City Plans to Replace Washington Irving with Software Engineering Academy

By Jill Colvin on January 17, 2012 9:37am 

Washington Irving High School in Gramercy is slated to lose three teachers, according to the city's layoff list.
Washington Irving High School in Gramercy is slated to lose three teachers, according to the city's layoff list.
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Flickr/eden pictures

UNION SQUARE — As Cornell and Technion prepare to break ground for their engineering campus on Governor’s Island, city officials are hoping some of its future students will come from a new computer engineering high school set to open this fall near Union Square.

In his State of the City address last Thursday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans for a new Software Engineering Academy, which the Department of Education plans to open in September to replace Washington Irving High school.

The long-troubled school on Irving Place was flagged for closure late last year.

“It’s not just going to be a technical school where students are going to work with computers. Obviously that’s a major component,” DOE spokesman Frank Thomas said of Software Engineering Academy.

"The bigger question is, 'How do I use data to understand the way people work in this industry? What can I come up with that will change the technology market?’ [It will teach] a big picture, high-altitude view of the technology industry.”

The concept is the brainchild of Mike Zamansky, who heads Stuyvesant High School’s computer science program, and Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist who runs Union Square Ventures in the neighborhood, home to a growing number of tech startups, including Yelp.

“This is something that’s going to have deep personal ties to the Internet and information technology industry,” said Thomas, adding that Wilson has committed to funding a portion of the operating costs.

The plan comes less than a month after the mayor announced that Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology had won a joint $100 million subsidized bid to build a new state-of-the-art applied science campus on Governor’s Island. The projects, built on free city land, were part of a larger push by the administration to spur jobs and give Silicon Valley a run for its money.

“We want to create a pipeline for our students into that campus,” Thomas said, adding that the city hopes the school will graduate students who can not only compete for jobs in the tech industry, but also create their own companies, spurring even more work.

Parents, teachers and students gathered on the steps of Washington Irving High School in Gramercy on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, to protest the school's planned closure.
Parents, teachers and students gathered on the steps of Washington Irving High School in Gramercy on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, to protest the school's planned closure.
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Jack Miller

But the announcement has also stirred outrage among some parents fighting the closure plan.

“I am astonished that [the mayor's] gone out and done this,” said Upper West Side mom Sharon Talbot, whose 16-year-old son is a special needs student at Washington Irving.

Talbot said she was dismayed to learn the mayor had presented plans for Washington Irving's replacement as a "done-deal" — weeks before a planned public hearing on  Jan. 31 and a Panel for Educational Policy vote scheduled for Feb. 9.

“It’s as if he doesn’t have to attend these meetings, he doesn’t have to listen,” said Talbot, who believes the school should have been given more time to improve after getting millions in federal improvement grants. “Due process is not being utilized at all.”

Meanwhile, documents show officials expect Software Engineering Academy to welcome its freshmen class of between 105 and 115 students this fall and eventually grow to 460 students as Washington Irving is phased out.

On his blog, AVC.com, Wilson said he has long seen a need for more science and software engineering at high schools and middle schools across the city, and stressed the fact that the Academy will be open to all students through the regular high school admission process.

“The city's goal (and mine too) is to open up opportunities for many more students than the small number of specialized schools can deliver,” he wrote, adding that he hopes the curriculum they develop can eventually be rolled out to other schools across the city, including schools that don't specialize in technology.

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