Parents, Students Urge DOE to Rethink New High School on LES
On October 7, there will be a public hearing on the Lower East Side concerning the Department of Education’s plan to move a second high school into a century old, converted elementary school building at 200 Monroe St. Here’s an update on efforts by parents to fight the DOE’s decision, which they learned about just before the summer ended.
As previously reported, the Education Department intends to create three new early college and technical education high schools. Although DOE officials have previously conceded no building in District 1 has the space, they announced August 30 that one of the schools would be coming to the LES. The proposed site is the current home of University Neighborhood High School, the only occupant of a building a short distance from Corlears Hook Park. City Council member Margaret Chin rallied with parents and students last month, urging the DOE to reconsider. “There is no room at this school. it’s not a good decision by the DOE,” Chin said.
A couple of weeks ago, we attended a meeting of the School Leadership Team, although our presence didn’t go over very well with school officials (after a flurry of phone calls, they seemed to acknowledge that the meetings must legally be open to the public, including to reporters). Staff, parents and student leaders gathered to hear Drew Patterson of the DOE’s Office of Portfolio Management explain the rationale for siting the new school in the Monroe Street building.
While there are a few empty classrooms, the building is not exactly an ideal space for a high school (let alone two schools), staff and students told Patterson. Some bathrooms only have a couple of stalls. There is no dedicated gym or auditorium. The classrooms are undersized; the former P.S. 31 was not built for fully grown students. But referencing the DOE’s assessment of the facility, Patterson countered, “we see some underutilized space.” The new school would have up to 85 students when it debuts in 2014 and could eventually enroll 510 students. According to the DOE, University Neighborhood High School has an enrollment of 275, although staff members said it has now edged up over 300 students. The Department of Education, which has been heavily criticized for its past space assessments, believes the building can absorb 694 kids.
A teacher noted that past principals at University Neighborhood High School fought to keep enrollment below 500 because fights erupted in the narrow stairwells and hallways when too many students were brought into the building. Even now, the school’s dean said, it’s almost impossible to gather the entire student population in one place at one time. Parents expressed worries about safety and suggested that evacuating the school in a fire could be a problem.
Patterson conceded, “the more students you put in a building, the more issues you have but we have finite space in Manhattan. This building is the best space we have for this new high school, but we do recognize that there are some unique issues that need to be addressed.”
The principal, Elizabeth Collins, told Patterson that her school is succeeding in spite of many challenges. The graduation rate is now up to 80%, in spite of the fact that she has taken in a large number of students who lack English proficiency and who have disabilities. The school’s letter grade has risen from a D to almost an A. One parent coordinator said, “we are being set up to fail. Let us do what we do; let us grow.” Patterson argued that “the vision is to see both schools thrive here.” But many of those at the meeting were convinced that the DOE would favor the new school and discourage higher enrollment at University Neighborhood High School. The two schools, they suggested, would be left to battle over scarce space.
The October 7 hearing will be held at 7 p.m., at the school. While parents and local activists will have the opportunity to speak out, no one believes their testimony will have any impact on the DOE’s final decision. The Panel for Educational Policy is almost certain to make the decision official October 15. The best hope for parents and students, said Lisa Donlan of the District 1 Education Council, is that a new mayor will reverse the ruling in the new year.