City finds space for next year’s school crowds


By Julie Shapiro

The city will open an incubator school in Tweed Courthouse in September to alleviate the overcrowding in Lower Manhattan’s schools until the two new schools under construction open.

Tweed will house six classrooms for kindergarten students who otherwise would have crowded into P.S. 234 and P.S. 89. When P.S./I.S. 276 opens in 2010 and the Beekman school opens in 2011, the students at Tweed will transfer to the new schools.

“We’re thrilled,” Anne Albright, co-chairperson of P.S. 89’s overcrowding committee, said last week. “It raises a whole bunch of questions about who will go to the new schools, and they haven’t answered those yet. All we have is the space — but that’s great.”

The Department of Education started to answer those questions Wednesday night, at District 2’s Community Education Council meeting — and the answers may be different from what parents expected.

Since Tweed will hold students who will eventually go to the new schools, many parents assumed that the city would zone the new schools a year early to decide who will start kindergarten at Tweed.

But that will not happen, Marty Barr, from the D.O.E.’s Office of Student Enrollment, said Wednesday night.

“It would be extremely difficult at this point to zone them in advance of their opening,” Barr said.

The rapid pace of development in Lower Manhattan makes it hard for the D.O.E. to predict which neighborhoods will need school seats, Barr said. Many developers are building, but until families actually move in, there are no guarantees.

“We run the risk at this point of zoning the new schools in order to relieve [overcrowding] and significantly miscalculating what the size of the zones should be,” Barr said. “By the time new residential development comes online…we may need to rezone them again…. And I think parents would rather we wait until we have more confidence, so we did not change the rules of the game twice.”

Instead of filling Tweed by zoning the new schools, the city plans to fill it using the new citywide kindergarten application process.

Next year, for the first time, all parents of incoming kindergarteners will have to apply to the school they want their children to attend. They will have a six-week window to do so, from January into March. (The city is giving parents a broad window, not a single day or week, “so parents are not camping out overnight” in front of their favorite school, Barr said.)

At the end of the six weeks, each school will look at the children who have applied and make sure they meet the qualifications: that they are general education students, that they are zoned for the school and that they are the correct age, said Daria Rigney, District 2 superintendent.

By April 15, the schools will have a list of those students who qualify, and they will then select those who will attend based on a series of priorities. Zoned students with siblings in the school will get first priority, followed by zoned students without siblings. The next priority will go to District 2 students outside the zone who have siblings in the school, followed by District 2 students without siblings. After that, priority will go to students from outside District 2 who have siblings in the school, with last priority going to out-of-district students without siblings.

Kindergarten parents will be notified about their acceptance by the end of May, Rigney said.

If P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 do not have enough room for the students who submit applications between January and March, then students who live far away from 234 and 89 but near one of the new schools may be placed in Tweed, Barr said. Assuming that P.S. 89 and P.S. 234 fill up with students who applied by March, those who move to the neighborhood or apply afterward would automatically be placed in Tweed as well, regardless of geography.

That still leaves some uncertainty, especially for families who live in southern Battery Park City, where P.S./I.S. 276 is being built, or east of Broadway, where the Beekman school is being built. Those parents expect they will eventually be zoned for the new schools, but they don’t know whether there will be room for them in P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 next fall, or whether they will end up at the incubator. Many parents have said they would prefer the D.O.E. do the zoning now.

“It’s unsettling, to say the least,” said Paul McGeough, a Financial District resident whose son will enter kindergarten next fall. “There’s a general sense of confusion permeating the neighborhood.

McGeough lives east of Broadway but had hoped his son would still be zoned for P.S. 234. He does not want his son to start at the incubator school or P.S. 234 and then move to Beekman when it opens in 2011. (The D.O.E. previously said Beekman would open in 2010, but Wednesday night Barr said it would not open until 2011. Forest City Ratner is building an apartment tower above the school, which is likely delaying the school’s opening.)

“I don’t think it’s in my son’s best interest to do that,” McGeough said of switching schools. “Kids really thrive on consistency and stability.”

Learan Kahanov, who lives on Pearl St. in the Seaport, said he would not mind having his son start kindergarten at the incubator next fall, as long as it feels like a real school, not just a way station.

“It could be a nice transition,” Kahanov said, imagining it as a bridge for his son between Washington Market School and the much larger Beekman school. Schools like P.S. 234 are great because of parent involvement, Kahanov said, and he wants to make sure the incubator would have the same level of investment.

Kahanov said he has more questions than fears about next fall, but he added that many of his friends are having their children test into elite public schools or are even looking to private schools as an alternative.

The incubator opening at Tweed means that Ross Global Academy, a charter school, will have to find another home. Ross’s elementary program has operated out of Tweed since 2006 and has grown to a K-3, while the middle school is in a separate building on E. 25th St.

The D.O.E. confirmed that Ross is moving, but principal Julie Johnson said her understanding is that no final decision had been made. Johnson would not say whether the school, which will add a fourth grade next year, was outgrowing its space at Tweed. Ross may move to E. 12th St., the space that the Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women will vacate when it moves to 26 Broadway next fall, said Noah Pfefferblit, district manager for C.B. 1, but the D.O.E. did not confirm that.

The first floor of Tweed, a building that also houses the D.O.E.’s headquarters, has six classrooms, a cafeteria and office space. The building has no gym, but Johnson said some of the classrooms are large enough to hold two classes of students.

The D.O.E. plans to hire at least one of the new principals for Beekman or P.S./I.S. 276 to lead the incubator next fall.

Bob Townley, director of Manhattan Youth, promised this week to run his after-school program at Tweed, even though it would not be economically sustainable because there will not be enough children. He is hoping the D.O.E. will assist the program.

Ronnie Najjar, principal of P.S. 89, said she was excited to hear about the incubator in Tweed.

“Anything to relieve the overcrowding here is a welcome prospect,” she said.

P.S. 89 has two fifth-grade classes graduating next year, while Najjar anticipates six kindergarten classes of students trying to enter. The incubator will relieve the burden of several of those classes, she said.

But like the parents, Najjar does not know which kids will go to the incubator. She would like to have more information by early December, when she starts giving tours of the school to prospective kindergarteners.

“I’m hoping that before too long, the Department of Education gives the Downtown school principals some procedural guidelines,” she said.

One reason parents need information about next fall is so they can make decisions about private schools, whose application deadlines are rapidly approaching. Claremont Preparatory School, for example, has a deadline of Dec. 1, with rolling admissions afterwards.

Joe Gagliano, a Hanover Square resident, hoped to send his daughter to private school, but the tumbling economy is throwing those plans into question. He and his wife both work for American Express, which recently announced plans to lay off 10 percent of its workforce.

Gagliano and his wife attended private schools and wanted to do the same for their daughter, who will enter kindergarten in 2010. While P.S. 234 has a strong reputation, Gagliano said he is dismayed at the overcrowding. And while both the incubator and the Beekman school would be closer to Gagliano’s home, he wants to know more about the academic quality of the schools.

“It definitely makes us nervous,” Gagliano said of the lack of information. “We want some degree of certainty as to where our child is going to school. If it’s a choice we’re not happy with, I need to know sooner rather than later. I have to plan accordingly.”