Volume 20, Number 45 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | November 3 - 9, 2010
D.O.E. plays the villain at school task force meeting
BY Aline Reynolds
Downtown youngsters may lose the option of another selective high school and middle school in their neighborhood next year, if the city Department of Education get its way.
Lower Manhattan parents were not pleased with the news announced at last Thursday’s education task force meeting at Assembly Speaker Silver’s office. According to D.O.E. officials, the Department will likely reject 26 Broadway as the site for a second campus of the nearby Millennium High school. It also plans to delay the incubation of the Spruce Street Middle School, which was slated to open next year in Beekman Tower, to 2015.
In a presentation to the task force, Millennium Principal Robert Rhodes explained the benefits of having a second campus a few blocks away.
“It would be a separate school with intertwined resources,” Rhodes said.
The two schools, he explained, would allow for cross-registration and share staff and facilities, such as a new performing arts space.
The second campus would also offer core music and theater classes that the school’s current campus lacks.
“We do have after-school plays and musical ensembles, and a strong visual arts program, but not quite enough in terms of formal studies,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes recently submitted his proposal to the D.O.E., which is still considering the plan. The D.O.E. will make a final decision on December 3, after which the proposal will be subject to a public review.
However Lenny Speiller, the D.O.E.’s executive director of public affairs, indicated that 26 Broadway is not a suitable site for a second Millennium.
“We do have some reservations about this proposal, for a couple reasons – largely because we believe the real need in this district is for more unscreened high school seats,” said Speiller.
Unscreened schools admit students via a lottery system, and do not consider Grade Point Averages or test scores.
If a nonselective school is established at 26 Broadway, as seemingly planned, Speiller said the D.O.E. would consider alternative sites for a second Millennium High School, particularly one in Brooklyn.
“We intend to create a new selective high school in Brooklyn, and are actively looking for the right location now,” said D.O.E. Spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld in a statement.
The school “would attract a lot of Brooklyn students who go to Millennium and open up seats there for more eligible Lower Manhattan students,” Speiller explained.
Opening up a Brooklyn campus is an acceptable but far-from-ideal solution, according to Rhodes.
“Would it meet a need? Absolutely. Would it create the same synergy, opportunities and efficiencies? No,” Rhodes stated.
Many of the parents in attendance were equally dismayed over the news.
“I’ve never spoken to a parent who would wish there are more unscreened schools,” said Susan Heuman, a Millennium parent. “Honestly, it’s beyond me.”
Some youths purposely eliminate Millennium as their number one choice, she added, because of the lack of opportunities in performing arts and sports.
“You’re taking away the possibility for growth for students that would benefit from being in contact with other [high-achieving] students,” said Karen Manville. “What you’re doing is segregating and saying, okay, throwing together unscreened seats. There won’t be a strive towards excellence.”
“The vast majority of students will not meet the screening of this [proposed] school,” Speiller replied. “We need to have schools for those people as well.”
“I feel very strongly this remains a community space,” said P.S. 234 parent Tricia Joyce. “I do understand the need to find unscreened seats, but we don’t have any room for the city’s needs at this point.”
“You’re talking on one hand about opening a school elsewhere, instead of a space across the street – that makes no sense,” commented Kim Buse, Spruce Street’s Parent Teacher Association president. “We need a school for our Lower Manhattan community.”
Elizabeth Rose, director of the D.O.E.’s Office of Portfolio Planning, reassured the parents that even an unscreened school “would likely develop strong ties in the area.”
Rose noted that the D.O.E. has altered its decisions in the past. It was contemplating moving the Clinton School for Writers and Artists in Chelsea to the East Village, for example, but the plan was ultimately tossed after negative community feedback.
Responding to the 26 Broadway discussion, Assembly Speaker Silver said in a statement, “I am working hard to convince the [D.O.E.] to use its remaining space at 26 Broadway for a school that will serve Lower Manhattan parents and children, rather than address the needs of other neighborhoods.”
The D.O.E. also announced at the task force meeting that it will hold off on opening a Spruce Street middle school until 2015. The school, which incubated last year at Tweed Courthouse as a kindergarten through second grade school, is supposed to move into Beekman Towers next year.
The rationale is that there is a higher demand for elementary school seats in Lower Manhattan than for middle school seats.
“What we’re doing is trying to be prudent about long-range planning, which we’re accused of not being,” Rose said.
Downtown middle schools such as P.S. 276 and the Lower Manhattan middle school have available seats, according to Rosenfeld.
In defense of the decision, Rose added that not all Lower Manhattan students would choose to attend a middle school in their neighborhood. “Some families do want to travel to take advantage of other districts’ middle schools.”
“The Department of Education made a firm commitment to all of us that Spruce Street School would be a [k-8] school,” said Silver. “I am disappointed the D.O.E. is not planning to open a sixth grade class next year and I will continue to press for one so that local parents have an opportunity to send their children to a local middle school.”
Parents were equally frustrated by the D.O.E.’s decision. “It’s a sloppy idea, frankly,” Joyce said after the meeting. “They’re risking a school that we worked too hard for to allow this level of risk just because of their poor planning.”
“It buys them only a year’s time at best, if you look at what overcrowding will be,” said Eric Greenleaf, a P.S. 234 parent who sits on the District 2 Community Education Council. According to his predictions, the D.O.E.’s plan will open up 160 to 180 elementary school seats, and by the year 2014, the district will run out of space for middle school students yet again.
Greenleaf also mentioned a “deal” struck between the city and C.B. 1 as it pertained to the construction of Beekman Plaza. Greenleaf said the community board only signed off on the construction of the towers under the agreement the building would contain a new school for Lower Manhattan and expressed frustration that the D.O.E. was not keeping its promise.