District 75 parents said they were excluded from space convos

Parents at a school for students with disabilities are accusing the city of excluding them from discussions about plans to move their school to make way for an expanding charter school.

For the past month, debate has raged in District 1 over three scenarios the DOE has proposed to accommodate the expansion of Girls Prep Charter School into middle school grades. Seven elementary and secondary schools in the district could be affected by the plans. Last month, parents from most of those schools packed into the auditorium of P.S. 20 for a heated meeting to tell the DOE they won’t accept space-sharing plans.

While the meeting was raucous, the voices of parents from P.S. 94 were noticeably absent. The school, a District 75 school for severely disabled students that currently shares space with Girls Prep and a district school, would be affected by the expansion. One of the scenarios would move their students to a new building in Battery Park City.

Jessica Santos, the president of the parent association at P.S. 94, said that’s because parents learned only yesterday that the DOE was considering moving their school.

“I’m surprised, and to be honest, I’m pretty pissed off,” Santos said. “Our children are already vulnerable to the social stigmas of being disabled, and now it seems like the DOE is treating us the same way.”

Santos received a call yesterday from John Englert, president of the Citywide Council on Special Education, who alerted her for the first time to the possibility that the school might be moved.

Girls Prep requested space to expand their middle school grades months ago, and the DOE presented their three possible scenarios for public comment on November 18.

Now Santos and other parents are scrambling to organize and deliver their thoughts on the proposal to the DOE before tomorrow’s deadline for public comment. Santos has hastily transformed what was to be a routine parent association gathering this afternoon to discuss bylaws into an emergency meeting to collect feedback from parents.

Not even the Citywide Council on Special Education knew that the move could be coming. Englert said he first learned of the situation on Monday, when he received a message from the director of Girls Prep, Miriam Lewis Raccah. Raccah’s message urged members of the Community Education Council to support the DOE proposal that would move P.S. 94 to Battery Park City, allowing room for Girls Prep to grow in the building where they are currently located.

Englert was surprised to learn of the plan and responded with a message to Raccah and copied to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein as well as the District 75 superintendent and members of District 1’s Community Education Council.

“Your request is not only late but has failed to reach the parents of the very children you will be affecting; children with disabilities in District 75,” Englert wrote. “We find it alarming and severely dysfunctional that the Founder of a Girls Prep School can dictate their needs to parents of children with disabilities and bully them out of public school space.”

Englert said his concerns with the plan to move P.S. 94’s students are twofold. “In District 75 the children are the most fragile and have the most difficult transitions” to new environments, Englert said.

In addition, the CCSE recommends that disabled students share space in buildings where they can interact with general education students of their own age group. Under the DOE’s proposal, P.S. 94 students would be moved to share space with one of two elementary schools, the Battery Park City School or Shuang Wen on the Lower East Side. But P.S. 94 currently serves middle school students, and Englert said that moving them to elementary school buildings would deny them the opportunity to integrate with their peers.

Englert said he feels that parents of disabled students are frequently excluded from conversations about building space. “It appears as though whenever space is needed, the children with disabilities are the kids who are pushed out,” he said.

Lisa Donlan, president of District 1’s Community Education Council, said that she had asked to involve representatives from P.S. 94 in ongoing conversations about building changes, but was discouraged from reaching out by her district superintendent.
“I have to say that I’ve been personally frustrated by the inability to get at the table with the people who are affected,” she said. “Now it’s really high time, past time, to bring in the PS 94 families.”

A spokesman for the DOE, William Havemann, said that the DOE invited the P.S. 94 parents’ association to a meeting of the district’s parent leaders at the end of October, where all of the proposals were discussed. The District 1 superintendent, Daniela Phillips, met with the principal of P.S. 94 as well, he said, and the proposals were sent in writing to the school before November’s public meeting.

The principal of the school, Ronnie Shuster, did not return phone calls for comment today.

Havemann said the DOE will release a final proposal either at the end of this month or early January and the Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the measure in its January meeting.

UPDATE: Miriam Lewis Raccah, the head of Girls Prep, said in an email the school was not aware P.S. 94 parents had been excluded from the discussions. She submitted the letter that prompted Englert’s frustrated response as part of the DOE’s feedback process on the changes. “Certainly we did not anticipate that the letter would be viewed as scandalous and inappropriate,” she said.  “It is unfathomable that they were not included in this process.”