Volume 22, Number 21 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | October 2 - 8, 2009
Middle school zoning debate intensifies in Battery Park City
By Julie Shapiro
A battle is brewing over who will attend Lower Manhattan’s new middle school.
P.S./I.S. 276, in southern Battery Park City, will open with at least 100 sixth graders next fall. Eventually, the middle school portion will fill mostly with graduating fifth graders from 276’s elementary school. But for the next couple years, before 276 graduates its first fifth graders, the city needs to figure out who will get the middle school seats.
Jeff Mihok, a P.S. 89 parent, wants his fifth-grade daughter to have a guaranteed seat next fall in 276, which is rising across the street from his home.
“It’s so obvious that it should be for our community,” Mihok said of the green K-8 school, which he fought to build.
The city partly agrees, and plans to give admissions preference for next fall to families who, like Mihok, live in southern B.P.C. and the southern Financial District. But Mihok doesn’t just want preference — he wants a guarantee that his daughter will get into the school, even if she doesn’t list it among her top choices in the middle school selection process.
What Mihok is asking for is a zoned middle school, which is something of an anachronism in District 2, a broad region that stretches from Lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side. Most middle schools in District 2 are choice schools, with children from anywhere in the district applying for the slots. Lower Manhattan kids who don’t get into any of their choices are assigned to Simon Baruch Middle School on E. 21st St. Baruch is technically the zoned middle school for Downtown (along with the Village, part of Chelsea, Gramercy, Murray Hill and Midtown East), but not many Lower Manhattan children attend because it is so far away.
“Our default school should be in our own community,” said Ann DeFalco, the newly appointed chairperson of Community Board 1’s Youth and Education Committee and a Seaport parent.
But while it may sound like a simple request, the Dept. of Education thinks that zoning 276 for Downtown would create far more problems than it would solve.
First of all, there would not be enough room in 276’s middle school for all the kids who are currently attending P.S. 89 and P.S. 234 in B.P.C. and Tribeca, said John White, head of the D.O.E.’s Office of Portfolio Development. Downtown has another crop of middle school seats opening in 2011 at the Spruce Street School, but even those wouldn’t be enough to cover all of the neighborhood’s burgeoning middle school population, White said Sept. 15 at a meeting of C.B. 1’s Youth Committee. The question of how Spruce Street’s middle school will be zoned hasn’t heated up yet, partly because the sixth grade isn’t opening until 2011 and partly because Spruce will have roughly half as many middle school seats as 276, which will have about 300.
Another problem with zoning 276 to Lower Manhattan, White said, is that it would shut out children who live elsewhere in District 2, and it could create a ripple effect of other communities wanting to close their schools to outsiders.
White said he wouldn’t blame parents in other neighborhoods for saying, “Well, if you’re zoning 276 to Lower Manhattan, then you need to zone Lab to Chelsea and Salk to Gramercy and East Side Middle to the Upper East Side.” Lower Manhattan families, who frequently apply to those schools, would likely be upset if the schools became even harder to get into as a result, White said.
Scott Scovel, a B.P.C. resident who also has a fifth-grader at P.S. 89, agrees with White.
“Giving us zoning rights would be giving us something other parts of the city don’t benefit from, and that doesn’t feel right,” Scovel said. “It begins to disrupt the entire system.”
District 2’s Community Education Council, an elected body of mostly parents, has some say in deciding middle school zoning, and White said the C.E.C. could push for more zoned schools as opposed to choice schools. But Scovel and several other parents said they would not want to remove choice from the middle school process.
“By the time middle school comes around, I think it’s fair and right for children to have the opportunity to go to many different middle schools,” said Carolyn Happy, co-president of P.S. 89’s P.T.A.
Tom Goodkind, whose daughter attended Baruch after graduating from P.S. 89, said that making more middle schools local would be a tradeoff, and maybe a good one. His daughter’s long commute up to Baruch prevented her from attending local after-school programs like Manhattan Youth. And Goodkind said Downtown would benefit from having more local kids stay in the neighborhood for middle school, as opposed to filling the seats with children from elsewhere.
“If you have a pile of kids coming in from outside the neighborhood, is that positive?” Goodkind said. He believes, based on academic studies of K-8’s, that students from different neighborhoods could limit the effectiveness of K-8 schools.
The C.E.C. plans to schedule a public meeting on zoning issues in the second week of October, and White expects a decision on 276 by the end of the month. T. Elzora Cleveland, the newly elected C.E.C. president, said she had not formed an opinion on the zoning but wanted to hear from parents.
“The council represents the best interests of the entire district,” Cleveland said. “We will do everything in our power to execute fairness.”
Some Downtown parents have raised the concern that the C.E.C. no longer has any members who live in Lower Manhattan, but Cleveland, who lives in Chelsea, said all the members will work to represent all the neighborhoods in District 2.
Assuming the D.O.E. continues with its plan to open I.S. 276 as a choice school, not a zoned school, the only children who would have a guaranteed seat would be those graduating from fifth grade at P.S. 276 starting several years from now.
Some parents thought that even those children in the same building would have to list I.S. 276 as their top choice if they wanted to get in, but that is not the case. P.S. 276 kids could list I.S. 276 anywhere on their priority list, and if they did not get into the schools ranked above it, then they would definitely get into 276, Andy Jacob, D.O.E. spokesperson, told Downtown Express Wednesday.
After that — and this is where the admissions process will start for next fall — priority would go to children who live in southern B.P.C. and the southern Financial District but did not attend P.S. 276. Those children would not have a guaranteed seat. Finally, the remaining seats would be opened up to all of District 2.
Scovel and many other parents want the city to give preference not just to the area right around P.S. 276, but to Lower Manhattan as a whole, below Canal St. on the West Side and below the Brooklyn Bridge on the East Side. However, White said that would go against the D.O.E.’s policies and would be unfair to others in District 2.
The D.O.E. will distribute middle school applications for next fall in November, and they will be due Dec. 15. District 2’s middle school fair will be held Tues., Oct. 20 at Robert F. Wagner (M.S. 167), 220 E. 76th St., from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.