Making the case, and offering ideas, for a new school

Workshop participants discussed what they’d like to see in the new school. Behind them on the wall were post-it notes with people’s ideas.  Photo by Girlray
Workshop participants discussed what they’d like to see in the new school. Behind them on the wall were post-it notes with people’s ideas. Photo by Girlray

BY HEATHER DUBIN  |  Parents, community activists and school representatives came together in the East Village last Saturday to discuss their vision for a new school in the area.

Sponsored by the District 1 Community Education Council, which covers the East Village, Lower East Side and Chinatown, and facilitated by the nonprofit NYCpublic.org, the “community engagement lab” was held at the Lower Eastside Girls Club on Avenue D.

About 50 people from the East Village and the Lower East Side attended the six-hour-long Jan. 11 brainstorming session, which had food and free childcare provided.

Space has been set aside for the potential school until 2020 at Essex Crossing, a planned commercial and residential mixed-use development, which begins construction in 2015, in the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area.

The Department of Education has stated there is no need for an additional school in the neighborhood. However, at the workshop, Lisa Donlan, District 1 C.E.C. president, presented significant figures of projected population growth, pointing to the need for the school.

In a follow-up phone interview, Donlan, who has been on the C.E.C. since 2005, outlined the numeric evidence justifying the push for a pre-K-to-eighth grade school and the community’s integral role in the effort.

She cited class-size increases over the past six years, including a 26 percent jump in class size from kindergarten through third grade in 2006, and an 11 percent class-size increase from fourth through eighth grade in 2007.

Also, more students in the neighborhood have chosen to attend schools in their own district, with 84 percent of students from age 5 to 13 attending District 1 schools in 2010, compared to the citywide average of 76 percent.

Donlan said D.O.E.’s one-size-fits-all formula is flawed.

“Their algorithms are bad, wrong and biased — with a political agenda,” she said. “They don’t take into account overcrowding and co-locations.”

According to Donlan, data used by D.O.E. projects student population growth in District 1 schools: slightly more than 14 percent from 2011 to 2016, and a little under 11 percent from 2011 to 2021.

SPURA will have 1,000 units of new housing, further boosting the area’s population.

“Anything I read shows anticipated growth in District 1,” Donlan said. “Ethnic groups are growing. There’s lots to sink one’s teeth into: migration rates and birth rates, and the birth yield, which hasn’t been calculated, but needs to be.”

After presentation of the stats, the fun began.

“It was nonstop, constant buzzing, all day,” Donlan said.

Using post-it notes to jot down ideas, community members worked in groups to talk about diversity, sustainability and assessment practices they value and desire in a school.

This kind of community workshop and input is something Donlan strongly advocates.

“It’s a modeling of a process that hasn’t existed in 12 years of mayoral control, where everything was dictated from the top down from a central board,” she noted.

At the workshop, community members said they want collaborative leadership — with a principal selected early on in the process, perhaps before even breaking ground.

Other wants included a gym, kitchen, garden, art room, library and a Spanish dual-language school. Cross-disciplinary curriculum, “real world” mathematics and robotics, as well as alternative grading techniques were also discussed.

“It was amazing, a good first step,” Donlan said. “When people were standing up and reading out [their ideas on the post-its], I literally had goose bumps and tears in my eyes. It was just all so thoughtful and meaningful and informative.”

Kemala Karmen, co-founder of NYCpublic.org, which helped organize and run the event, explained its rationale.

“The idea is that you have this process, tightly structured, where everyone participates, but no one dominates,” she said. “It’s visual, it’s oral and the democracy is inherent in it.

“We’re sort of taking this into our own hands,” she added. “A school shouldn’t just be parachuted into a community. It should be evolved from community needs and wants.”

NYCpublic.org will submit the workshop’s results to Community Board 3, which will create a “white paper” report, expected to be completed by March.