Volume 22, Number 50 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 23 - 29, 2010
Kindergarten crunch puts Spruce Street’s middle school in doubt
By Aline Reynolds and Josh Rogers
The battle is heating up among Lower Manhattan parents on how to best utilize the new Spruce Street School (P.S. 397), currently in its incubator phase at the Tweed Courthouse until it moves to its permanent location in fall 2011.
The school was originally planned to offer grades K through 8, but kindergarten overcrowding has prompted a heated debate over whether to retain the K-8 model or become a K-5 with more sections in each grade.
In the elementary school scenario, each grade would expand to four sections, leaving no room for a middle school in 2011.
At Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s Overcrowding Task Force meeting last Thursday, Elizabeth Rose, director of portfolio planning, defended this plan. Rose stressed the urgency of having space for youngsters this fall and keeping them close to home.
“We need to think about it in order of priority. We first need to serve the kindergarten children and ensure we have seats for them,” she said. It might make sense, she added, for middle schoolers to travel to schools farther away than the kindergarteners.
Some community leaders have suspected for over a year that Spruce’s kindergarten enrollment numbers would not leave enough room to expand it into a middle school, but education officials had denied the possibility until last week.
“We’ll enroll a sixth grade in 2011 [when the Spruce Street School building is expected to open],” D.O.E. spokesperson Danny Kanner told Downtown Express in January.
Spruce parents and Community Board 1 are urging D.O.E. to stick to the initial K-8 setup for the new school building.
“We’re very concerned about the idea that you’d give up a K-8 model that’s part of the mission of our school,” said Kimberly Busi, a parent on the school leadership team. “To solve one school’s overcrowding by overcrowding another and destroying its educational K-8 model should be contraindicated. It seems surreal that adding a fourth section to solve this current problem is considered a viable option.”
Learan Kahanov, whose 6-year-old son is a kindergartener at Spruce Street this year, finds the K-5 plan implausible. “Removing a middle school from Spruce doesn’t solve the need for another elementary school,” he said. “You still have too many kids, so it’s not fixing the problem.”
Community Board 1’s Youth & Education Committee drafted a resolution last week that the full board passed Tuesday. The resolution, which is only advisory, urges the D.O.E. to forge ahead with creating a middle school, and not a fourth kindergarten section.
“We ask that the D.O.E. identify other temporary space but not take away the middle school, which it previously deemed a preferable model for a number of reasons,” Youth & Education Committee co-chairperson Paul Hovitz said.
Although the board passed the resolution overwhelmingly, member Jeff Galloway argued it would be better to make sure Lower Manhattan’s kindergarten class has a seat closer to home.
Like many Downtowners, he sent his children to middle school outside of the neighborhood, and said if given the choice, “hands down I would have said send my elementary school kids locally. I think it’s much less important to send your middle school kids locally.”
Tricia Joyce, a parent leader and C.B.1 member, said the D.O.E. has to find more school space for September and “basically we are daring them to go through with this.”
She said parents who oppose the board resolution are naturally anxious about kindergarten seats in the fall, but that’s not worth thwarting the K-8 school. “They just want to look at today and it’s a very dangerous precedent to set to dismantle the model that we put in place in this school.”
She and Hovitz argued that many North Tribeca parents would rather send their children to P.S. 3 in the Village, while wait-listed East Side parents prefer P.S. 1 or 126 in Chinatown.
About 55 children remain on the wait list of P.S. 234 in Tribeca, and education officials think they will be able to place some, but they still are looking for space for about 35.
So far wait-listed parents have not raised much objection to the Board 1 position. Bob Townley, who voted for the resolution and is executive director of Manhattan Youth, said many of the active parents at planning meetings are already “locked in” the system and are not applying for a kindergarten slot. Townley, whose group leases space to P.S. 234, said he is offering the city an additional classroom for free this fall.
Board members are also concerned about the space in Tweed Courthouse, which is housing six incubator classrooms for Spruce and P.S. 276 this year.
Rose proposed that this year’s three kindergarten classes for Spruce could be collapsed into two first-grade classes next year to meet the temporary space needs. “We’re not going to make a decision to add a fourth kindergarten section in a vacuum,” she said.
Rose is holding out hope that Spruce will be able to open a middle school in five years when the current kindergarten class reaches the sixth grade.
The alternative to adding a fourth kindergarten section to Spruce Street, Rose said, is to fill up kindergarten seats at other schools, such as P.S. 1 and P.S. 126/Manhattan Academy of Technology and P.S. 42, all in the Chinatown-Lower East Side area.
Overcrowding is playing out more immediately among anxious Downtown parents whose children are on long wait lists, particularly for the highly regarded P.S. 234. More and more families, their patience tested, are opting for private education.
Tribeca resident Mary Hoeveler, whose 5-year-old child is number 47 on P.S. 234’s wait list, said she decided to send her child to an Upper West Side private school instead. The Hoeveler family moved to North Tribeca six years ago mainly so they could send their child to the much-touted P.S. 234.
But the lottery system that landed her child far down the wait list left her exasperated.
“It was too much up in the air,” she said. “There’s a point at which you have to commit. When you’re zoned for a particular school, you should still be able to express preferences for other schools. Now, we’re back to square one.”
Families on the wait list for area schools will receive alternate offers for public schools as near to their homes as possible by May 17, Rose said at the meeting. And, to some parents’ dismay, the D.O.E. will automatically send students to the closest school with an available seat, whether or not the school matches the families’ choices.
An information session for wait-listed parents is tentatively slated for Tuesday, May 11, where D.O.E. officials will review the procedure.
The overcrowding dilemma behind Spruce Street and wait-list controversies is exposing the need for a new school somewhere on Downtown’s West Side. But parents are again flustered that they’re not being given clear answers as to the location, capacity and start date of the new school.
Rose stressed that the D.O.E. is working with the School Construction Authority in locating a site for a 450-seat elementary space, with a possibility of adding a middle school. She sounded much more concerned about the need for school space than she had in the past, using the word “urgent” several times.
“The money is there for a Lower Manhattan school in the capital plan,” Rose said. “The School Construction Authority will help us find a site that is affordable and that meets its criteria.”
Rather than locate an incubation site, as was done for Spruce Street, the D.O.E. will hold off until it has a permanent, student-ready building, which will not be in time for the 2010/2011 school year, Rose said. So, for now, Lower Manhattan is limited to its existing space.
Joyce, also a P.S. 234 parent, and Hovitz expressed frustration over the ambiguity of securing a site for the promised elementary school. Joyce and other Downtown parents identified several possible sites for a new school with the help of a real estate specialist but have not heard back from the S.C.A. about the proposals.
“What we deserve to hear back about is why they’ve turned offers down when we found buildings that match for criteria,” Joyce said at the meeting. “We’ve found sites, and no one has gotten back to us.”
“It leaves us with serious questions: what’s going on, and are we being played?” Hovitz chipped in.
To which Rose replied, “We cannot trumpet things [to the public] about properties that may have an impact on sellers’ ability to market the property to others.”
But even a new school won’t fully ease overcrowding, according to the D.O.E.’s numbers. There is a pressing issue of middle schoolers lacking seats, largely due to underutilized space, according to Rose. She plans on further analyzing long-term planning for middle school seats over the summer.
There are 500 underutilized classroom seats in District 2 due to schools not maximizing their space and leaving classrooms empty for large portions of the day, based on preliminary estimates, Rose said. She plans to conduct a long-term study of middle schools during the summer. “I want to try to understand where the problem is with the perception that we don’t have seats and the D.O.E. data saying that we do have seats,” she said.