UPPER WEST SIDE — Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña told local parents not to sweat the fact that a local elementary school had been designated "persistently dangerous" — despite the label creating an uproar in the community and influencing future school-zoning decisions — and admitted the DOE chose not to fight the ruling in the first place.
P.S. 191, an elementary school on West 61st Street, earned the "persistently dangerous" label from the state Education Department on July 31, based on incident data from the past two years.
While elected officials, parents and education leaders worry the designation has tarnished the school's reputation just as it was improving, Fariña shrugged off the designation at a packed town hall meeting Wednesday at P.S. 191.
The schools chief also didn't address comments she made earlier this year pledging to fight the designation after it was announced, instead telling parents they should look past the label that marked the school as one of the two most dangerous in all of Manhattan.
"A label that someone gives you from Albany… is not the best way to judge a school," she said, adding that parents should visit the school and see what it's like for themselves. "If I were a parent, that would not be a label that would throw me off.
"I believe in 191," she added.
Some of the incidents that reportedly increased during the 2013-2014 school year included "Intimidation, Harassment, Menacing, or Bullying With Weapon(s)," minor altercations with weapons and sex offenses.
Joe Fiordaliso, president of Community Education Council 3, which hosted the event, said parents were eager to know why the DOE hadn't fought the label, if it's not an accurate indication of what was going on at the school.
The DOE had a chance to oppose the designation before it became official, but chose not to, according to the state.
"I think, based on the stats we were given at the time, this was a decision we knew the state had made and we were going to work on the designation over the calendar year," Fariña said.
But she also said the data, which is reported to the state by the city, was flawed.
"Some of these stats are done in strange ways. It can be one child in many instances," versus several children contributing to several incidents, she said.
"A school also turns around when the community believes in it," Fariña said.
Parents said that despite the nearly universal disagreement with the school's designation by the CEC — as well as the recent announcement by Fariña, Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal that they would allot more funding to the school — the damage to P.S. 191 had already been done.
"191’s reputation with a lot of parents… has suffered immeasurably," Fiordaliso said. "It is shocking and disappointing on so many levels that it took this designation for P.S. 191 families to begin to get the support that they need."
In addition, parents say the DOE has done little to address racial segregation at 191 and other area schools. P.S. 191 has a majority black and Latino population, while neighboring P.S. 199 is primarily white, data shows.
But Fariña downplayed the importance of racial diversity, as she has done elsewhere around the city.
"I believe that diversity has many faces. Diversity is not just about ethnicity, it’s about kids with IEPs, English Language Learners, parent of different socioeconomic backgrounds," she said.
And diversity shouldn't just be "for its own sake," Fariña added, even while noting that the city's rezoning plan will increase diversity at the two schools.
Among her other remarks at the town hall, Fariña said she would commit to having a staff member work with the Community Education Council on the district's lack of a priority high school, at which District 3 students would get priority admission over non-District 3 students.
And in response to alarm over the overcrowding situation at P.S. 199, with kindergarten classes over capacity, she said those classrooms received extra teachers.
"This does not have to be antagonistic. Any school that has that situation...let us know and we will respond immediately," she said of the kindergarten classrooms with more than 27 students.
The meeting was standing-room only, something Fariña saw as a strong indication that people care about education generally.
The high turnout was "the hope of public education," she said. "[T]he fact that you came out, that you have a voice."