Editor’s note: This story was first published in the March 2014 issue of The Lo-Down’s print magazine. It was written and reported by Lauren Barack.
Cynthia Esparza would like a school closer to home. With five children between the ages of 4 and 11, Esparza sends two to the Children’s Workshop School in the East Village, one to Manhattan Charter School on Attorney Street and one to a private school. She keeps her youngest at home in the LaGuardia Houses at 250 Clinton St. A new school they could all attend with an easy commute would be very welcome.
“We don’t have that many good schools in walking distance,” she says, as her 4-year-old merrily clutches a bag of marshmallows on their way home from Fine Fare. “I feel there are better schools in other areas.”
Just five blocks from Esparza sit the bones for a potential new elementary or combination elementary/middle school—a parcel set aside by developers of the new Essex Crossing, the six-acre site formerly known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), that, in theory, could house a new building for children to enroll from across the Lower East Side. At least, that’s what many envision. Instead, there is no school being built as of yet, and if it’s ever constructed, it may not serve the entire Lower East Side community.
The fight for redevelopment on the SPURA site centered predominantly around affordable housing, a demand that a significant percentage of the units set to soar above Delancey Street would go to low, moderate and middle-income families. The community wanted the city to deliver on a promise made when it tore down tenements in 1967: to replace the lost housing, and at the same time transform the decades-old wound left along the Williamsburg Bridge corridor where today rats are more likely than children to be found at play.
Many on the Lower East Side supported the decision. Community Board 3 (CB3) hashed out the details over years with community leaders, navigating decades-old tensions, before politicians including State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Sen. Daniel Squadron and Council Member Margaret Chin endorsed the deal. The city finally stamped yes in 2012. Woven into that agreement was a request for a new school—one the leadership of District 1 schools, in particular, has long believed it needs.
However a new school, should it even be built, sits inside District 2, as does nearly all of Essex Crossing. And as almost any family on the Lower East Side will tell you, those borders are hard and fast—and not easily traversed.
Bordered by 14th Street to the north, Fourth Avenue to the west and the East River, District 1 zigzags along Clinton Street, dipping down below Delancey Street, dividing residences in half from the LaGuardia Houses to the Seward Park Cooperative.
Essex Crossing? Bluntly, it sits on the wrong side of the tracks for those living in District 1. But there is talk that should a school get built, it could serve the entire neighborhood—including District 1. At least that’s what community organizers and parents say in tandem.
“I feel it would be nice for a school to serve our community in full,” says Kate Nammacher, president of the Seward Park Cooperative Board and a mom to twin 3-year-olds who attend Educational Alliance Preschool and a kindergartener at East Village Community School. “Having a school that can serve the co-ops and the community would be a benefit.”
Few want to speak on the record about a proposed Essex Crossing school. Squadron’s office offered a statement, but did not make him available to speak to The Lo-Down. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office declined to speak. The Department of Education (DOE) did not respond to a request to talk with new Chancellor of Schools Carmen Farina.
Although developers Delancey Street Associates were told to lay aside a parcel of land as part of the deal, funding is not in the Department of Education’s Capital Budget for the next five years, from 2015-19. Yet Essex Crossing, which is slotted to break ground scarcely more than a year from now, is expected to have families living on the development in the summer of 2018 when the first 580 units of housing are completed.
However, the Capital Budget can be updated every year, meaning the Education Department’s reluctance to fund a new school today may be nothing more than its unwillingness to prioritize the need. The city School Construction Authority (SCA), the body that keeps count of available seats inside each school, recently stated at a District 1 Community Education Council meeting that the district does have available spots. And DOE Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm wrote elected officials in December, saying, “we recognize that the existing capacity of schools in the area may not be able to accommodate the demand generated by the new housing planned [at Essex Crossing].” She added that there are more immediate, pressing concerns.
Some local lawmakers believe this decision is misguided.
“It is concerning that DOE is basing its decision on a mistaken understanding of SPURA’s timeline,” says a recent letter written to Grimm and Lorraine Grillo, president of the School Construction Authority, by Squadron, Silver and Chin. “Therefore, we request that DOE review the SPURA construction plans and amend the 2015-19 Capital Plan and add a public school to the SPURA site.”
Joining elected officials is Community Board 3, driving the bus to prove that a school is needed now, and working on a white paper to bolster its points. Other community figures, including Lisa Donlan, District 1’s Community Education Council president since 2007, are also on board.
Donlan’s quick to argue with the way administrators have counted available seats in her district, and has been vocal about the city’s decision (under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg) to house charter schools inside existing District 1 school buildings based on the School Construction Authority’s conclusion that seats are available.
