done deal

Finally, a school rezoning plan for the Upper West Side is approved

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191, which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled with low test scores.

The District 3 Community Education Council voted Tuesday night to approve a controversial school rezoning plan that officials hope will alleviate overcrowding and integrate schools.

Members of the volunteer board voted nine to one to adopt the new school boundaries, with many emphasizing the opportunity to address historic segregation on the Upper West Side.

“Today we are taking a step to right a wrong,” said council member Manuel Casanova. “This plan puts all schools on a path to be successful.”

In a statement, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña praised the vote and “robust” community feedback.

“This is a critical step and we will continue working closely with schools to implement this plan and support families and educators during the transition,” she said.

While many parents and community members spoke in favor of the plan, others passionately argued it won’t do much to fix jam-packed schools or segregation.

Council members admitted the changes are a modest start toward greater school diversity. Though calls for large-scale integration plans failed to gain traction during the rezoning process, many council members on Tuesday committed to pursuing the issue longer-term.

“Our district is rich in diversity,” said council member Kimberly Watkins. “We have a lot to do.”

The plan is more than a year in the making. It follows a previous proposal that was tabled by city Department of Education officials after mounting opposition.

As approved, the plan shifts zone lines around high-performing P.S. 199, cutting some families from the Lincoln Towers community out of the boundary while including other new, luxury buildings. That has been one of the main points of contention, along with the move of P.S. 452 about 16 blocks south. P.S. 452 will take the place of P.S. 191, which is moving to a new building.

Parents at P.S. 452 were divided over the move. CEC members called for busing to be provided to ease the burden on families, and council chair Joe Fiordaliso said the city has committed to do so.

“I can’t think of anything that is more logical and reasonable,” he said.

Under the new plan, the zone for P.S. 191, which previously included much of the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex, will also be split among P.S. 199 and P.S. 452. CEC members and DOE officials hope the move will more evenly distribute the area’s poor and minority students among schools.

Many parents spoke up in support of that goal.

“I think sharing our school with lots of new families is a good thing,” said Hilda Blair, a parent at P.S. 452. “If we all do this together, I know we can be successful.”

It will take time to determine whether the plan works. P.S. 191 has underperformed on state tests compared with its neighbors, and parents unhappy with the zoning changes have threatened to transfer schools — creating concerns about potential overcrowding at P.S. 87.

“If this is an overcrowding nightmare, that’s on you,” Debby Saito, co-president of the P.S. 87 parent organization, told council members. “There will be less individual attention for students; There will be more exhaustion for teachers.”

Another sticking point: Residents in Lincoln Towers contend the city’s process and data used for the rezoning were both flawed, and have hired an attorney.

“Why is my child not worth you rolling up your sleeves to get the data right and get buy-in?” asked Elyse Reilly, a new parent whose son would be rezoned from P.S. 199 to P.S. 191.

CEC member Noah Gotbaum, who cast the lone vote against the rezoning, railed against the process undertaken to arrive at the final plan. The council has been accused of violating open meetings laws when it created its own rezoning proposal and submitted it in a letter to city officials.

“I’m glad we’re changing the zoning. That’s a good move,” Gotbaum said. “But the collateral damage was never discussed… The chaos this council is going to create is real.”

A separate vote on a plan to rezone schools in Harlem was put on hold Tuesday. The CEC had asked for changes in zone lines in the northern end of the district after city officials announced their intention to merge P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan. But parents there have had little time to weigh in on the proposal, which was announced two weeks ago.

Ultimately, Tuesday’s vote is likely not the end of this debate, which has raised larger questions about how desegregation can be achieved if parents fight to preserve the status quo.

“The change we need to make is really big,” said council member Dennis Morgan. “We need to change our understanding of what a good school is, and I don’t know how to do that yet.”

bad fit

‘It’s not a solution’: How a Harlem co-location proposal is highlighting disparities between two schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Valencia Moore, PTA president at P.S. 36, called for more resources at the school.

A plan to co-locate two schools in Harlem is drawing intense opposition from residents who say the city Department of Education has long neglected the host school, P.S. 36.

The city wants to temporarily move some students from Teachers College Community School into P.S. 36, which overlooks Morningside Park. But at a community hearing Wednesday, parents blasted the proposal and accused the department of letting P.S. 36 languish until its space became needed by a wealthier, whiter school community.

Valencia Moore, PTA president of P.S. 36, listed all the repairs and resources she says are needed at her school: new electrical wiring, stronger Wi-Fi, replacement desks and new bookshelves.

“Some of our teachers are using milk crates to store their books,” she said. “We’re short-staffed now, where we have parents coming in and volunteering.”

She added that parents have asked the city for years to make repairs to the school’s playground. City officials on Wednesday said they are planning to make the fixes and promised to look into another recurring request — to renovate bathrooms. For parents, the city’s response only exacerbated a sense of inequity many feel.

“Now, all of a sudden you can find money to fix the playground — because you’re bringing a wealthier school,” said Sanayi Beckles-Canton, president of the local Community Education Council. “You have kids bullying other groups of kids because their school looks better. That’s going on in Harlem… We deserve better.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sanayi Beckles-Canton, president of Community Education Council District 5 in Harlem.

