Thursday, November 23, 2006

Parents Share P.S. 36 Concerns - Officials Hear Grievances About Temporary Location of Magnet School

Columbia Spectator
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Parents Share P.S. 36 Concerns
Officials Hear Grievances About Temporary Location of Magnet School

By Erin Durkin
Issue date: 11/22/06 Section: News

Media Credit: Isabelle Mills-Tannenbaum

Parents confronted Department of Education officials Tuesday night regarding their plan to temporarily locate a Columbia-sponsored secondary school at P.S. 36, an early childhood school on Morningside Drive.

Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, a public magnet school to be run collaboratively by Columbia and the DOE, is scheduled to open next fall at P.S. 36 but is slated eventually to be located in its own building on the University's proposed Manhattanville campus.

The department hopes to house the school at P.S. 36 until the new building is ready, but parents have objected to the plan because they say it will cause overcrowding, and that mixing middle-school students with children as young as three years old may be unsafe.

Tuesday night's meeting, which drew over 100 people and several elected officials, often grew heated.

"You really think you're going to be able to secure safety for my six-year-old with a fifteen-year-old running around?" asked Cedric Flemming, father of a first grader. "That is the fault of DOE wanting to pile us on top of each other, treating us like animals. You aren't doing it below 96th Street."

"The kids that you are talking about in this junior high and high school are our kids. They are Harlem kids," responded Terence Tolbert, the department's executive director for intergovernmental affairs.

Visibly frustrated, he added, "I would love for people to stop talking about our kids like they don't deserve better.

"DOE officials emphasized that they are still in the preliminary stages of planning the school's location. "We're not considering this a done deal," said Robert Lesser of DOE's office of new schools.

"We want to see if we can make it work," said Jemina Bernard, also of the new schools' office. "If it's not feasible, we'll have to come up with another plan."

Many attendees were skeptical, pressing for details on what other locations the department was considering and how willing it was to back off the P.S. 36 plan.

"When you came to our school, you told our union rep that this was a done deal," said first-grade teacher Claudia Aybar. "In case this doesn't work out, do you have a plan B school? Do you have a plan C? Do you have alternatives?"

"We aren't in a position to discuss that," Bernard said. Tolbert added that a possible alternative would be "not to open the school at all."

Hyacinth Meyers, vice president of P.S. 36's parent association, said this option was not what the parents were looking for. "The school is a great opportunity for all children," she said. "Great school, great idea-take it somewhere else."

After the meeting, Bernard clarified that P.S. 36 "appears to be the best possible option," and that DOE is not actively considering any other locations at this time, though it hasn't ruled out the possibility. She said that not opening the school this fall is not being seriously considered.

"It's always an alternative," she said. "It's certainly not anything that we want."Bernard said that the department expected Columbia Secondary to remain at P.S. 36 for two to three years, but said, "What we're not going to agree to is any sort of written agreement about time frame."

In response to concerns about the safety of mixing the two populations, she said, "We would look very very closely to make sure that there are distinct points of entry for the particular schools."

"I am totally convinced of two things," state senator-elect Bill Perkins told the crowd. "That the Department of Education does not respect you ... and that you are absolutely right."

Department officials repeatedly stated that they were responsible for decisions about when to open the school and where to put its interim location, and that Columbia played no role. But Perkins said after the meeting that he did not believe this was true.

"This is Columbia's idea," he said. "Columbia's a bully. ... This is just another example of Columbia's inability to be a good neighbor, where the community has to push back to get them to act right."

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Assemblyman Keith Wright, and Councilman Robert Jackson also attended the meeting.

Jackson, who is chairman of the city council's education committee and has voiced his support for the magnet school in the past, said that while he had not made a final decision about the appropriateness of the school's location, it was "absolutely wrong" that parents had not been consulted. "If I had children in this school, I would be exactly where you are right now," he said.

On the conduct of the DOE officials at the meeting, Perkins said: "They were not forthcoming. They were obfuscating ... They were arrogant, and they were impatient." He said this was typical of the DOE's attitudes toward parents. "All you've seen is this mayor [Mayor Michael Bloomberg] and this chancellor [Chancellor of New York City Department of Education Joel Klein] trampling on the rights of parents," he added.

Perkins said that he thought the intense opposition would force the department to budge. "I don't think the school's coming here," he said.

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