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Plan to Split Citywide Queens Gifted Program Angers Some Parents

ASTORIA — The city is planning to divide the K-8 version of P.S. 85's citywide gifted program between two buildings, including one that is far from the nearest subway stop, upsetting parents who have been pushing for an expansion of the popular STEM Academy, parents said.

During a meeting at P.S. 85 Wednesday night, DOE officials told STEM parents they want to split-site the G&T program into two school buildings — co-locating its younger classes at elementary school P.S. 76 and siting the middle school grades at I.S. 126, at 31-51 21st St., both identified by the city as underutilized.

STEM is currently a K-5 program housed at P.S. 85, at 23-70 31st St. in Astoria. The building   doesn't have enough space to allow the program to expand through eighth grade, the DOE has said.

All of the other citywide gifted programs are housed in the same building and have their own administrations.

Parents who attended Wednesday's meeting said the DOE told them STEM will be getting its own administration — something they have been fighting for. But they say split-siting STEM between two different buildings will force its administration, as well as parents who have more than one child in the program, to juggle between the two different schools.

"I'd say that we range from being very unhappy to bitterly unhappy," said dad Tim Smith, who  who attended the meeting with the DOE and who has two children in STEM, one in fourth grade and one in kindergarten.

Even if the program is forced to accept two locations, he said, parents are vehemently opposed to having the younger grades at P.S. 76.

Though the school is on the list of the DOE's underutilized buildings, it has a large number of special education classes that require more space for therapy and programming, parents said.

"There really just is not space for our program to be housed there," Smith said.

Astoria parents Lydia Tonic and Michael Gooch are affected in more ways than one by the DOE's proposal. They have two five-year-old twin boys: Liam, who is enrolled in STEM, and Peyton, who's a student in a special needs class at P.S. 76.

Peyton is academically advanced but requires extra attention when it comes to his social skills, his parents said. At P.S. 76, he gets daily 45-minute sessions of "Social Development Intervention" where one teacher works with a group of just four students at a time.

"A DOE official walking into a room with one teacher and four children may think that the room is underutilized, but that couldn't be further from the truth," Tonic said.

"I would like to know whether Peyton's services will be disrupted," by having another school co-located in the building, she added.

Parents also complained that P.S. 76, at 36-36 10 St., is too far away from public transportation for many to get to if they don't live in the zoned area. The school is also more than two miles away from P.S. 85, across the Grand Central Parkway.

"P.S. 76 is inaccessible from everywhere, unless you live in the neighborhood," Smith said. "It's a 20 minute walk from the subway, and you can't do that with a kindergartener."

Evie Hantzopoulos, parent association president, said the group has given the DOE suggestions for where the expanded STEM could be housed.

"We've submitted several plans to them, which were rejected," she said.

One idea is to co-locate the program at P.S. 17 in Astoria, which has extra space and is close to STEM's current site at P.S. 85 at 23-70 31st St. 

Parents say they were told by DOE officials on Wednesday that a co-location at P.S. 17, at 28-37 29th St., is not possible because the extra classrooms there are being saved for another use. That prompted many to speculate that Eva Moskowitz, who runs the controversial Success Academy Charter School chain, is eyeing the site for a future location.

Success Academy is looking to open two of its schools in Queens District 30 in the fall of 2014, and representatives from the organization have been spotted collecting signatures at subway stations and street corners in Astoria and Long Island City in recent months.

"We're worried that if a charter school comes into our school, they'll take over," said P.S. 17 parent association president Brenda Carrasca, who helped organize an emergency meeting at the school on Thursday morning, along with parents from P.S. 85's STEM.

Parents who attended Wednesday night's meeting said the DOE officials did not confirm that a charter school was being considered for P.S. 17, but that they would not rule it out, either. Success Academy and the DOE did not immediately return requests for comment.

Carrasca said P.S. 17 is underutilized because it had seen its enrollment numbers drop over the last several years — it has about 560 students enrolled now, according to its website — but that things at the school are turning around.

It got a new principal this year, Rebecca Heyward, who is well-liked and effective, Carrasca said. And it's the school is set to start a Spanish dual language program next year that they expect will draw more students.

"They should give us time to prove that we're going to be a success," Carrasca said, rather than force them to share space with a charter.

"If we want something in our school, we'd want P.S. 85," she said later. "We don't want something coming in here from outside of our community."

Success Academy and the DOE did not immediately comment.