Dividing Lines

Upper West Side parents still fighting rezoning plan that would diversify schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
P.S. 199 (left) is a top-ranked school surrounded by pricey residential buildings. P.S. 191, which serves many students from the Amsterdam Houses (far right), has struggled with low test scores.

When the New York City Department of Education first announced plans to rezone District 3 on the Upper West Side, parents who opposed the plan quickly mobilized their troops. And it seems like their activism paid off: Last week the department said it would probably not seek to move the high-performing but space-challenged P.S. 452, one of the more contentious elements of the plan.

But a public hearing on Saturday on the rest of the plan shows the battle continues.

The city hopes to address overcrowding at P.S. 199 while also diversifying that school — along with P.S. 191 and P.S. 452. But parents whose children would be switched from the popular P.S. 199 to P.S. 191 showed up by the dozen to protest at the hearing.

“The idea that theoretical lines will alleviate such complex issues is an illusion,” said Hilary Kopple, who would be zoned to P.S. 191.

Currently, less than 10 percent of students at P.S. 452 and P.S. 199 are low-income. That’s compared to 49 percent at P.S. 191, which pulls most of its students from the nearby Amsterdam Houses public-housing development. That school’s test scores are lower than those of its neighbors, but it has a relatively new principal who parents and teachers say has put the school on an upward path. It was recently removed from the state’s “persistently dangerous” list.

“There’s a lot of stigma on the school,” said Alexa Perez-Velazquez, co-president of the P.S. 191 PTA. “Of course we have a lot of work to do, but we are moving in the right direction.”

P.S. 191 is slated to move into a brand new building next school year, partly in an attempt to make it more attractive to families who may be rezoned there. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced that it would open next fall, a year ahead of schedule. But appealing to parents who thought their children were headed to P.S. 199 is proving difficult. Some say the school needs to show sustained improvement before they consider sending their children.

“Moving 191 to a new building is not enough,” said Dan Schwarz, who has daughter in pre-K who would be zoned to P.S. 191. “Families will choose to go elsewhere.”

Others are skeptical that rezoning will relieve overcrowding at P.S. 199, which had the longest kindergarten waiting list in the city last year. Multiple new buildings are under construction within the proposed P.S. 199 zone, which could add more students.

The rancor at meetings like Saturday’s has largely overshadowed calls for a more ambitious plans to integrate the district. Some parents have pushed to create a “super-zone” around the schools that would assign students by lottery, or send all the zone’s students to one school for early grades, and then move them to another campus for later ones.

Matt Unterman, a local parent zoned for P.S. 191, said that rather than a plan that merely redraws district lines, he’d rather see a proposal that guarantees “equal opportunity” for all.

“This isn’t brave enough,” he said. “We’re passing up the opportunity and fighting about zone lines.”

Sarah Turchin, director of planning in Manhattan for the DOE, said the department hopes to finalize its latest proposal by October, with a vote by the Community Education Council expected in November.

moving on up

Jeffco on track to move most of next year’s sixth-graders into middle school buildings

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Jeffco Public Schools is moving forward with plans to put the majority of its sixth-graders in middle schools instead of elementary schools starting next fall, a shift district officials say will both better utilize building space and ease what can be a rough transition for kids.

The change, announced more than a year ago, will bring the state’s second largest school district into alignment with how most Colorado districts split up elementary and middle school.

Jeffco will continue to operate models that break that mold, including longstanding K-8 schools and a newer experiment with 7th through 12th grade schools officials say has shown promise.

Some critics continue to voice concerns about the plan, including questioning the cost and comparing that to what they say will result in a questionable benefit for students’ educations. District officials, however, say parents are getting their questions answered and educators are hearing fewer concerns than before.

The issue has come up at forums for school board candidates running this fall, and Jeffco staff last week at a regular board meeting updated the school board.

Marcia Anker, who started in July as the district’s sixth grade transition coordinator, said that some Jeffco schools individually started asking to make the change more than 10 years ago. Some individual middle schools had already been allowed to start enrolling sixth graders.

