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School Officials, DOE Embroiled in Affirmative Action Fight at P.S. 133

By Alan Neuhauser | October 15, 2012 8:00am | Updated on October 15, 2012 11:21am

PARK SLOPE — Southwest Brooklyn parents, school officials and City Council members have joined forces in a fight with the city's Department of Education over a proposed "affirmative action" admissions policy at a local elementary school that could affect nearly 1,000 students in Park Slope, Sunset Park and other nearby neighborhoods.

The plan, which sources said was initially opposed by the DOE, would boost the number of low-income and minority students at P.S. 133 by giving admissions preference to both English Language Learners and free- and reduced-lunch recipients, groups that are predominantly black, Hispanic and Asian.

More than 83 percent of the school’s student body was comprised of black, Hispanic and Asian students during the last school year, the DOE said, and the school also offers Spanish and French dual-language programs.

Proponents of the affirmative-action plan argue that P.S. 133, located in north Park Slope, sits in a neighborhood increasingly dominated by white middle- to upper-class residents.

“There's a risk that 133 could become an upper-middle-class island, given the recent real estate developments" said Jim Devor, president of Community District Education Council 15, which proposed the plan with the support of CEC 13 to reserve a certain number of seats via lottery for English Language Learners and free- and reduced-lunch recipients.

The proposal, he continued, would also address an "overcrowding crisis" at P.S. 94 and P.S. 169 in Sunset Park.

"The DOE has had no decent proposals for how we deal with overcrowding in Sunset Park. Giving English Language Learners preference in admissions would add diversity to the school and ease overcrowding in Sunset Park," Devor said.

The DOE did not respond directly to calls and emails for comment. Instead, it forwarded a letter it sent last week to a P.S. 133 task force comprised of representatives of CEC 15 and 13, as well as Councilmen Brad Lander and Stephen Levin.

In the message — a response to a letter the group sent Chancellor Dennis Walcott on Oct. 3 — the DOE said it needed more time to devise an admissions policy for P.S. 133.

“The Department of Education intends to thoughtfully consider the community’s feedback regarding P.S. 133,” wrote Paymon Rouhanifard, chief executive of the Office of Portfolio Management, which oversees school admissions and new school construction.

“As we move forward, please understand that there are myriad legal and operational complexities that we must simultaneously factor into our decision making."

The response marks a potential softening of the department's opposition to the affirmative-action proposal. In private meetings with the P.S. 133 task force last month, DOE officials declared the plan "unconstitutional," Devor and other sources said.

“As a public school parent, I know the value that diversity brings to our children’s classrooms," Lander said in an email. "Unfortunately, many schools in this city are far from diverse. The Department of Education should not reject this plan to preserve diversity at P.S. 133."

P.S. 133 is an unusual school undergoing a major transition. Currently located in a former St. Thomas Aquinas building on Fourth Avenue in Park Slope, the school's original building at Baltic Street and Third Avenue was torn down in 2010 to be rebuilt and expanded. The new building was slated to open last month, Devor said, but the opening was postponed until next September due to construction delays.

When it does open, P.S. 133 will have more than 900 seats — more than three times its current size — allowing it to draw students from both CEC 13 and CEC 15. Most city schools, by comparison, take students from only a single district.

Under a DOE plan that's supported by CEC 15 and CEC 13, about 300 seats would be allotted for students from District 13, about 565 for students from District 15, and the remainder for special-education students from around the city, Devor said.

However, disagreements emerged over the admissions process.

The DOE told the P.S. 133 task force that it aimed to make 133 a "choice" school, Devor said, one that accepts students through a general lottery system. The system would include one lottery for the 300 seats for CEC 13 residents and another lottery for the 565 seats for CEC 15 residents.

The task force, however, put forward an alternative proposal initially developed by Appleseed Network, a nonprofit involved in a range of social justice issues. Under the task force's plan, CEC 13 and CEC 15 would each hold two separate lotteries, with a certain number of seats reserved for English Language Learners and free- and reduced-lunch recipients, and the others reserved for general students.

"The general idea is to piggyback on the mechanisms that charter schools can use legally," said Appleseed Network New York director David Tipson, who noted that city charter schools are required to meet certain demographic goals.

"Charter schools, not only can they do this — they have to do this."

Task force members were then flabbergasted when the DOE called the proposal unconstitutional.

"It's a completely untenable argument," Tipson said. "The Constitution doesn't apply differently to charter schools as to district schools. Many people say charter schools are public schools."

In its Oct. 3 letter to Walcott, the task force asked him to "provide us with a memorandum with legal analysis or, at a minimum, a summary of the legal authority on which you base your conclusion. If in fact there is no legal argument that we ask that you provide a policy reasons for your opposition to these types of preferences."

The letter was signed by Councilmen Lander and Levin, the presidents of CEC 13 and 15, and the president of the P.S. 133 PTA.

P.S. 133 parents said they would welcome an affirmative-action admissions process to maintain socioeconomic and racial diversity at the school.

“It’s really mixed, which I think is really good,” said Sandrine Gigon, 44, who has a son and a daughter at the school.

“It’s really good to have our children together, to try and build society together.”

Kevin Ryan-Young, 49, a Stuyvesant Heights resident whose 6-year-old daughter attends P.S. 133, agreed.

“It’s part of what the school is," he said. "There’s a French dual-language program. There’s a Spanish dual-language program. Everybody learns something from everybody. That’s the way the learning environment should be."