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Uptown Parents Seek to Improve Schools

By Nigel Chiwaya | February 11, 2013 7:19am

NORTHERN MANHATTAN — The future of uptown public schools is in flux. 

As a group of dedicated and passionate parents, educators and elected officials work to strengthen well-performing schools in Inwood and Washington Heights, they are also looking to improve options in the neighborhoods.

Many uptown parents and officials give high grades to the district's choice schools — which include P.S. 314 Muscota New School, Amistad Dual Language School, Washington Heights Academy and Twenty-First Century Academy for Community Leadership — and say the schools are on an upward swing.

"The choice schools are very competitive," said Judith Amaro, president of the District 6 Community Education Council.

Families living anywhere in the district, which covers Washington Heights, Inwood and northern Harlem, can apply to the choice schools.

The district also has zoned schools, including P.S. 187 Hudson Cliffs, which is renowned for its well-organized PTA and strong community.

"It's a real good school," said Lars Hanson, who was walking his fourth-grade son Graydon to P.S. 187 recently. "They have a wonderful music program.... They welcome parent involvement, and they're very motivated."

Hanson called the PTA "very committed" and added that there's a lot volunteering. Hanson said he reads to four kindergarten classes once a week.

The neighborhood's charter schools, including Inwood Academy for Leadership, New Heights Academy, The Equity Project and the KIPP NYC Washington Heights Academy, are also gaining popularity as a choice for parents of young children.

Still, some of the neighborhood's schools are struggling, with eight uptown elementary schools receiving a C or a D on the Department of Education's most recent school progress report cards. The DOE even eyed one school, P.S. 132 Juan Pablo Duarte in Washington Heights, for closure before community pressure made the city reconsider.

One challenge is that Upper Manhattan's schools serve a large population of students learning English as a second language. Ten elementary and K-8 schools in District 6 have more than 40 percent English-language learners, advocates say.

"More resources are necessary so that the schools can provide more services and support to that particular group of students who are in the process of learning a new language," City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez said.

Amaro agreed.

"The main issue is bilingual services," she said. "But we need smaller class sizes, and more focus on art, science and music."

The gap between the higher- and lower-performing schools has led to discussions on how to create a more equitable system. One proposed solution, which drew lots of controversy in the fall of 2012, called for the de-zoning of all schools in the district, allowing any student to apply to any school.

While proponents of the plan said that it would allow parents more choices and better chances to get into the district's top schools, opponents countered that the plan would place students' fates into the hands of a lottery system, and some worried that kids could be sent far from home. Parents organized, forming a group called Save District 6 and speaking out against the plan, which was eventually shelved.

Parents in Save District 6 have said they would like to see more choice schools in place of de-zoning.

Here are some of uptown's noteworthy elementary schools:

P.S. 187, Hudson Cliffs, 349 Cabrini Blvd.
Hudson Cliffs is known for its strong student performance and very active parent association. Parents set up Friends of 187, a nonprofit that raises funds for the school and has funded after-school programs, the school newspaper and an open computer room. The principal is Cynthia Chory, who grew up in Washington Heights and attended P.S. 187 herself as a child.

Amistad Dual Language School, 4862 Broadway
This choice school takes its name from its mission to teach students to be proficient in both English and Spanish. Students are instructed in different languages depending on the day of the week. Any family that lives in uptown's District 6 can apply. The principal is Miriam Pedraja, who previously taught second grade in The Bronx.

P.S. 314, Muscota New School, 4862 Broadway
Muscota, a choice school that shares a building with Amistad, aims to provide a progressive learning environment that encourages children to work at their own pace and hosts annual events, like October's Mad Hatter Costume Ball. The principal is Camille Wallin, who previously taught at the Literacy Academy.

P.S. 366, Washington Heights Academy, 202 Sherman Ave.
This small school, with only 318 students, moved into its Sherman Avenue building in 2010 after years of operating out of trailers near P.S. 152. Parents say the school actively encourages parent involvement and places a high emphasis on reading, giving the children daily reading charts to log. The principal is Renzo Martinez.

P.S. 210, Twenty-First Century Academy for Community Leadership, 501 W. 152nd St.
Like Amistad, Twenty-First Century Academy is a dual-language school that helps students become fluent in English and Spanish. The school has high attendance marks, more than 95 percent in 2012, according to data provided by City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez.