BY JACKSON CHEN | The new Riverside Center public school will be opening a year early – by September 2017 – with P.S. 191 expected to move into the new campus for the 2017-2018 school year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced during an on-site press conference on August 10.
Though the news was widely greeted with praise, P.S. 191’s move remains enveloped in a heated school rezoning debate that has the potential of further rearranging the geography of schools on the Upper West Side.
The 122,000-square-foot school space at 21 West End Avenue, at 60th Street, would provide 692 seats for kids from pre-K to eighth grade in the city’s School District 3 that covers Manhattan’s West Side from West 59th to 122nd Streets. The district is currently dealing with overcrowding issues, inconsistencies in school quality, and a wide diversity in student socioeconomic status.
“I want the people of this community to know we heard you loud and clear,” de Blasio said during the press conference. “We heard you loud and clear that we had to invest in more school space, that we had to make the development process work for the community, and that we had to do it quickly because the need was right now.”
The expedited opening date was a result of negotiations between the School Construction Authority and the developer, the Dermot Company, which led to a less costly venture, according to City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal.
“Our district continues to struggle under the weight of overcrowding in the schools,” Rosenthal said. “So the importance of opening a school year early cannot be celebrated enough.”
The new school building would not only reduce the strain on other schools, but also offer a state-of-the-art facility that is fully accessible for youth with disabilities. The completely air-conditioned school would feature art and music rooms, a medical suite, a “gymnatorium,” two rooftop recreational spaces, and a library and science lab for hands-on learning.
While the P.S. 191 move-in still requires approval from the Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy, the school’s principal, Lauren Keville. is excited to get a fresh start with a move from its current campus at 210 West 61st Street to the new building just a block west.
“Our students, teachers, and parents are extremely excited by the prospect of calling this wonderful new building our home,” Keville said. “This facility would empower our students with vast and incredible resources, it would help grow our student body and school community, and it would encourage learning on a new level.”
While the school was previously cited on the state’s list of “persistently dangerous” schools in 2015 – a designation that puzzled many who knew the school – it was removed the following year.
The Riverside Center school space, however, does not resolve a running debate within District 3 about school rezoning plans that has festered for the past year.
After many iterations and spirited debate by parents whose children are affected, the DOE offered up two scenarios in July that revolve around P.S 191 and P.S. 452 at 100 West 77th Street. According to the plans, school officials laid out options that include moving P.S 452 into P.S. 191’s current building, which will be vacant after its move into Riverside Center. That plan doesn’t explore what happens with P.S. 452’s current space afterward.
Given the many parents who express displeasure with an option that moves their school 16 blocks south, the DOE also presented an alternative that would create a new school at P.S. 191’s empty building and leave P.S. 452 at its current site.
Community Education Council 3, a state-chartered advisory group representing district parents, has not come close to a final position on the debate, but will be discussing the two proposals during its monthly meeting in September. CEC3 is expected to vote on a proposal by November 19, which would affect the 2017-2018 school year, if approved.
In the meantime, parents have been reaching out to Rosenthal to voice their concerns. The councilmember is reviewing both options to make sure that several criteria are met.
She explained that for her to be satisfied, the rezoning must address the educational needs of the district’s students and the overcrowding, but most importantly, should promote socioeconomic integration. So far, both options accommodate at least 20 percent of the students being from low-income families or those eligible for reduced lunch prices at each of the two or three schools, Rosenthal said.
With the new school space, Rosenthal said, she expects three new sections of kindergarten, accommodating around 66 kids, to ease concerns of families whose children are just entering the system and worry about overcrowding.
Though local elected officials agree that the 2017 opening of the Riverside Center school doesn’t solve the rezoning debate, they noted it provides greater breathing room for coming to a quick resolution of challenges facing local schools. Rosenthal said that moving forward she is keeping a very close eye on the progress of the new space to ensure it in fact is ready for September 2017.