The Department of Education’s preliminary proposals for tackling overcrowding in District 3 have led to escalating tension between parents at P.S. 199 and The Center School, whose children share a building on West 70th Street.
Various factions from the two schools sharply disagree on whether The Center School should be moved to alleviate the space crunch at P.S. 199. Members of The Center School community say that race and class issues have led to their marginalization, while many P.S. 199 parents say that moving The Center School is the only choice.
Despite the discord, parents agree that a lack of foresight when it came to new residential construction in the neighborhood created this impasse—and more school seats in the district are a dire necessity. They
hope that upcoming collaboration between district parents and the Department of Education will result in a solution amenable to all.
This fracas could be a harbinger of what’s to come elsewhere if the “strollerfication” and gentrification of Manhattan continues without school buildings rising at the same rate as condos.
In September, the department floated two initial proposals to alleviate District 3 overcrowding, kicking off a back-and-forth dialogue with the parent Community Education Council. Plan A involved rezoning throughout much of the district. Plan B basically leaves P.S. 199’s catchment lines alone, but moves two small middle schools, The Center School and The Anderson School, into extra space in P.S. 9 and M.S. 44, respectively.
Center School parents say that the inconvenience of the rezoning in Plan A has left one alternative: evicting their school from its 26-year-old home. “We don’t want to be their solution. We’re not their problem,” said Alan Madison, a former 199 parent and current Center School parent.
Indeed, many P.S. 199 parents feel that the department’s dual proposals leave them with only one viable choice. “As far as we see it, it’s the only option,” said Michelle Ciulla-Lipkin, a P.S. 199 parent. “No one has been able to come close to giving us an alternate solution.”
P.S. 199’s kindergarten enrollment has nearly doubled since 2003 as new residents flocked to the neighborhood, including to the new Trump complex on Riverside Boulevard.
Many parents who moved to the neighborhood with P.S. 199 in mind for their pre-school age children grew concerned that enrollment at the school would be capped. An unofficial group of area parents have started an online community, Save P.S. 199, urging the removal of The Center School.
Lee Huang, who founded the online group, is one such parent. His son is 4 years old. “I walk by P.S. 199 each day, and I really hope my son can go to the school we’re zoned for,” he said. “If they introduce capping, the parents are toast.”
The crowding has prevented P.S. 199 from using “cluster” rooms for art, music and other enrichment classes.
“The truth is it’s incredibly apparent from the moment you drop off your child that our school is crowded. My son’s class used to go the library, but now the librarian has to go into the classroom with a cart. They no longer have a music room,” said Ciulla-Lipkin.
However, not all P.S. 199 parents see the situation as quite so dire. Judy Myers said that getting back the cluster rooms should not be first priority when other schools may be more in need of resources. She feels that having the Center School continue to share the building, and keeping each school relatively small, is more in P.S.199’s interest than gaining extra classrooms.
“I’ve been at 199 for 11 years and I love the school. My kids are getting a world class education there, but fair is fair,” she said.
Center School parents say their small size and diverse demographics—students have to apply to get in, whereas P.S. 199 draws from the surrounding neighborhood—have put them at a disadvantage when leveraging for their cause. “It’s a David and Goliath story. We have a totally different demographic. We’re not homogeneous by race or economic class,” said Madison, the Center School parent.
Roxalyn Moret, another Center School parent, said the high-performing school is one of the rare schools in New York where de facto segregation is not prevalent.
“What I feel could happen in moving The Center School is they could upset that balance,” Moret said. “It insures that 199 will become a white, affluent grammar school, [associated] with the Trump Towers. Center School is school for New York City to be really proud of, a school that the city should try and replicate, not take apart.”
Center School parents question why the department eschewed options that would inconvenience P.S. 199 parents, such as trailers or zoning children to the underutilized P.S. 191, immediately to the south on West 61st Street. A September letter to the parent council from The Center School PTA mentioned that the middle school parents raise a fraction of the funds that their counterparts at P.S. 199 do, and asked why “disproportionate concern” was being paid to a P.S. 199 at their expense.
For their part, P.S. 199 parents say their concerns are with raw numbers and viable solutions, and are wary of touching the diversity issue. “We’re a catchment school, and we have no control of the diversity of the school,” Ciulla-Lipkin said. “but I do believe our school is diverse.”
One thing parents from both schools agree on is that even if The Center School is moved, it won’t be a long-term solution, even for P.S. 199, which will face crowding again down the line. Most agree that a new elementary school is needed.
Keeping this need in mind, the District 3 parent council has not endorsed either of the department’s crowding proposals, and is instead asking for a good faith effort from the department to add more seats while keeping the unique schools in the neighborhood as intact as possible.
Will Havemann, a spokesperson from the department, said that the city is committed to working with parents to find a viable solution for all parties involved. “We realize that asking a school to move is a tough choice. We acknowledge that, and we want to make sure we’re working with the community,” he said.
The department hopes it can come to a consensus on the issue by Nov. 30.
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