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Downtown Families Face Space Crunch in Beloved Schools

By Irene Plagianos | February 11, 2013 7:31am

LOWER MANHATTAN — The general consensus among Lower Manhattan parents is that they love their highly regarded public elementary schools. There’s just one longstanding problem: there aren't enough of them.

Lower Manhattan, one of the city’s fastest-growing residential neighborhoods, has nearly doubled its population since Sept. 11, 2001 — but many residents say the Department of Education isn’t keeping pace with the baby boom.

Despite the opening of three new schools since 2009, classes remain packed, and there are annual waitlists and lotteries. Last spring, nearly 100 kindergartners were waitlisted for their zoned Downtown schools, and this year, parents say they fear the overflow may be even worse.

“We’re happy many families are moving in and coming because of the great reputation of our schools,” said Tammy Meltzer, mother of a third-grader in P.S. 276, a sought-after green school in Battery Park City that opened in 2010.

"But overcrowding is threatening our schools' art, science [and] music programs — the reasons why they're such great schools in the first place," Meltzer added.

In November, P.S. 276’s PTA launched a petition asking that 2013's kindergarten be capped at three classes, the number the school’s building was designed to house. For the past two years, the school has received so many applications that it has accepted five kindergarten classes, maxed out with 25 students apiece.

But while parents are frustrated by the overcrowding, they say they understand why families are pouring into the neighborhood.

Each of the five Downtown elementary schools is known for active, affluent PTAs and hands-on learning, and they are among the city’s top-performing schools, even without any gifted and talented programs.

Battery Park City’s P.S. 276, for example, is the city’s first green school, and runs its own rooftop garden — which has views of the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty — and instills kids with “healthy life skills and inquisitiveness about the world,” Meltzer said.

Another relative newcomer to the neighborhood, the Spruce Street School, sits in the base of Frank Gehry's new skyscraper near City Hall and has quickly established a strong academic reputation, with an impressive space that features technology labs and art studios.

Not that new is always better — schools such as Battery Park City's P.S. 89, and TriBeCa's P.S. 234 and P.S. 150, set the standard for high-performing Lower Manhattan schools, engaging students in the classroom and the bustling city around them.

Parents just hope the schools they moved to the neighborhood for will still have available spaces for their kids. The DOE has proposed a controversial plan to bus dozens of Downtown kids to 12 available classrooms in Chinatown’s P.S. 1 in the fall. A vocal contingent of Lower Manhattan parents is already fighting the plan.

Here are Downtown's noteworthy public elementary schools:

P.S. 89, Liberty School, 201 Warren St.

Principal Ronnie Najjar has run this high-performing school, located just a few blocks north of the World Trade Center, since it opened in 1998. The popular, tightly zoned northern Battery Park City school, which earned an A rating for performance last year from the Department of Education, features a dance studio, a large gym and a science room. Students are also encouraged to live a green lifestyle — Styrofoam has been eliminated from the cafeteria, replaced with recyclable sugarcane trays.

P.S. 150, Tribeca Learning Center, 334 Greenwich St.

This unique TriBeCa school is not zoned and accepts students from all across Lower Manhattan through an annual lottery. It's also small, with only one class for each of its grades, and it also received an A for performance from the DOE last year.  Jenny Bonnet, formerly the academic director of the Special Music School — also a school with one class per grade — took the helm of this highly regarded school in the fall of 2012.

P.S. 234, Independence School, 292 Greenwich St.

P.S. 234, opened in 1988, is the oldest school in the neighborhood and has a longstanding reputation for quality. Students are encouraged to learn through hands-on and often collaborative work, and they stay with the same teacher for two years as they move from kindergarten to fifth grade.

P.S. 276, Battery Park City School, 55 Battery Place

Made from sustainable building materials and fitted with solar panels, P.S. 276 was the first city school specifically designed to be green. Parents say they love the socially and environmentally conscious ethos of the school. But less than three years after opening, overcrowding is already threatening some of its beloved art and science programs.

P.S. 397, Spruce Street School, 12 Spruce St.

This spiffy new four-story brick school sits at the base of Frank Gehry's 76-story apartment complex near City Hall. The beautiful school, already in high demand, features technology labs, a two-story auditorium and a roof deck with 5,000 square feet of outdoor play space.

P.S. 343, Peck Slip School, 52 Chambers St.

The much-needed Peck Slip School opened for 44 kindergartners in the fall of 2012 in temporary space located in Tweed Courthouse. Its permanent, 712-seat South Street Seaport building is scheduled to open its doors in 2015 in the former Peck Slip Post Office. Parents and students are happy with the school and its principal, Maggie Siena, who previously worked as principal of nearby P.S. 150.