Desperate for space, city opens a Gateway
to P.S. 276
By Julie Shapiro
Overwhelmed by a record number of kindergarten applications Downtown, the city promised last week to build a new elementary school for Lower Manhattan.
The new 450-seat school would be located on the West Side between Hudson Square and Battery Park, an area where schools are already overcrowded and the city anticipates still more growth, said Elizabeth Rose, director of portfolio planning at the Dept. of Education. The city has not yet found a site for the school, so it likely would not open for at least a couple of years.
The announcement of the potential new school seats was the sole bright spot at a meeting of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s overcrowding taskforce last Thursday afternoon.
At the meeting, Downtown’s principals voiced concern about the flood of kindergarten applications they have received: Both P.S. 234 in Tribeca and P.S. 89 in Battery Park City have gotten more applications from zoned students than they can accommodate, and the two new schools, P.S. 276 and the Spruce Street School, are full.
“I’m over already,” said Ronnie Najjar, principal of P.S. 89. “We got a lot today, much more than I thought we would.”
As of the end of kindergarten registration last Friday, Najjar had received 88 applications for 65 general education kindergarten spots. Thirty-six of the incoming kindergarteners have siblings in the school and are guaranteed a seat, but many of the remaining 52 zoned students will have to go somewhere else. After Najjar presented similar numbers at Silver’s meeting one day before registration ended, she asked Rose if her school would have to hold a lottery, as it did last year.
Rose replied that the city hopes to avoid a lottery at P.S. 89 by opening at least one additional kindergarten class at P.S. 276, the new K-8 opening this fall in southern Battery Park City. Many of the south B.P.C. families currently zoned for P.S. 89 had hoped to be zoned for P.S. 276 instead, and Rose is now planning to allow those children, who live in Gateway Plaza, to switch to P.S. 276.
Shifting students from P.S. 89 to P.S. 276 could also open up enough extra kindergarten seats at P.S. 89 to accommodate some of the Tribeca children who will not get a seat a block away at P.S. 234, Rose said. Downtown Express suggested a nearly identical plan in an editorial Feb. 19. The city did not say what role the editorial played in the plan.
By the middle of February, it was already clear that P.S. 234 had received too many applications and would have to hold a lottery. Last week, Principal Lisa Ripperger said she had received even more kindergarten requests: 195 for 115 general education spots. The 63 incoming kindergarteners with siblings will definitely receive a seat in the school, leaving the remaining 132 zoned students to vie for just 52 spots in a lottery the school will hold this week. P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 each reserve 10 seats for students with special needs.
Because P.S. 234’s numbers are so high, it is possible that even opening up an extra class or two in P.S. 276 will not solve Downtown’s overcrowding problem this fall. Rose said she was considering adding another class to the Spruce Street School as well, and if that was not enough, then the city may send children up to P.S. 3 in Greenwich Village. P.S. 3 has been overcrowded recently but will have more space this fall because the city is moving Greenwich Village Middle School out of the elementary school to a new space at 26 Broadway.
Rose also said that Downtown’s kindergarten population may shrink, as families choose private school or gifted and talented programs, or move away over the summer. These shifts should allow many children who are waitlisted for P.S. 234 to attend either that school or one of the others in Lower Manhattan, Rose said.
However, last year, as of the first day of school, P.S. 234 had only accepted nine children off of its 56-person waiting list. And as more families move in over the summer, they will have to be squeezed in as well.
The city will send out letters on March 22 to all families that applied for kindergarten seats this year. The letters will either contain a seat offer at the child’s zoned school or a randomly assigned number on a waitlist for that school. Families who receive a seat will register their children between April 12 and April 23, and the city will send out alternate offers in May to families who are still on a waitlist, Rose said.
Families will receive alternate seats at the school closest to them with available seats, Rose said. Many parents would prefer to express a preference for their second choice, which may not be the school closest to them, and Community Board 1’s Youth and Education Committee passed a resolution Tuesday night asking the city to take parents’ preference into consideration. Last week, though, Rose said that would contradict city policy.
Parent activists who have long been sounding the alarm on school overcrowding responded with dismay to the new kindergarten numbers at Silver’s meeting last week. Tricia Joyce, a P.S. 234 parent, was particularly concerned about the proposal to permanently expand P.S. 276 from three classes per grade to four classes for kindergarten, first and second.
Rose said the school had enough rooms to fit those extra classes, provided they could be collapsed to three classes per grade starting in third. But Joyce worried that putting extra children in P.S. 276, and possibly the Spruce Street School as well, could ultimately force those schools to close rooms planned for art and science, and could jeopardize Spruce’s middle school.
“It isn’t a long-term solution,” Joyce said. “It’s a very dangerous precedent to set.”
Rose responded by saying the D.O.E. is now planning for the new 450-seat elementary school, which would be big enough to hold three classes per grade. Though the city had previously identified a need for more seats in a broad area called “Tribeca/Village,” this was the first time the city said those seats would definitely serve children in Lower Manhattan.
Rose said the city is looking for a site for the school, but “We have not yet found a site that we are actively negotiating on,” she said.
Joyce and Eric Greenleaf, another P.S. 234 parent, suggested that the city look at the old Burlington Coat Factory building on Park Place; 140 William St., the former home of the American Numismatic Society; and 100 Church St., the office building where Claremont Prep recently considered building an upper school. Joyce has been pushing the city to consider 140 William and the Burlington Coat Factory for more than a year, but Rose appeared to take the suggestions more seriously this week, now that the city has committed to build new school seats Downtown, and she said she would get back to the parents soon with a response.
Another possible school site is the state-owned building at 75 Morton St. in the Village. Greenleaf said the location was ideal and the space could be converted quickly to a new K-8 school. The city has expressed interest in the seven-story building, and Silver pledged to do what he could to convince the state to sell it at a reasonable price.
No matter where the new school is located, Greenleaf said it will have to take some of the burden off of P.S. 234, which still received dozens of extra applications from zoned students even after the city shrunk the school’s zone this year.
“It’s clear that the 234 zone cannot remain the 234 zone for much longer,” Greenleaf said. “It needs to be made much smaller.”