Tuesday, June 12

Public Schools: Community based institutions or real estate?

The following piece ran as a letter to the Insideschools mailbag last summer. A year later, the city's plan to move the schools in the building remains on the table, and the Save JREC coalition continues to fight against it.

The recent report that Hunter College wants to demolish the Julia Richman building and build a new bioscience center on its site is alarming and perplexing! Julia Richman Complex, as it is now known, is a model of how a dysfunctional high school can be transformed into a thriving educational center, both in sync with its community and at the same time avoiding either chauvinistic isolation or elitism. Kids go there because the building is safe and accessible and the schools are good. And some kids go to one of its units, the Ella Baker school, specifically because their parents work in the several medical institutions nearby. In fact, that is the express reason that the school was established. Now Hunter says it will exchange the site for a brand new “state of the art” high school to house the current Complex units – at 25th Street and First Avenue.

The prospect of an expanded Hunter College is literally and figuratively overshadowing the ongoing success of the complex and turning it into just one more piece of real estate. How many other venerable high school buildings, are ripe for takeover? How many neighborhoods would be saddled with another out-of-scale building casting its shadow – in this case over the extraordinarily popular St. Catherine’s Park?

According to Elizabeth Rose, a neighborhood resident and parent of a student at nearby PS 183, it is misleading for the Department of Education to characterize the bargain with Hunter as a free exchange. She points out that Hunter is also a taxpayer funded institution. She makes two other points as well. Demographic projections show a big increase in District 2 school children by 2014. Why give up any building that could help accommodate the additional kids, and finally, the site at 25th Street would be much more appropriate for Hunter’s projected science facility: It would be just south of the City’s projected bioscience building just announced in the 07 budget.

Larger issue involved

NYC is in midst of a huge experiment in transforming high school education. In a city with very little unused land, we are subdividing large school buildings into small units with the mission to establish new schools, each with a clear identity. Some of these groupings work well, others are struggling, still others are too new to tell. Many parents are wary. They are suspicious of the motivation (further segregation and achievement tracking) and wish their kids could have the kind of social and athletic experience that they remember or have seen so often in movies and TV. Shall we add to the community’s skepticism by holding a real estate bargaining chip over their heads?

Veteran city watchers are used to being outraged over real estate encroachments. For public school advocates, this latest development is compounded by top-down imposition. Like most of the initiatives that the Department of Education has implemented since the Bloomberg-Klein nexus began, the Hunter matter was negotiated without any consultation with the schools and parents involved. It was only when State Senator Liz Kruger tipped off Urban Academy’s leaders that the building was being eyed by others that they learned something of the plans. Evidently, talks had been going on since last November but there was no discussion with the school community until end of May. That only happened because the school persisted until the Department of Education sent a representative, Jamie Smarr, to meet with them. Yet the Department insists it would design a new building with the schools’ input. At this point, experience tells us to mistrust that promise.

By the way, many high school buildings are worthy of landmark status – they certainly play a key role in the history of the city and in the memories of their graduates. And they are important symbols in their neighborhoods. Who is keeping track of this little corner of city lore as we go boldly forth to new educational enterprises?

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