Space quest focuses again on 75 Morton; Parsons 6-12 school coming

By Albert Amateau

More than 300 Chelsea and Village parents and students packed the Lab School auditorium in Chelsea on Wed., Feb. 25, for a District 2 Community Education Council forum to consider options to relieve overcrowding in district schools.

John White, city Department of Education chief of operations for portfolio programs, told parents that D.O.E. is exploring the use of at least part of the state-owned 75 Morton St. building to relieve crowded conditions at the P.S. 3 complex on Hudson St. and P.S. 41 on W. 11th St.

But the Morton St. option, long favored by parents of the crowded Greenwich Village Middle School in the P.S. 3 building, is not a done deal. The building was taken off the table last spring but has again become available, White said.

“Our next step is to visit 75 Morton in the next two weeks,” White said, noting that questions about access, elevator conditions and space in the building must be resolved.

In a Feb. 24 letter to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Council Speaker Christine Quinn noted that Assemblymember Deborah Glick organized a February tour of the vacant seventh floor of 75 Morton St. led by the state Office of Mental Retardation, which controls the property.

There is 24,000 square feet of available space on the floor, with high ceilings, several bathrooms, two elevator banks and internal walls that could be reconfigured because they are not load-bearing.

However, the space is in general disrepair and needs asbestos and lead-paint abatement, as well as a new fire alarm system.

Nevertheless, the letter, also signed by Glick, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, State Senator Tom Duane and Congressmember Jerold Nadler, states that 75 Morton is an ideal long-term solution for overcrowding at the Greenwich Village Middle School and P.S. 3. The middle school now uses 7,500 square feet in the Hudson St. school building, and its enrollment has gone up from 180 students three years ago to 225 this year, said Kelly Maguire, the middle school’s principal.

Another option that White addressed was a possible rezoning that would shrink the catchment area for the Hudson St. school complex and P.S. 41. However, rezoning would take a year, and parents at the meeting worried that the 2009 enrollment would put more stress on the two schools.

Parents said they feared the prospect of sacrificing “cluster space” — rooms set aside for special art, science and other enrichment programs — in moves to provide more full-time class space. Both P.S. 3 and P.S. 41 could lose four or five such spaces.

Alfred Gonzalez, United Federation of Teachers representative for District 2, said that cluster rooms and their enrichment programs were vital for the school communities.

“We worked very hard for our programs, and we will not give up our cluster space,” said Mary Conway, a Parent Teacher Association member at P.S. 11, at 320 W. 21st St. in Chelsea.

Parents of students at Clinton School for Writers, the middle school inside the W. 21st St. building, were anxious about an earlier proposal to move that school to empty space at P.S. 33 at 281 Ninth Ave. at 26th St. But White said D.O.E. has dropped that option.

A new sixth-through-12th-grade school, Quest to Learn, is being organized in partnership with Parsons The New School for Design to open in September 2009; but neither White nor the Quest founding principal, Aaron Schwartz, knows where the first four sixth-grade classes will be located.

The school, which has been on the drawing board for two years, will focus on a game-based learning system that incorporates traditional and computer methods. It will start in September with at least 81 students in three classes, or hopefully with 91 in four classes, Schwartz said a day after the forum.

However, parents at the forum scoffed at the prospect of parents enrolling their children in a school without knowing where it will be.

Schwartz, however, was confident. He said that 40 enthusiastic parents and youngsters representing about 20 families attended a Quest reception at Parsons The New School on Wednesday at the same time as the forum.

White said the city at first thought the Quest classes could go into the middle school space on W. 21st St., with the middle school moving to space inside P.S. 33. However, the intent now is to keep the Clinton School where it is on W. 21st St.

White said one possible Quest site would be Bayard Rustin High School at 351 W. 18th St.

“Quest to Learn will be a District 2 school, and we would like it to be in a high school setting,” White said.

Members of the District 2 Community Education Council said they were anxiously anticipating a significant over-enrollment at the P.S. 3 complex, as well as at P.S. 41.

“How many are applying for how many seats?” demanded John Scott, a C.E.C. member.

White said the number would not be known until after the application deadline the first week in March.

“We can’t assume at this point that the applications will exceed capacity, but if it does, we’ll cap the enrollment,” Scott said. “If there are zoned students and siblings who can’t be seated, they’ll have to go into a lottery.”

The information left some parents uneasy: “Where will we go?” was the recurring question.

Scott added that D.O.E., at one point, had considered putting the Quest school in a building at 26 Broadway, but that the space wasn’t ready.

Two other new District 2 schools in Lower Manhattan, scheduled to open in 2010 in swing space at the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers St. were mentioned as potential temporary new middle school spaces. The K-8 school proposed for Spruce and Nassau Sts. and the K-8 school destined for the southern end of Battery Park City will start with kindergarten classes for a year or two in Tweed, and could make room for Village middle school children.

However, the great hope of people at the forum was a quick decision on 75 Morton St.