“Just imagine…” This was the slogan created over five years ago when a group of determined community activists launched a highly successful campaign for the 75 Morton Street School. The ideal building has finally been secured, so now parents and community members can design their dream school, with good odds that it will come to fruition.
This is exactly what senior representatives of the Department of Education (DOE) and the School Construction Authority (SCA) promised at a January 17th community meeting: we want to build a school the community wants, we will actively seek community input, and we will be transparent to the community throughout the process. This pledge had particular heft given the politicians in the room that night: Chris Quinn (City Council Speaker and Mayoral candidate), Deborah Glick (State Assemblymember-66th District), and Brad Hoylman (State Senator-27th District). All have championed the Morton Street School with gusto and their vigilance will be crucial to ensure the DOE follows through on its pledge and is on-task for the targeted fall 2015 opening. Other forces that will bolster realization of this dream school are the legacy of the Morton Street School campaign and the experienced community members who will organize and guide the process from here. The DOE knows they will be working with real pros.
During a recent interview with Irene Kaufman, one of the original cohort of community activists that led the Morton Street School (MSS) campaign throughout, key tenets of the campaign quickly emerged, “Maintain a cohesive group so that no one falls off the reservation…Include experts in your group to develop the proposal…Create one coherent substantiated plan…Use politicians to put you in front of the right people…Engage in a civilized dialogue.”
The community members shaping the vision for MSS have extensive experience in the inner workings of City politics and the DOE, with direct access and strong working relationships established over the years. The DOE knows that the parent groups behind MSS are a force with which to be reckoned. They have manpower on the streets, are well organized, do not operate in a vacuum, and will advocate for all children in D2. The DOE is well aware that MSS was entirely created by the community and fundamentally needs to be designed by the community. Bottom line, by the DOE’s own definition of success, MSS must be a school that is created by the community.
Who are these community members with such high credentials leading the next phase? A 75 Morton Task Force has been formed comprised of four Community Board 2 (CB2) members: Keen Berger (Task Force Chair), Heather Campbell, David Gruber, Jeannine Kiely, and two Community Education Council District 2 (CECD2) members: Mike Markowitz and Shino Tanikawa.
The Task Force will serve as a resource to the community and liaise closely with parents and community groups in District 2. Community input will be sought not only from Villagers, but other District 2 neighborhoods such as Chelsea, Lower Manhattan, and beyond, as middle schools inherently draw students from a much broader area compared to elementary schools. The Task Force will also serve as the community’s watchdog, applying constant pressure on the DOE, SCA, and politicians to follow through on their commitments to build (on-schedule) a school that the community wants.
The torch has been passed to a new group of parent activists, many of whom have young children in elementary schools near MSS. Parents from PS3 and PS41 (K-5 schools closest to MSS), including Risa Fisher, Heather Lortie, and Nick Gottlieb, have jump-started the process. They are building a coalition of parents from other schools, predominantly K-5 schools in proximity to MSS, such as PS11, PS33, PS130, and PS51. The coalition’s first meeting (open to all participants) will take place on March 7th from 6:00-8:00pm at Techspace on 95 Morton Street (ground floor). The meeting will be led by a professional facilitator, knowledgeable in the DOE and NYC public schools. The next meeting will be devoted to creative uses of space for schools, which will be led by a different facilitator expert in that field.
On February 20th, the Task Force held its first meeting which was open to the public. Members discussed various ways they could reach out and work with parent and community groups to incorporate their input into the development of one clear plan representative of the community. The Task Force has scheduled a second community meeting on April 22nd (time and location to be announced soon), so much of this meeting was devoted to planning for that the event, including the meeting’s participants, invited guests, speakers, agenda, format, and open mic session. Identifying models of successful middle schools that were created by the community was also discussed as a way to learn how those communities conducted their process and what questions they asked along the way. As New York State Senator and long-time MSS advocate, Brad Hoylman, wrote in his January 2013 newsletter: “We should be looking to communities across the country that have had similar opportunities to create new schools from the ground up in order to identify the best practices.”