To her, their counting is flawed.
“Our class sizes are growing, and at the same time we’re seeing less and less room for the facilities,” says Donlan. “The DOE has said for the last 12 years–and I have it on record and in affidavits–hallways and stairwells are appropriate places to give children academic intervention. Well, no.”
Donlan is determined to make her council’s concerns heard. To that end, the group organized a community engagement lab one Saturday morning in January at the Lower Eastside Girls Club on Avenue D, where dozens of community members—parents, educators and even DOE administrators—sat and imagined a new school in District 1.
The day’s event centered on workshops in which group members strategized about what they’d want in a new school, with results to be flown into an upcoming white paper crafted by CB3 and presented to the Department of Education to hopefully influence the capital budget. The paper is still in draft form (CB3’s education committee will be talking about the initiative tomorrow night).
Donlan also seems to have allies in District 2. A couple of days after the workshop, at a coffee shop in the East Village, Donlan said that District 2 leaders support the push on the Lower East Side for a new school, because overcrowding is something they’ve also experienced. And she says they’re willing to let go of complete ownership of the school.
“They were really not interested in rezoning because they do so much rezoning and it’s so contentious,” she says. “So I’ve said it could potentially be a District 1/District 2 school.”
That’s just how Shino Tanikawa, president of District 2’s education council, and Donlan’s counterpart, sees the potential school as well: a shared space for both districts with half of the enrollment from each district. There’s even a model, she says, with middle school: Life Sciences Secondary School, is shared by reserving seats for students in both District 2 and District 3. That model could be used, say some, for Essex Crossing.
“A large chunk of [the Lower East Side community board] sits in District 1, so during all of the public hearings it was District 1 involved,” Tanikawa says. “I have no issues sharing with District 1. There is overcrowding with District 1 too.”
District 2 is of course no stranger to overcrowding, even though it is Manhattan’s largest district, by physical size, stretching from the southern base of the island to 57th Street on the West Side, to about 96th Street on the Upper East Side. On a map, the district looks a bit like a wrench, with District 1, cut out as its jaw. The district is constantly looking for spaces for students, and is currently building a new K-5 school inside an old post office in the Seaport. Classroom sizes are bulging.
District 1, however, says it doesn’t want to face those issues, and is worried that overcrowding could become a very serious concern in a neighborhood set to gain 1,000 new apartments, and added families, who Donlan and others believe will impact District 1 in spite of the current borders. Whatever line they sit along, the children will need a school. And although some of the housing units are likely to be one-room apartments, any New Yorker who has started a family in the city can attest to how many children grow up in one-bedroom apartments across the five boroughs.
“I raised a family in the gentrifying East Village where all of my friends were having two and three kids in one bedrooms in the tenements,” says Donlan. “Unless you’re handing out sterilization agreements with the leases, there will be kids.”
The DOE would not answer requests for data on the number of dual-districts, nor explain how enrollment is handled in those cases, nor explain whether they would grant both districts access to a school. But parents who took part in the hearings are watching closely.
“Some of the parents who went to planning meetings [for SPURA] were District 2 parents,” says Nammacher. “With a new facility, a new school, it will be in high demand. So the location will come up.”
Yet Chin, the local city council member who lent her voice and political muscle to get the Seward Park project approved, seems less concerned about which district the school sits in, than getting a school built at all. Living in the Financial District, Chin has seen how new housing can place intense demand on schools. She sent her son to PS 3 in the West Village for elementary school.
Chin believes that pressure needs to be on the Education Department to greenlight the construction of a school, with the domain over the building discussed later.
“Ultimately we have to look at what district it goes to with the DOE,” she says. “Right now we have to make the strongest case to get the school built.”
Even with ground being broken just next year, whether a school gets built on the set-aside lot, and who it educates is still very much on the drawing board. As stakeholders move to make their positions known, and ideally get their positions met, residents will have to wait as the buildings grow from construction drawings.
The redevelopment project’s glass-walled apartments, modern art museum and elevated gardens will beckon to New Yorkers, some with children already or hoping to raise some. They will play along this newly forged neighborhood, the next generation of Lower East Side residents who will grow up to call this community home. Where they will attend class—and who will sit next to them—is still very much a political game.
For Esparza, a new school could mean having all her children in one school instead of scattering them in three different directions. A new facility may be needed for families set to make their home at Essex Crossing—but would still be a welcome addition for existing families as well. A school Esparza could walk all her children to each morning?
“That would be great,” she says. “I like my area. I just don’t like my schools.”
Lauren Barack is a journalist who has covered education for more than a decade. She lives on the Lower East Side with her husband, daughter and oversized puppy.