Volume 16 • Issue 33 | January 16 - 22, 2004

School leader says Downtown K-8 is coming

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Peter Heaney, superintendent of Region 9, paid a visit to P.S. 234 in Tribeca on Tuesday.

Downtown’s crowded classrooms will get some relief in a few years, when a new public school is built in the area, according to a high-ranking Department of Education official.

Peter Heaney, the superintendent who oversees local schools, said last week that the education department’s five-year budget included a new kindergarten through eighth grade school for Downtown. The department’s latest capital plan, released in November, provides for three new schools in local District 2 but does not specify locations for the schools within the district, which runs from Downtown to the Upper East Side.

In a speech last October, Gov. George Pataki called for a new K-8 in Lower Manhattan but did not recommend any locations. While community members have widely anticipated a new public school for the area, Heaney was the first education official to tell Downtown Express that the community’s expectations were founded. Up until now, city officials hesitated to say that Lower Manhattan would be getting a new school.

“That’s my understanding, and I think that’s wonderful,” Heaney said Jan. 8 when asked whether a new school would be created in the area. Heaney spoke during a telephone interview that also touched on the mayor’s massive school overhaul and Heaney’s position heading one of the city’s 10 new instructional regions.

Community leaders have pushed for a Downtown school to help ease the tight squeeze in local classrooms, particularly at P.S. 234 in Tribeca. Paul Hovitz, chair of the youth and education committee of Community Board 1, applauded Heaney’s remarks.

“I’m glad someone’s stepping up to bat,” Hovitz said.

Hovitz and others have cautioned that short-term solutions are still necessary to ensure class sizes stay manageable. Of the three schools planned for local District 2, two are scheduled to begin construction in the summer of 2006 and the other in the summer of 2007. No site has been selected for a Downtown school, which will be either a new building or leased space in an existing building.

In a larger uncertainty, the city education department’s ability to follow through on its entire capital plan depends partly on the state contributing $6.5 billion to the city as a result of a lawsuit filed on behalf of New York City parents charging unfair allocation of state education funds. Gov. Pataki, who is expected to release his capital budget on Jan. 20, has not promised that amount.

P.S. 234 can’t wait for a resolution on funding, community members say. The highly regarded elementary school is about 70 students over capacity, and school leadership has considered the possibility of leasing trailers as a temporary fix.

Heaney said that P.S. 234 officials should first consider limiting the school’s new enrollment, by cutting the number of variances they issue. While the public school must accept all children who live within its zone, it can limit the number of variances it gives to students who travel from outside the area.

But variances are not the problem, said Tim Johnson, president of the P.S. 234 parent teacher association. He said P.S. 234 issued only a handful of coveted variances this school year, mostly to children with siblings already at the school.

“Our kindergarten was 125 kids, all of whom were in the zone—that’s the problem,” Johnson said.

Sandy Bridges, principal of P.S. 234, said this year, about six students received variances. She didn’t anticipate having to use trailers next year if the school’s growth rate does not change. She said she would be constantly monitoring the school’s enrollment and looking for temporary solutions to the overcrowding that is expected to worsen over the next few years as more than 8,000 new apartments are built south of Canal St.

While Heaney declined detailed comment on P.S. 234, he is hardly a stranger to the needs of elementary schools. As a kindergarten teacher in 1970 at P.S. 124 in the Bronx, he was told that he was the first male to teach that grade in all of New York City.

“It was great,” Heaney said. “The kids certainly liked it.”

More recently, Heaney served for 10 years as the principal of P.S. 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He lived—and still lives—four blocks from the school and used to feel like a “rock star” in the neighborhood among the 11 and under set and their parents.

Bridges said she appreciates that Heaney has had experience as a principal.

“I like Peter a lot,” Bridges said. “I think he has a very realistic idea of what can be done.”

These days, Heaney has 181 schools under his wing. As head of Region 9, which encompasses Districts 1, 2, 4 and 7 and stretches from Lower Manhattan to the South Bronx, Heaney begins two days a week with school visits. But with about 180 days in the school year, it will take him more than two years before he can visit them all.

The biggest challenge of the job is that, “You want to have a close relationship with as many people as you can,” Heaney said. He took over as superintendent of Region 9 last July, when Shelley Harwayne, the former head of local District 2, retired from the post after just three weeks on the job. His office is in the Region 9 headquarters at 333 Seventh Ave. in Chelsea.

Ellen Foote, principal of I.S. 89 in Battery Park City, said she would welcome more contact with Heaney, who has not yet visited her school. But the local instructional supervisor who reports to Heaney has come often, Foote said.

“She’s very accessible,” Foote said of Annie Zimmer, the supervisor.

Foote said she has spent most of this school year forging new relationships with administrators at the education department’s central and regional offices. The mayor’s overhaul went into effect last September, bringing a radically different administrative structure to the city’s public school system.

“Things are still very much in flux,” Foote said, noting that when she couldn’t get help over the phone she had to visit the Region 9 headquarters in person to get answers to her budgetary and other questions.

Heaney said that the system’s new challenges could also be viewed as a source of strength.

“There’s been a lot to learn, very interesting schools to get to know,” from Battery Park City to the Bronx, Heaney said. “That is the beauty of the restructuring—I love the combination of those districts.”



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