As students back their backpacks and get ready for the school year that will kick off next week, parents and education advocates are gearing up to fight the continuing battle for quality public school education on the Upper East Side.
While the neighborhood, part of Community Education Council District 2, enjoys many top-notch public schools, overcrowding and budget tightening are constantly threatening the balance.
The biggest concern in the district is over the lack of school space for future classes.
“I think the questions of overcrowding continue to predominate on the Upper East Side, and that’s what we’re hearing most from parents,” said Council Member Dan Garodnick. “The inclusion of new school spaces will certainly help, but it does not eliminate the challenges that we have today.”
The district recently won a long-fought battle in gaining a new elementary school at the Our Lady of Good Counsel building on East 91st Street. Over the summer, DOE Chancellor Dennis Walcott joined U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Assembly Member Dan Quart at the official announcement of the DOE’s deal with the Catholic Archdiocese to lease the space for 15 years. The building had been the temporary home to P.S. 151, the Yorkville Community School, before it moved into its permanent location on East 88th Street, and then P.S. 51, which had relocated from Chelsea while its building was under construction. The DOE’s lease on the building had been set to expire this fall, and parents in the community pushed hard to renew the lease for a longer term. Now the building will be home to P.S. 527, helping alleviate some of the area’s elementary school crowding.
“School overcrowding remains a critical problem on the Upper East Side,” Quart said at the ceremony. “As enrollment rates continue to increase, it is crucial that school construction keep pace with this growth.” Quart had a real-life prop to back up his claim—his 5-year-old son, Sam, who will be attending the school as a kindergartener this fall—standing at the podium with him.
Shino Tanikawa, the president of the District 2 Community Education Council (CEC), said in a letter addressing this year’s upcoming challenges in the district that overcrowding continues to be a major concern.
“District 2 schools continue to be overcrowded even with new schools that have started in the last four years,” Tanikawa said. “This coming year, we will be rezoning the east side of Midtown for a new school located on First Avenue at 35th Street. Plans are under way for a new school in Chelsea and another in the Financial District and negotiations to acquire 75 Morton St. are ongoing.”
Most new school plans are for elementary schools, which is what the DOE says the district needs. Some parents and elected officials, however, say that the numbers don’t indicate the real picture of what the district needs, since it encompasses many different neighborhoods—the Upper East Side as well as most of Lower Manhattan.
Assembly Member Micah Kellner has been leading the charge to ask the DOE for a new middle school, petitioning local parents to get on board. He said that many parents with middle school-aged kids feel that they face a choice between private school and moving out to the suburbs instead of relying on public middle schools.
“I wish the DOE would stop playing games with middle school numbers and admit we need another middle school on the Upper East Side,” Kellner said.
Community Board 8’s Youth and Education Committee has also been pushing for a middle school, specifically that the building that houses P.S. 158, which will soon have space for another school, will use that space for a middle school.
“We’re ever watchful about what’s happening with P.S. 158 that it becomes a middle school. All the electeds have spoken out that they don’t want it to be a charter school,” said Judy Schneider, co-chair of the committee.
“In September the DOE is expected to release Educational Impact Statements for co-location [of charter schools],” said Tanikawa. “While it seems the elementary and middle schools in District 2 are spared from co-location, we still need to voice our concern for having elementary students with high school students in the same building, and for potential overcrowding that could result from co-location.”
One small victory that parents around the city are celebrating is the reinstatement of a program that was recently cut—Wellness in the Schools, which pairs professional chefs with public school cafeterias to create healthy, scratch-made menus for the kids. Earlier this week, DOE officials said that they would have to cut the program to ensure that all schools would be able to meet more stringent federal school lunch regulations or risk losing federal money. Thanks to an immediate outcry from parents and elected officials, including Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the DOE announced that it would keep the program and work with the schools and chefs on keeping the menus within guidelines.
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