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Parents Fight for More School Space in Harlem

By Jeff Mays | February 28, 2013 11:38am | Updated on February 28, 2013 11:51am

HARLEM — Hundreds of parents from Central Park East and East Harlem Scholars Academy packed into an auditorium at the Jackie Robinson educational complex Wednesday night to tell the Department of Education why they deserved space at the school to expand.

The DOE is proposing to extend the temporary co-location of East Harlem Scholars Academy I at the complex, located at 1573 Madison Ave., for three years until 2016 and to open a second K-8 branch of the school there.

The space is becoming available due to the plan to shutter J.H.S. 13, also located at the educational complex. DOE has said the school is closing because only 16 percent of students are on grade level in English or Language Arts and only 20 percent were on grade level for math.

But parents and educators from Central Park East I and II are upset because the DOE promised to find the progressive schools space to launch a middle school.

Central Park East officials say they identified space at the educational complex only to be told by Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott a few months ago that no space was available in District 4 for a middle school.

In an August 20, 2012, email to a CPE II parent, Walcott said there was no space in the school's current building for a middle school and putting the middle school in a separate location would prove too difficult.

"In both scenarios, there are significant logistical and administrative challenges to overcome, and in any district, such proposals must be considered among existing, competing priorities," wrote Walcott, who also said the DOE would continue to evaluate the request. "Currently, given the volume of space needs in upper Manhattan, the DOE is unable to consider this request for a school expansion."

Parents, however, felt that the department pulled a fast one.

"We know we are a good school. They told us we are a good school and said they would give us space for a middle school and then didn't," said Yhane Smith, 43, a stay-at-home mom who has a son at CPE II. "There are transparency issues going on."

DOE officials have said they will work with Central Park East on their expansion plans. Last night, they referred comment to their educational impact statement, which said the proposal would create "quality educational options."

Jeff Ginsburg, executive director of East Harlem Tutorial Program and East Harlem Scholars Academies, said during the hearing it made sense for his school to get the space because they serve students from East Harlem. The school has 100 percent preference for District 4 and 91 percent of students are from East Harlem.

"Classroom space in this neighborhood is limited," Ginsburg said.

"The issue boils down to simple geography," he added later.

By allowing East Harlem Scholars Academy I to stay in the space longer, it will allow them to construct a new $40 million building at East 105th Street and Second Avenue that will also serve 600 children in afterschool programs. The DOE's educational impact statement said the new space would provide "additional educational opportunity for students and families."

Olivia Graham, 36, a childcare provider, said East Harlem Scholars Academies was important to low-income parents.

"Parents who don't go to college, what are the chances for their kids to go to college?" asked Graham, whose daughter Nykarra, 6, is in first grade.

Supporters of the school wore shirts that read "Community-backed. College bound."

But CPE parents said there were no progressive middle schools in the area, denying their children a chance to continue to learn in the hands-on, experiential style that de-emphasizes rigorous test preparation.

"One of our dreams was that children would be able to have this type of education from pre-K to 12th grade," said long-time CPE I teacher Yvonne Smith.

It is also the second time in recent years that the DOE has snubbed attempts to add progressive educational opportunities in favor of charter schools, CPE parents and teachers said. Julie Zuckerman, former principal at CPE I, was hoping to open the progressive Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights.

Instead, the DOE gave the space to KIPP Charter School. Castle Bridge School is currently being co-located with another public school until a permanent space can be found.

Ginsburg said the debate was not about educational style but space.

The East Harlem Tutorial Program sends a large percentage of its children to college. Ginsburg said CPE founder and educator Deborah Meier was supportive of the East Harlem Tutorial Program and she's one of the first people he called when he was hired.

"Despite what you hear tonight, there is more that unites us than divides us," Ginsburg said.

Meir has supported the effort for a progressive middle school on her blog.

"Was the community consulted about what it needs?" she wrote on her blog on Feb. 4.

CPE II principal Naomi Smith, however, said Ginsburg's argument about geography was misleading. She said the mission of CPE was always to serve a variety of students from a variety of places. CPE II has preference for students in Districts 4 or 5, and more than 50 percent of children at the school live in those districts.

"Separate but equal does not work," Smith said. "This is about free real estate. We have not been offered any space by the DOE even though they said they supported the idea for a middle school."

Smith said DOE officials have since met with her, but offered no assurances that a space for a middle school would be provided.

CPE II parent Yhane Smith said parents and administrators will persist until the DOE lives up to its promises.

"We are not going anywhere. We will not stop. We will do our own research and find available space," she said.

East Harlem Scholars Academy parent Graham said the situation places parents from both schools, who just want the best education for their children, in an awkward position that the DOE should remedy.

"Overall, more space needs to be provided for both schools," she said.

The Panel for Educational Policy will vote on all the changes at a March 11 meeting at Brooklyn Technical High School.