Harlem School For Special Needs Students Fights Success Academy Expansion

By Jeff Mays on July 9, 2013 3:00pm | Updated on July 9, 2013 4:02pm

 The Department of Education has announced plans for P.S. 811 to lose three classrooms used for things such as speech therapy and occupational therapy in the 2014 school year to the expanding Success Academy Harlem 1 school at the building on 118th Street and Lenox Avenue.
The Department of Education has announced plans for P.S. 811 to lose three classrooms used for things such as speech therapy and occupational therapy in the 2014 school year to the expanding Success Academy Harlem 1 school at the building on 118th Street and Lenox Avenue.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM —  Since her 6-year-old autistic son enrolled in classes at P.S. 811 in Harlem, Genell Davis, 35, has noticed nothing but steady improvement.

"He's flourished. He reads now and he's trying to speak Spanish. He does addition and subtraction and he's on a level higher than his class," said Davis, who serves as the parent teacher association president at the co-located District 75 school that serves students with special needs.

But Davis is worried that her son Demetris' rapid progression will be stunted now that the Department of Education has announced plans for the school to lose three classrooms used for things such as speech therapy and occupational therapy in the 2014 school year to the expanding Success Academy Harlem 1 school at the building on 118th Street and Lenox Avenue.

The move may force already fragile special needs students who have autism, are mentally retarded or are emotionally disturbed to have to travel further to school.

"If you take away that space you are hurting one group of students just to accommodate another," said Davis. "This is not fair. Success Academy needs to find other resources."

Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio has stepped into the debate after parents from the school reached out to him. He sent a letter to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott decrying the change, saying that Success Academy, founded and run by former Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, seems to be getting special treatment.

This would be the third time Success Academy was allowed to expand into the school.

Success Academy Harlem 1 expanded in the building and Success Academy Harlem 4 was allowed to move into the building, which is also shared by P.S. 149.

The 2011 DOE utilization plan and 2012 amendments never mentioned this expansion, de Blasio wrote.

"Indeed, these changes appear to be part of a sustained pattern to privilege Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy schools with space and resources at the expense of the traditional public schools with which they share buildings," de Blasio wrote.

"These revisions have all the appearance of an attempt to rush through and lock in advantages for Success Academy before leadership at City Hall changes," he added.

Success Academy spokeswoman Kerri Lyon declined to comment about changes at the top-ranked school, saying that the DOE was the best entity to respond to questions about the allocation of space.

DOE officials say the change will benefit all students. The department is opening three new buildings in Manhattan in the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years that will have capacity for special needs students.

One school, M281 at 425 East 35th St. is located near the FDR Drive. Another, M338, is at 525 West 44th St., which is located between 10th and 11th avenues. The third and final space to open, M340, is at 590 Sixth Ave. at 17th Street.

The new schools will appeal to students at P.S. 811 who don't live in neighborhoods near the school, DOE officials believe. Most District 75 students are bused to school.

Students departing P.S. 811 to attend school closer to home will open up "excess" space at the school, officials said.

"This proposal is aimed at maximizing our available space and balancing the needs of these diverse stakeholders.  In this case, (District 75) students will now gain access to a brand new, state-of-the-art facility and Success will be able to meet the continued demand for its schools," DOE spokesman Devon Puglia said in a statement.

Joe Williams, president of the District 75 President's Council, said he along with parents at the school were blindsided by the move and have been unable to get answers from the DOE.

Most of the children who attend P.S. 811 are currently from districts 3, 4, 5 and 6, which are in Harlem and Washington Heights, Williams said.

"These kids are on limited time travel restrictions. These kids are on medications and they have sensory issues," Williams said.

"District 75 schools are the most vulnerable population and they seem to go after the most vulnerable schools. But this is where the battle line is drawn," added an angry Williams.

Williams said he also has concerns that the move won't take place until 2014 but are being announced now.

"They want to do their expansion while they have someone in office sympathetic to their cause," Williams said of charter school proponent Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Several of this year's Democratic mayoral candidates have said they would adjust the controversial hearing process the Bloomberg administration used in determining how schools share space.

For example, de Blasio has called for more consultation and follow-up with local communities when it comes to co-locations. He has also proposed that charter schools pay rent based on a sliding scale.

Still, de Blasio said the change was not discussed with parents and he called it a "bait and switch." His letter to Walcott also contains a public information request for details about the planned change and how it will affect enrollment and programs.

"None of the planning or discussions with the DOE have given any warning this was coming," de Blasio said.

Davis said she just wants her son to have the best environment possible so that he can continue to thrive.

"He's about to graduate from kindergarten to first grade and that's a huge achievement from where he started out from. Nothing should limit his ability to flourish and learn," she said.

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