A Packed, heated hearing on school rezoning News

| 19 Jul 2016 | 11:45

Last week, on a positively steamy Thursday, more than 70 parents, principals and community members filed into the auditorium at P.S. 333 on W. 93rd Street to hear plans for a sweeping school rezoning of the Upper West Side.

The meeting of the Community Education Council for District 3’s Zoning Committee was supposed to take place in a much smaller -- and much cooler -- upstairs classroom, but the crowd quickly became too large to fit. They were there to get an update on the Department of Education’s plan to rezone much of the neighborhood to alleviate the overcrowding that plagues the area, particularly at P.S. 191, P.S. 199 and P.S. 452.

“We wanted this meeting to take place today so that public comment could be offered at the July 20th CEC meeting,” Kim Watkins, chair of the CEC 3 zoning committee, said by way of introduction. “The basis of the working group today is to show maps of the scenarios that we’ve been talking about and to digest them.” Then, the signal was given to hand out the maps.

In Scenario A — so dubbed to avoid confusion while discussing the two proposals — a new elementary school would be created where P.S. 191 currently stands at W. 61st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and P.S. 452 would stay where it is at W. 77th Street and Columbus Avenue. P.S. 191 would then move a block west into a vacant building that was being constructed for a new school. Six school zones would be redrawn, affecting students up to W. 90th Street.

In Scenario B, which had already sparked an outcry from opposing parents prior to last week’s meeting, P.S. 452 would move to P.S. 191’s current building 16 blocks further downtown than it is now. P.S. 191 would move into the vacant building a block away from its old location, and 11 school zones would be affected all the way up to W. 116th Street. Both proposals are intended to be implemented for 2017-2018 school year, and have several more levels of scrutiny to go through before either one is accepted.

The disapproval for this plan is, at surface level, based on P.S. 452 parents’ wish to keep the school close by and to stay at a place that, though only six years old, has become an academic success. But there are signs that their opposition could also have to do with the fact that P.S. 191 is in a lower-income area and does not boast test scores as high as the others. According to the news site Gothamist, a resident of a luxury co-op near P.S. 452 posted last month on a message board that moving the school to an area with a “very different demographic makeup” could “greatly affect” the value of neighbors’ homes. Sixty-four percent of P.S. 452 consists of white students, while P.S. 191 is made up of 81 percent black and Latino students.

“I have faith in our parents,” Watkins said of the racially charged undertones accompanying the rezoning discussion. “I don’t want to comment on the rumors of what parents want in terms of keeping their all-white school.”

Many attendees of last week’s meeting asked the CEC — to loud applause — what was being done to alleviate the segregation, and expressed their hopes that the rezoning would be a step forward. A group of parents wrote an op-ed for the education-focused site Chalkbeat in June in support of moving P.S. 452.

Schools in the upper part of CEC 3 in Harlem are suffering from many of the same problems that face P.S. 191, but the Harlem schools are out of the scope of this particular rezoning project. Some feel the Harlem schools should benefit from this rezoning as well.

Theresa Hammonds is the parent of a sixth grader in the district and a CEC member, who emphasized that she was speaking only as parent and not as a member of the CEC. “We need to be sure that all the schools in the district are serving the needs of all of the students equitably,” Hammonds said, emphasizing that she was speaking only for herself. “We have a situation in this particular district where the northern schools are competing with charter schools who take all the higher performing students, leaving all the other students that the public schools can’t refuse. So then parents who are moving into the area look at the test scores; they’re horrified. … [My daughter’s school is] under-enrolled because those parents would rather kind of huddle here.”

Lucy Phillipp, who has a second grader and incoming kindergartener at P.S. 452, said she is against moving P.S. 452 because the families who have spent the last six years making it a success should be able to enjoy it. “If both proposals eliminate overcrowding at P.S. 199 [and] achieve the same level of desegregation with plan A adding more elementary seats and leaving a school community intact, I think common sense is the go with plan A,” Phillipp said. She originally wanted to send her children to P.S. 87’s bilingual program but was crowded out.

Community members affected by the rezoning will have the opportunity to speak their minds at the next CEC 3 meeting this Wednesday at 6 p.m. at 735 West End Avenue.