With Brandeis High School being replaced by three new institutions in 2009, the Department of Education is currently considering proposals and gathering community input for a fourth school to open in September 2010. Last week, officials held a community meeting on the campus, at 145 W. 84th St.
Named after the West Side Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes and former Stuyvesant High School teacher, the school would focus on creative and expository writing. That would include Spanish classes for English language learners, keeping with Brandeis’ legacy as a bilingual school.
Council Member Gale Brewer started an ad hoc committee for the new school when the city announced the phasing out of Brandeis High School, due in part to low graduation rates. West Side parent Tom Allon, president and CEO of the company that publishes West Side Spirit, is a member of the committee.
More than two-dozen community leaders and residents, the majority coming from the Upper West Side portion of the school district, which extends into Harlem, debated the proposal. Most backed the idea, including Brewer, Borough President Scott Stringer, Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, State Sen. Tom Duane and East Harlem Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito.
“It’s time to establish a quality high school,” said Marc Landis, a local Democratic district leader. “It is the right step for the Upper West Side and beyond.”
Stringer, who testified at the meeting, praised the level of parental involvement in developing the new school.
“This high school could be a model,” he said. “These parents give us a chance to see if we can do this right.”
The school is being touted as another selective high school, but one that would go to great lengths to ensure the kind of diversity that is engendered in the neighboring school district. The committee that proposed this new school says it is working with middle schools and elected leaders throughout Harlem, East Harlem and the Upper West Side to make sure that they meet the needs of all communities and attract students interested in writing from diverse backgrounds. The proposed school would require writing samples to show a student’s interest in the written word.
The three schools being phased in to the Brandeis campus, which holds 2,200 students, will enroll more than 1,000 students in 2009. The new high school being proposed would also be modeled as a small themed high school, which generally admit 432 students at full capacity. In 2010, there would be a 9th grade class of approximately 108 students entering, and then each subsequent year a new class would be added.
Aside from concern that the school would be named after a living person, which is against city regulations, a few speakers at the meeting expressed fear that a selective school would lead to a body of predominantly white students, a concern that has been raised in elementary gifted programs in District 3.
Jane Hirschmann, an Upper West Sider whose children attended public schools, said that the city’s high schools are open to students from the five boroughs and that there are selective schools in the area for students.
“There are so many segregated schools in the system and it’s time to end that practice,” said Hirschmann, a member of Time Out From Testing.
State Sen. Bill Perkins, whose district contains nearly a third of Brandeis’ student population, suggested that the proposal is being “bum rushed.”
“This is not inclusive. It seems to be a step you have to go through for approval, under the assumption you’re really reaching out to get input,” Perkins said in a separate interview. “But you’re not. You’re making the step, but you’re not reaching out.”
He added that few West Harlem parents and educators were aware of the meeting, which his representative, Cordell Cleare, attended on his behalf.
Melody Meyer, a spokesperson for the department, said notice for meetings like this are usually sent out to community organizations, elected officials, school networks, parent leaders, community education councils and superintendents. In this case, the June 11 meeting was first announced in mid-May, Meyer said.
Perkins said he is organizing groups in the neighborhood to make sure West Harlemites are included in the planning of a new Brandeis school.
Elinor Tatum, publisher of The Amsterdam News, the city’s oldest and largest African-American newspaper, also submitted a letter in support of the school.
“A diverse, writing-focused high school that serves Harlem, the Upper West Side and the rest of the city will be a great addition to high school choices in New York,” Tatum wrote.
Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, who noted the many famous authors who have called the West Side home, said she supports the idea of a high school emphasizing writing but stressed the need for diversity.
“Diversity would be a fundamental quality that would distinguish this new school’s admissions policy through a preference for District 3 students,” Rosenthal said in a statement read at the meeting.
Brewer stressed that she will consult with middle schools and community groups in the northern part of the school district to ensure that all eligible students can apply. To create a “seamless” campus with four schools, Brewer proposed sharing proms, sports teams and Advanced Placement classes among the schools.
“When Brandeis was phasing out, I thought this was an opportunity for a diverse West Side high school,” Brewer said. “If we can pull this off, it’ll be very exciting to set the bar high for other campuses to do the same.”
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