Only months after protracted zoning battles had finally set boundaries for the new Foundling School (PS 340) at Sixth Avenue and 17th Street, the school finds itself yet again in a cross-fire. The Foundling School,so named since it will be located on the first six floors of the Foundling Hospital once construction is completed, is a state of the art PK-5 school with 520 desperately needed new seats. On April 24th, the Department of Education (DOE) announced that PS 150, a small beloved elementary school in Tribeca, would be relocated over 30 blocks north to the Foundling School when it opens in fall 2014. The DOE’s goal,among others, was for PS 150 students to pre-populate Foundling School grades up through the 5th grade. Three classes of PK and kindergarten would be filled by Village and Chelsea families newly zoned for the school, as originally planned. There were other seemingly valid reasons to relocate PS 150, a school with one class per grade– questionable economic viability, lack of opportunity for teacher collaboration, and expanded opportunities for students. However,these explanations were muffled by the loud aftershocks from what felt like an earthquake to the PS 150 community.
These tremors might not have been triggered if the DOE had involved the community in its decision-making process and included a long-term solution to the downtown school shortage crisis as part of its PS 150 relocation proposal. In Lower Manhattan schools, wait lists total over 100 students heading into this fall and a 1,200 seat shortage is projected in the next 5-6 years. PS 150 parents were steadfast in keeping their children in neighborhood schools and a resolution unanimously passed at the May 14th Community Board 1 (CB1) Youth & Education Committee states that “over 85% of PS 150 parents have said they will not send their children”to the Foundling School “to act as an anchor population” for the new school.
Organizing Produces an Early Win
Lower Manhattan community members rallied behind PS 150 parents, adding their signatures to a petition opposing the relocation plan that will be sent to Mayor Bloomberg and DOE Chancellor Walcott. With all the uncertainty about their school’s fate, PS 150 parents put their children on wait lists at other downtown schools, only serving to “worsen, not improve the overcrowding situation,” as the petition states. A letter writing campaign to DOE officials and electeds is underway, coverage in the local press has been extensive,and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s School Overcrowding Task Force has sprung into action, demanding that the DOE provide solutions for wait listed families and a long-term plan for opening new schools by early June.
The rapid organization and effective activism of parents from PS 150, coined “the little school that could,” produced an early victory. The June 19th Panel for Education Policy (PEP) vote on relocating PS 150 to the Foundling School was postponed until September. Shino Tanikawa, President of Community Education Council District 2 (CECD2), said the postponement was requested to “give PS 150 parents more time to research, learn, and develop solutions that work for their community.” Tricia Joyce and Paul Hovitz, Chair and Co-Chair, respectively, of the CB1 Youth &Education Committee, have told parents that they will “lose the battle” to retain PS 150 as a small one class per grade school,so they need to focus their efforts on finding alternatives that might include housing their school within a larger school downtown.Scouting for potential school sites is not new to Lower Manhattan parents,as they have an impressive track record of identifying sites for the DOE that have become thriving schools. As Hovitz advised, “parents need to lead this horse to water.”
Morton Street School: a New Model of Collaboration
A new alternative approach is taking place in the collaborative planning process with the community for a new school in the West Village at 75 Morton Street scheduled to open in fall 2015. The Community Board 2 (CB2) formed a 75 Morton Task Force and a sub-group was organized of parents from the Village, Chelsea, and nearby neighborhoods, as well as educators and administrators to provide their expertise. After numerous meetings, research gathering,and support from the Task Force, the group reached consensus on grade configuration,building design, special education programming,and a community school model.Their vision for a new 600-700 student middle school and 70-100 student District 75 (special education) school is described in a proposed CECD2 resolution up for vote at the CECD2 May 22nd meeting. The comprehensive resolution (in draft form at press time and not yet approved) depicts an inspiring environment for students and the community, with specifications that include a green roof with gardening, two sensory gyms for District 75 children, and a health clinic “with private spaces for treatment and advice regarding sex, drugs, growth and nutrition.”In its draft resolution, the CECD2 requests that “collaboration between the Envisioning Group, CB2, CECD2, SCA [School Construction Authority], and the DOE continue with consultation and input from everyone as the design and program are refined through a fall 2015 opening.” As the envisioning phase shifts into decision making and execution, the community group signaled its goal to have an ongoing seat at the table by establishing their group as the newly named 75 Morton Community Alliance.
Potential to Band Together Over Shared Issues
Parents and community members from Lower Manhattan, Greenwich Village,Chelsea, and beyond have much in common in their activism and goals. Indeed,like several downtown schools, the Morton Street School site was secured by community members who identified the building and applied political pressure over the years for the City to finally purchase the property.These skilled organizers have aspirations beyond their immediate communities and projects. The Morton Street School will be an informative beta test for DOE community collaboration and represents a promising opportunity to create a new model for decision-making. PS 150 parents are forming a Political Action Committee(PAC), not just of PS 150 parents, but a broad coalition of parents that can speak with one voice on the severe lack of educational infrastructure across the City that has not begun to keep pace with the explosion in residential development. One of the PAC organizers, PS 150 parent Buxton Midyette, asserts, “Parents have been siloed off, put on different committees, and have worked with gusto and enthusiasm but with no results.The PAC is an effective vehicle to garner political attention to be sure that a commitment to building schools is a top issue in the upcoming mayoral elections.”
Now may be the ideal moment to mobilize together on a large scale around shared priorities to exert stronger political pressure heading into the City elections and moving forward with the new administration.
At the CB1 committee meeting, Tricia Joyce encouraged parents to “give birth to a central parent group to advocate for big issues like overcrowding and budgets…open the door and push yourselves in…this is a great time to get something done.”