June 2013 is a key deadline in achieving a fall 2015 opening when the SCA needs the community’s infrastructure plan. This covers which school(s) goes into MSS, grade levels, number of students, and the facilities necessary for that school configuration. Consequently, as soon as the building is purchased and vacated, anticipated in June 2013, the SCA can fully examine the building for construction feasibility of the community’s plan.
At the heart of MSS will be a middle school of grades 5-8, but add-ons will be considered, such as multiple middle schools co-located, a 6-12 school, a K-8 school, and other iterations. The building is large with seven floors and 177,000 sq. ft. and could accommodate up to 900 students depending on configuration of school(s) and grade levels. The community’s chosen plan on configuration will then drive core facility needs, such as a gym, auditorium, cafeteria, outdoor play areas, faculty/staff space, and even bathrooms.
A special education component will also factor into the infrastructure plan, particularly if the DOE includes MSS in its Special Education District 75. Here, students with physical, behavioral, and emotional impairments are transported from around the City to a stand-alone or co-located school providing comprehensive support for their needs. Building community space into the facilities has also been mentioned as a priority and something Chris Quinn and Deborah Glick have been pushing. For example, the Morton Street Block Association used to hold its meetings at the building and would appreciate being able to have their meetings there again.
One component that will not be included in the community’s infrastructure plan is a co-located charter school. The CB2 Board approved a resolution some time ago against co-located charters in District 2 and the CECD2 approved its own resolution with a moratorium on all charters (co-located or stand-alone). As articulated so well by reporter Anya Kamenetz in her January Village Voice article on the charter school fight taking place in Brooklyn, bringing charter schools into neighborhoods with existing high-performing public schools, diverse student populations, and very involved parents can tear a neighborhood apart. The District 2 community is well aware that Success Academy, the charter management organization that runs 20 charter schools in New York City, would like nothing more than to open a charter school in Greenwich Village, one of the few Manhattan neighborhoods it has not penetrated. As Anya points out, “the issue…at stake is not the virtues or the evils of charter schools. This is about the basic American principle of local control.”
Once community input on the infrastructure plan has been gathered by the Task Force, they will work with the CB2’s Social Services & Education Committee and possibly other CB2 committees to create a resolution which will be brought to the full CB2 Board for approval at their May 23rd meeting. CECD2 will approve its own similar but separate resolution. The resolutions will be formal endorsements of the community’s infrastructure plan presented to the SCA in June.
At that point, the Task Force will start the process envisioned by the community for MSS’s programming, which will be ongoing over the next two years until MSS opens. Community members are savvy enough to know that they will not be able to dictate every aspect of programming and that the principal usually drives final programming decisions. The community could create a programming plan that is based more on values and themes, such as offering a rigorous academic program, supporting the socio-emotional well-being of students, fostering the creativity of students, emphasizing the arts, tech literacy, math/science, adolescent health, and so forth.
It is encouraging that there are some recently opened schools in the City that embody the community’s dream school, but the process of working with the DOE, SCA, and City and State politicians can be combative and exhausting for even the most skilled community activists. Julie Menin, a parent in Lower Manhattan and former CB1 Board Chair, was deeply involved in creating three schools: Battery Park City School, Spruce Street School, and the Peck Slip School. According to Julie, “Yes, the community ultimately realized the schools of their dreams, but only as a result of being constantly forceful, tenacious, and fighting for what they needed every inch of the way.”
For the Morton Street School, thanks to the talented and hard working community activists that have stepped up, the community is in a good position to beat the odds and forge a partnership with the DOE and politicians that is less contentious than most. Currently, the goodwill all around is palpable and can hopefully be sustained over the relatively short two year period until the school welcomes its first students. Furthermore, let’s not forget what could prove to be the ultimate boost: the upcoming Mayoral election. As Keen Berger, Chair of the 75 Morton Task Force vows, “The new Mayor needs to know that MSS is going to happen. We will have a shovel in the ground on election day!”