Possible Charter School to move into Tweed

BY Aline Reynolds

The Department of Education is contemplating what to do with the six empty classrooms in the Tweed Courthouse once their current occupant, Spruce Street School (P.S. 397), moves to its permanent location at Beekman Tower next fall.

The likely candidate is a middle school called Innovate Manhattan Charter School, a prospect that worries many Downtown families.

Eric Greenleaf, a P.S. 234 parent and New York University business professor, stressed that the neighborhood is in dire need of elementary, not middle, school seats. “You don’t put in a new middle school if it’s going to displace hundreds of elementary school kids,” he said. According to a report Greenleaf presented to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s School Overcrowding Task Force committee last week, Lower Manhattan will be lacking 500 elementary school seats by the year 2014.

“It’s very unwise to use [the Tweed space] for anything else than a non-charter, public school,” said Greenleaf.

Other Lower Manhattan parents fear the long commutes their children would have to make to elementary schools outside their neighborhoods. “Kindergarteners are so small — it’s about protecting the littler ones who need the sense of community in their early lives,” said Tina Schiller, the parent of a fourth grader in P.S. 234.

Community Board 1 passed a resolution at its Youth and Education Committee meeting last week, citing the need for a non-charter, public school in Tweed. Silver echoed the board’s opinion in a statement, saying, “I strongly urge the Department of Education to use the space at Tweed Courthouse to incubate a new school to serve our growing population.”

The possibility of I.M.C.S. moving into Tweed next year has also rekindled the debate among Downtown educators and parents about the caliber of charter schools compared to traditional district public schools.

I.M.C.S.’s curriculum is modeled after the Kunskapsskolan Education Program, a Swedish educational enterprise that, according to the school’s website, features personalized teaching and projects. It is a culmination of ten years of research and development, and I.M.C.S.’s founder, Peg Hoey, noted that the children in the K.E.D. program have outperformed those in other Swedish schools. “It has a distinct advantage of already being tried out by other children,” she said.

The school, she added, is meant to serve as a good segue for District Two elementary school students.

“Our program directly feeds into the kind of innovative, progressive curriculum that [District Two] has in their elementary schools,” Hoey said. “To present another middle school option that builds on that history is something that parents want to see.”

But the educational philosophy has not been tested out in the U.S., which concerns a number of Downtown parents. And the fact that it’s modeled after a for-profit company makes them equally nervous.

“It’s a corporate business model,” Schiller said. “In actuality, people promoting it [overseas] have a financial stake in it.”

However, Hoey noted, “I.M.C.S. is run by a nonprofit Board of Trustees with the aim “to provide pedagogical services, not operations of the school or financial management of the school.”

And, contrary to parental fears, Hoey maintained that the standards I.M.C.S. set in the school’s 1,200-page charter are strict. The school has a “highly rigorous” curriculum and its students must pass the same high-achievement English Language Arts and math tests. The State University of New York, the school’s authorizer, she added, could shut down the school if it doesn’t abide by its own standards.

Jonathan Griffith would like to send his fifth grader, Ruby, to I.M.C.S. next year. “I think the traditional model quite frankly is not working,” he said. Ruby, who attends P.S. 3 Charrette School in Greenwich Village, has needed private tutoring the past few years to keep up in math class, for example. Griffith feels she would greatly benefit from more individual instruction from teachers inside the classroom.

“If what [I.M.C.S.] is professing is one-on-one individual attention with a child, working with them on their goals… I think that’s huge,” Griffith said.

Griffith himself attended the Cambridge School of Weston, a small private school in Massachusetts, which he said had a wide variety of subjects and an open-minded approach to learning. “I could involve myself in my educational process, which I really really liked,” he said. Sending Ruby to a private school in New York City, however, is financially not an option for him and his wife.

Yvette Rose, parent of Tyler Rose, who attends P.S. 234, isn’t even aware of the D.O.E.’s regulations for its public schools. “He’s an innovative thinker — I don’t think he’ll excel as much as [he would] in a situation that’s new and fresh-thinking,” she said.

Rose added that her son is a bit shy in social settings, and would thrive in group projects and other collaborative work embedded in the I.M.C.S. curriculum.

D.O.E. spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld said the D.O.E. would make a final decision on the Tweed site in the next month or two. Meanwhile, I.M.C.S. awaits approval from S.U.N.Y., which Hoey requested in mid-November.

“I think it’s a tragedy that this all [results] in fighting over space,” Hoey said. “We’re all just trying to do wonderful things for the kids.”

The parents opposing I.M.C.S. agree.