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Kips Bay Parents Fight Plan to Bring 'Underprivileged' Kids to New School

By Mary Johnson | December 18, 2012 2:18pm

KIPS BAY — A new elementary school in Kips Bay has not yet opened — but already neighborhood parents are concerned it’s on track to become one of the “most undesired” schools in the area.

Close to four-dozen parents who live in the new zone created for P.S. 281, which is being built on First Avenue and East 35th Street, signed a petition protesting the lines drawn for the new school, claiming the zone includes too many students eligible for the city’s free-lunch program.

“The projected socioeconomic and demographic breakdown for P.S. 281 will make this school the most underprivileged and the most undesired elementary school in the area,” read the petition, which was submitted to the District 2 Community Education Council.

“We firmly believe that DOE’s zoning proposal sets up P.S. 281 for failure before its doors are even open.”

The petition was drafted using data the Department of Education presented at a CEC meeting in September, said Yoav Ilan, the parent of a kindergartner at P.S. 116 and the driving force behind the petition.

The data in that presentation indicated that the new zoning would give P.S. 281 a student population in which 35 percent of students come from low-income families, making them eligible for free lunch.

That percentage of free-lunch students "in no way reflects the neighborhood demographics and the property values in the area which surrounds P.S. 281," the petition states. "It also has a significant negative impact on the existing Murray Hill community."

By comparison, the new zoning would cut the free-lunch population at P.S. 116 on East 33rd Street between Second and Third avenues from 30 percent to 24 percent.

At P.S. 59 in Midtown East, the free-lunch population would drop from 9 percent to 8 percent. And at P.S. 40 in Gramercy and P.S. 267 on the Upper East Side, the population of students eligible for free lunch would remain the same, at 8 and 9 percent, respectively.

In the final zoning proposal, which was approved by the CEC earlier this month, the lines were slightly redrawn, shaving off a few blocks at the southern end so that the zone runs roughly between East 45th and East 26th streets, from Second Avenue to the East River.

The revised lines would pare down the free-lunch population for P.S. 281 to 27 percent from 35 percent. Ilan said that while this is a step in the right direction, the percentages at other neighborhood schools will remain roughly the same as in the original projections, with some between 8 and 10 percent — giving P.S. 281 an unfair burden.

Ella Belotserkovskaya, a mother of two who lives near the new school and was among the first to sign the petition, agreed.

“We want to have diverse schools, it’s important. We live in Manhattan — it’s a melting pot,” Belotserkovskaya said. “[But] diversity is not when one school has 30 percent and all the other schools have 10 percent.”

Belotserkovskaya’s daughter will be heading to kindergarten next year, and because of the zoning recently approved for P.S. 281, she is now considering moving her family to the Upper East or Upper West sides.

“I’m worried to send her to a new school with such a disproportionate percentage of free lunch students,” Belotserkovskaya said.

“The parents are really the ones who make the school… They’re donating their money. They’re donating their time,” she added.

“The parents [of students eligible for free lunch] are not as involved in the school. They don’t contribute as much to the school. Those are known facts, and that worries me.”

Ilan explained that a lack of funding from these parents would mean less resources for students at P.S. 281.

“It means that 50 to 70 percent of the people who go there will have to carry the load,” Ilan said. “P.S. 281 from the get-go will be an underdog.”

Ilan clarified that the problem does not lie with the presence of free lunch-eligible students within a school.

“There’s nothing wrong with the program of free lunch,” Ilan said. “There is something wrong where you have one school that is above 30 percent for free lunch and you have one school that is below 9 percent. It’s unbalanced.

“If we want to do a good job, we have to balance it,” he added.

The CEC holds the power of final approval over zoning plans submitted by the Department of Education, and the council signed off on the proposed lines earlier this month.

In a statement, the DOE said it takes many factors into consideration when rezoning schools.

“As much as possible, we strive to maintain diversity while balancing the distance students would have to travel to school, the capacity of each building, and the concerns of the local community," the DOE said. "The new school is projected to serve a similar percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch as other nearby schools. Citywide, 75 percent of our students are eligible for free or reduced lunch."

The approved plan will shrink the zones for P.S. 40, P.S. 116 and P.S. 59, alleviating overcrowding at schools where teachers and parents have long struggled with large class sizes and a surplus of students.

Ilan said that will likely push him to keep his daughter at P.S. 116, instead of opting to try the new school, because of its established PTA and budget.

“P.S. 116 is a great school,” said Ilan, who has lived in the neighborhood for 13 years. “I’d rather stick with something that I know is good than to go to the unknown.”