District officials say they estimate 3,355 students due to be sixth graders next year will be attending a middle school in 2018-19 instead of staying in an elementary school.

Many of the players involved in the initial discussions to move sixth grade out of elementary schools aren’t in the district anymore, including former superintendent Dan McMinimee.

Current district leaders say it was a conversation that began with district officials who oversee use of buildings, but that the decision wasn’t driven by building concerns.

Still, building use is a factor. Tim Reed, executive director of Jeffco facilities said middle school buildings in Jeffco were designed to hold three grade levels and have been underutilized.

“I think the conversation has always been about what’s best for students,” Reed said. “There was a recognition that there was significant underutilization in our middle school buildings. This was a way to accomplish two things including to better utilize middle schools.”

National research on middle school grade configurations has not been keen on sixth through eighth grade models. One study comparing students in sixth through eighth grade schools to students in schools that are K-8 schools found that student test scores weren’t different, but found more negative perceptions among students in traditional middle schools.

Jeffco board members and staff who have touted the benefits that sixth graders will see in a middle school point out that students will get a chance to start exploring their career interests with elective classes and have more time to develop relationships with staff in the middle schools.

Karen Quanbeck, interim chief school effectiveness officer and a previous middle school principal in the district, said at last week’s board meeting that two years with students is not enough.

“It seems like you’re welcoming them and in the blink of an eye you’re sending them off to high school,” Quanbeck said.

But some schools will need to continue with the seventh and eighth grade model for at least one more year. Because the empty middle school seats aren’t evenly spread throughout the district, some schools will require expansions to make room for new sixth graders.

The school board has already approved the funding to build a $10 million addition to Drake Middle School and a $4.5 million addition to Dunstan Middle School to accommodate the changes. Another $2 million in reserves will be used to make minor fixes at five other schools.

Three schools — Ken Caryl, Creighton and Summit Ridge — will delay their transition to the new model because the district estimates it needs to find another $15.5 million to add eight classrooms to each school.

Two years ago, in a bid to help lift student achievement, the district merged some schools to create two seventh-through-12 schools: Alameda and Jefferson junior and senior high schools. Those schools will retain that model.

Principals at those schools say they are seeing small benefits from the change. Though the neighborhoods are traditionally higher in poverty and mobility, Anker said that principals tell her students are staying in the school at a higher rate than before.

Still, Anker said one model is not better than another.

“Matriculation models that offer the fewest transitions are what benefits kids,” Anker said.

While there may be some benefits to having every Jeffco middle school offer the same grades — for instance, so parents choosing different schools across the district have consistency — the cost of doing that would also be prohibitive, Anker said.

“We also value the differences in our communities,” Anker said.

The district in the coming months will need to find a way to fund the remaining middle school expansions. Officials also will help some sought-after schools decide if they will cut down the number of seventh and eighth graders they enroll, or ask for help to build out space as well.

vegetarian options

Want your Brooklyn school to go meatless on Mondays? Here’s your chance.

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

Goodbye, ground beef and popcorn chicken. Hello, crispy tofu and roasted chickpea tagine.

Starting next spring, 15 Brooklyn schools will begin “meatless Mondays” — an effort to make school lunches and breakfasts a little healthier and friendlier to the environment, officials said Monday.

The city has not yet picked the schools that will participate in the pilot program, and an education spokeswoman said the city will make decisions based on interest and public input. (Whether the city is prepared for a barrage of requests from health-minded Park Slope parents is another matter.)

The announcement comes less than two months after city officials made lunch free for all students regardless of income. Monday’s press conference was held at Brooklyn’s P.S. 1 — one of three district schools that only serves vegetarian fare — and drew Mayor Bill de Blasio, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

“Cutting back a little on meat will help make our city healthier and our planet stronger for generations to come,” de Blasio said in a statement, adding that meat will no longer be served at Gracie Mansion on Mondays.

You can read more about the program here.