just visiting their zoned school, she said. And any type of lottery, even if it’s based on geography, would cause anger and confusion, she said.

Eric Greenleaf, a P.S. 234 parent, suggested a compromise, in which children would all be assigned to a zoned school but would also have a chance to apply for available spaces in other Downtown elementary schools.

“Maybe that would preserve both the sense of certainty and the sense of having options,” Greenleaf said.

The map shows rough boundaries of the current zones for P.S. 89 and 234. With Spruce Street School and P.S./I.S. 276 under construction, the city is considering either creating four zones in which every student would be within 0.6 miles of their school or creating one large zone. Parents could choose a school under the second option but if too many chose a particular school, preference would be given based on geography. The new schools will have kindergarten classes in Tweed Courthouse this September.

White appeared amenable to the idea, but Daria Rigney, District 2 superintendent, did not.

“I would hate to see any kind of process that pits schools against each other,” Rigney said.

Greenleaf agreed that he didn’t want that either, but he said it is important for parents to have choices, since the schools are so different. One of the biggest differences is that the two new schools are K-8’s, meaning that graduating fifth graders will have a guaranteed sixth-grade seat and will not have to go through the stressful middle school applications process.

One advantage of the one-zone plan over both the four-zone plan and Greenleaf’s plan is that it would give local children a better chance of getting into those new middle school seats. There will likely be many available seats, because some fifth graders at 276 and Spruce Street will likely move away or decide to apply to other middle schools instead of taking their guaranteed seat. I.S. 276 is slated to have four sixth grade classes in 2010, while Spruce Street would have two.

Under the one-zone plan, all fifth graders below Canal St. or the Brooklyn Bridge would be given preference for admission at 276 and Spruce Street, before the seats were opened up to all of District 2. But if Downtown were carved up into four zones, then only children living in the small zones around 276 and Spruce Street would have priority for those middle schools. Under that plan, children in Tribeca and northern B.P.C. would have the same chance of getting the middle school seats as a child living in the far reaches of District 2 on the Upper East Side.

Many parents have been concerned about local children not having seats in the new middle schools, so the D.O.E. would consider giving Downtown children preference regardless of how the neighborhood is zoned, White said after the meeting.

At Silver’s meeting, White also addressed the concerns of the dozens of parents who are currently on the waitlist for P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 for this fall. He said the schools would likely leave the waitlists open for the first week or two of school, allowing children to move to their preferred school if spaces open up. Waitlisted children already have seats in one of the two new schools, which are opening with just kindergarten classes in an incubator at Tweed Courthouse this fall, but some parents want their children go to one of the existing schools.

White also said he hopes to allow some of the waitlisted children to transfer into 234 and 89 for first grade next year, but he wasn’t sure how many available spaces there would be.

After Silver’s meeting, Ripperger, the P.S. 234 principal, and others praised White’s willingness to listen and his efforts to reach a consensus.

During the meeting, though, John Scott, a former member of the District 2 Community Education Council, said White has not been forthcoming with information about zoning. At Silver’s urging, White promised to give zoning data to the C.E.C. in the next several weeks.

Although the C.E.C.’s legally do not exist now that mayoral control has lapsed while the debate continues in Albany, they would ordinarily have a key role in rezoning and White said the D.O.E. is still working with them because they represent many parents’ voices.

The next meeting of Silver’s overcrowding taskforce is scheduled for Sept. 14.





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