District 3 parent leaders so worried that the DOE’s Upper West Side rezoning plan would anger parents that they prefaced the plan’s first public airing last week with a stern call for civility.
The atmosphere remained civil, but the packed auditorium at the Joan of Arc complex on 93rd Street was filled with strong reactions from applause to boos as department officials visiting the Community Education Council for District 3 laid out a proposal that could rezone as many as 30 percent of families living between 59th and Morningside Park — or augur an end to the district’s broad array of “choice” programs, including gifted and talented and dual language programs.
Inspired by parents and elected officials in neighboring District 2, CEC 3 this spring launched a committee to lobby for new schools to relieve the district’s pervasive overcrowding and accommodate families moving into the area’s many residential buildings under construction.
But DOE officials said last week that a “more comprehensive, more immediate set of solutions” — in the form of rezoning to take effect in the fall of 2009 — could bring the district’s schools well below capacity without a new school.
Under one of the two plans the DOE has proposed, no school would have to relocate, but 30 percent of families would be rezoned and every school zone would change. In the other plan, half as many schools would be affected, but two popular unzoned schools located in the neighborhood — the Anderson School, which serves gifted children from across the city, and the Center School — would have to move to other buildings. Under both plans, students already enrolled would be able to stay at their current schools, but younger siblings would have to enroll at the school for which their family is now zoned.
But the district’s biggest need is for new buildings, according to Jennifer Freeman, chair of CEC 3’s space committee. “The first step has to come from the DOE — to recognize the need,” she said.
The DOE has given the CEC until Nov. 30 to approve on a rezoning plan, whether one of those proposed by the DOE or another that meets the DOE’s requirements. If the CEC doesn’t vote for an acceptable plan, warned Marty Barr, head of elementary enrollment for the DOE, the department will “implement appropriate administrative solutions” — which could include relocating the district’s gifted and talented programs, cutting down the district-wide kindergarten lottery, and capping enrollment at overcrowded schools.
“Perceived overcrowding” in the neighborhood’s schools results from their high numbers of out-of-zone and out-of-district students, Barr said. A quarter of the district’s students were assigned via the kindergarten lottery process, with 40 percent of those coming from nearby districts where schools have capacity to spare. If zoned students alone were enrolled, only three schools in the area — PS 75, 165, and 199 — would be overcrowded, Barr said. Both of the DOE’s rezoning proposals would decrease the number of students zoned for those schools.
For now, parents in the district must contend with uncertainty about where their children will start kindergarten next year, and developers already grappling with a weakened economy must now anticipate potential home-buyers putting off their purchases until after the rezoning process is complete.
One of the more surprising elements of the meeting was the passion of parents and teachers from the Center School, a tiny middle school with progressive, multi-grade instruction that currently occupies the top floor of PS 199 on 70th Street. Both the Center School and PS 199 are overcrowded, with class size at PS 199 well over 30 in the upper grades and Center School administrators saying they are forced to hold classes in the halls. Under one of the DOE’s plans, the Center School would move 14 blocks north, into the building of another highly regarded elementary school.
For the district, “the simple solution seems to be to move an unzoned school,” said a PS 199 parent, referring to the Center School’s practice of admitting students by application from throughout the city for its 5th grade.
But the Center School contingent at the CEC meeting booed when DOE officials revealed the plan that would require the school to move. “We don’t want to move,” said a Center School parent. “Studies have shown that to move a school changes the school, and it’s a good school.”
Plus, said the Center School mother, “moving the school would take the heat off” the DOE to build new schools, which remain the district’s real need.