Many kindergarteners shut out of P.S. 234 & 89


By Julie Shapiro

The windows of Dawn Ali’s 200 Chambers St. apartment face east, affording a view of P.S. 234’s schoolyard. Ali liked the view — until this week, when she heard that her 5-year-old daughter won’t be going to P.S. 234 this fall.

“It’s like a knife in my heart,” Ali said. “If I could just face west…”

But the view from her window is the least of Ali’s concerns. Ali’s daughter was assigned to P.S./I.S. 276 in Battery Park City, a school still under construction that will open as an incubator this fall in Tweed Courthouse, located behind City Hall.

“Every parent, you think of the day your kid goes to school, the community of parents congregating in the schoolyard, and I get to send her through a metal detector in City Hall,” Ali said. “I start to question what I’m doing in New York City. At what price am I here?”

Ali bought into 200 Chambers St., which houses an annex for P.S. 234, so her daughter could go to school there, saving the family money on private school. She and her daughter walk past the school every day, and her daughter “constantly tells me, ‘This is the big school. This is where I go next year,’” Ali said.

Being placed in a different school, Ali added, “was never anything I thought would happen.”

But it did happen, to Ali and perhaps 50 to 100 other parents who put P.S. 234 or P.S. 89 as their first choice but were placed in either P.S. 276 or the Spruce Street School, which also opens this fall in Tweed Courthouse. The D.O.E. would not disclose the number of children who did not get their first choice, but several parents provided Downtown Express with estimates based on initial numbers released by the department.

In all, about 350 children applied to enter kindergarten this fall, more than Lower Manhattan has ever seen. Parents and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver convinced the Dept. of Education to open the two new schools in Tweed this fall, one year earlier than planned, so the city was just barely able to offer every child a seat. But it may not be the seat the parent wanted.

P.S. 89 and P.S. 234 both got more applications than they could handle, parents said. The schools accepted siblings of current students first, then tossed everyone else who listed the school as their first choice into a lottery, which meant that kids who lived on top of the school had the same chance of getting in as kids who lived in the outer reaches of the zone. P.S. 89 accepted 75 students and P.S. 234 accepted 125.

Anyone who didn’t get into P.S. 234 or P.S. 89 was placed in one of the Tweed schools, based on the parent’s preference. P.S. 276 and the Spruce Street School each offered seats to 75 students. Any of those students can take a spot on the waiting list if they didn’t get their first choice, Will Havemann, D.O.E. spokesperson, said Wednesday. The waitlist will offer available spots via lottery.

The D.O.E. previously said children who did not receive their first choice could transfer into their preferred school after kindergarten if they were ultimately zoned for those schools. But Havemann said Wednesday that the D.O.E. has not decided whether some children who were placed in Tweed will be offered the opportunity to transfer to P.S. 89 or P.S. 234 in 2010.

One parent hoping for answers is Faith Paris Aarons, whose son was placed in P.S. 276 next fall. Aarons has lived across from P.S. 234 since before 9/11, and part of the reason she and her husband decided to remain in the neighborhood was because they thought they could count on sending their future children to P.S. 234, she said.

“I’m not happy on so many levels,” Aarons said.

Aarons criticized the city for giving conflicting information about kindergarten admissions. Had she known earlier that she would only have a random chance at getting her son into P.S. 234, she would have considered applying to private schools, but now it’s too late, she said.

“This has been handled so poorly and communicated even worse,” Aarons said.

Aarons is glad that at least her son has a seat next fall, and she said she likes Terri Ruyter, 276’s principal, but she does not think she should have to settle for a second choice when she clearly will be zoned for P.S. 234 in the future.

Tricia Joyce, a parent leader at P.S. 234, said she had heard of many people living very close to the school who did not get in. She said some were afraid to speak to a reporter because they hope to find a way for their child to attend the school.

“This is really heartbreaking, just to watch this fallout,” Joyce said. She added, though, that it is a victory for the parents that every child received a seat in Lower Manhattan.

One of the children who won the lottery is Anna Grossman’s son, who will attend P.S. 234 next fall. Grossman, who lives on Leonard St., is glad she will send her son to the closest elementary school, but as founder of the Hudson River Park Mothers’ Group, she is hearing from many other parents who are upset.

“It’s incredibly disconcerting to them,” Grossman said. “It’s disbelief at the sheer inconvenience of it, and the unfairness.”

Havemann, the D.O.E. spokesperson, said the lottery was designed to make the process fair, not unfair. Every child who lives in the current zones for P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 should have an equal chance of attending, he said.

Maryanne Marinac, whose son received a spot at P.S. 89, said no one would ever know how fair the process was because it kept changing and the lottery was not open to the public. Many parents said the D.O.E. should have zoned the new schools this year to eliminate the confusion.

The D.O.E. is waiting to rezone the neighborhood until next year because the population is in flux and the D.O.E. did not want to have to make changes in the future, Havemann said.

In the absence of the D.O.E. zoning, some parents who live near the new Spruce Street School effectively zoned themselves by picking it as their first choice and starting a parents’ group. For those parents, the letters in the mail this week offered not a surprise but an expected confirmation.

Learan Kahanov, president of the Seaport Parents Association, said it felt good to know for certain that his son would attend the Spruce Street School.

“I’m just stoked,” he said. “Now let’s move on to next thing,” which is working with Principal Nancy Harris to make the school succeed.

Ruyter, principal of P.S./I.S. 276, said both of the new schools also attracted applications from outside of Lower Manhattan, including families from Brooklyn who wanted to attend. But both schools filled up with just local children and there was no room for anyone else, she said.

Once the list of next year’s students is final, Ruyter will hold get-to-know-you meetings with the parents. Meanwhile, she is hiring teachers and ordering curriculum materials.

Gerri DiBenedetto, who lives two blocks from P.S. 234, had just returned from a trip Tuesday when Downtown Express called to find out how her daughter had fared. DiBenedetto sorted through stacks of unopened mail until she found the letter was she was looking for.

“She’s going to 234!” DiBenedetto said, sounding both pleased and exhausted. “I’m very happy — it’s a big relief.”

Of the complicated, fraught process, DiBenedetto added, “It’s so ridiculous you would swear it was private school.”