TCCS is a diverse school where fewer than half of the students are low-income. Meanwhile, most of the students at P.S. 36 are black or Hispanic, and almost 90 percent are poor. To meet their students’ needs, P.S. 36 has partnerships with eight community organizations, which offer health screenings, counseling and mental health services within the building.

The co-location proposal stems from a battle to create a middle school for TCCS — something the community has pushed for. Opened in 2011 through a partnership between the city and Columbia University, the school is poised to admit its first sixth-grade class in the upcoming school year.

The problem is there’s no room for the extra grades at the current TCCS campus on Morningside Avenue, between 126th and 127th Streets. So city officials have proposed moving TCCS’s younger students — pre-K through second grade — into the P.S. 36 building. The move is supposed to be temporary until the Department of Education can find a permanent home for TCCS.

Parents at TCCS have concerns of their own.

Laura Blake has a daughter at TCCS. She said parents are skeptical the co-location would work, and worry that staff and resources will be stretched thin across two campuses.

“It’s not a solution,” she said.

She echoed concerns from P.S. 36 parents that there simply isn’t enough room for more students — despite assurances to the contrary from city officials.

Moore, the P.S. 36 PTA president, worried the co-location would impede her school’s ability to continue to host community partners and serve its sizeable population — 31 percent — of students with special needs.

“We’re the little people,” she said. “We shouldn’t be bombarded by people who have money.”

According to the co-location proposal, only 64 percent of P.S. 36 is currently being used and students will still be able to receive the special education services they’re entitled to.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education explained why the move was necessary. “As demand for TCCS grows among families, we’re committed to providing its students and staff with the space and resources they need to continue thriving,” Michael Aciman wrote in an email. “This temporary re-siting will help ensure that the school can continue to grow enrollment and expand the grades it serves, as we work diligently to find a permanent home that meets the needs of the entire TCCS community.”

The Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide body, is scheduled to vote on the proposal at their regular meeting on Feb. 28.

words matter

NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña on pre-K diversity struggles: ‘This is parent choice’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña is again drawing criticism from school integration advocates — this time for appearing to excuse racially segregated pre-K programs as products of “parent choice.”

When asked about diversity in the city’s pre-K program at a state budget hearing Tuesday, Fariña seemed to skirt the issue:

“The pre-K parent, rightly so, wants whatever pre-K program is closest to home. They’re in a rush to get to work. They have to do what they have to do. And the one thing that I can say [is] that all our pre-K programs are the same quality … Whether you’re taking a pre-K in Harlem or you’re taking a pre-K in Carroll Gardens, you’re going to have the exact same curriculum with teachers who have been trained the exact same way.

But I, as a parent, am not going to be running to another part [of the city]. So it’s a matter [of] applying. Parents apply. This is parent choice — the same way you can go to private school, parochial school, charter school, you can go to any pre-K. You have an application process, you fill it out. And generally, this year, I think people got one of their first top choices, pretty much across the city. So this is about parent choice.

… So I actually do not agree with this. I think if you’re counting faces, then it’s true. If you’re counting parent choice, it’s totally different. So I think to me diversity is also, we are now taking more students with IEPs [Individual Education Plans] in our pre-K programs. We are taking more students who are English Language Learners in our pre-K programs. Diversity has many faces.”

Fariña’s response didn’t sit well with some integration advocates, who want the chancellor to offer a more forceful commitment to tackling diversity issues.

“It’s basically an argument for separate but equal — that what really matters is drilling down on resources and teachers,” said Halley Potter, who has studied segregation in New York City’s preschools as a fellow at the think tank the Century Foundation. “The problem with that argument is that, in practice, that is rarely if ever true.”

In a recent study, Potter found that the city’s pre-K program is highly segregated. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students come from a single racial or ethnic background. And, Potter said, research shows quality goes hand-in-hand with diversity: Children in mixed pre-K classrooms learn more and are less likely to show bias.

Matt Gonzales heads school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed. He said excusing segregation as a by-product of parent choice seems to “completely absolve officials” from taking steps to increase diversity in pre-K classrooms.

“That’s disappointing because we’re in a place where we’re looking at ideas and potential solutions to segregation in the city, and I worry whether pre-K is being left out,” he said.

The city called the critique unfair. “By any measure, these are extreme mischaracterizations of a thoughtful response on our commitment to pre-K quality,” Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye wrote in an email. “Divisive rhetoric doesn’t move us towards solutions. The chancellor has always been committed to inclusive schools and classrooms, and we’ll continue our efforts to strengthen diversity in our schools.”

This isn’t the first time Fariña struck observers as tone-deaf on diversity. In October 2015, she suggested rich and poor students could learn from each other — by becoming pen pals.

The city has taken some steps to integrate pre-K classrooms, allowing a number of schools to consider “Diversity in Admissions.” But as of September, the program is only open to public schools, and the majority of pre-K centers in New York City are privately run.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Education have said they are working on a plan to improve school diversity, and hope to release details by the end of the school year.

Monica Disare contributed to this report.