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Plan to Place Charter School Inside Crowded LES High School Sparks Outcry

By Allegra Hobbs | March 2, 2017 11:15am
 University Neighborhood High School is located at 200 Monroe St.
University Neighborhood High School is located at 200 Monroe St.
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DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

LOWER EAST SIDE — Students at University Neighborhood High School are so short on space, they eat in the nurse's office because the cafeteria is too small and run up and down flights of stairs for exercise because they have no gym, according to parents and teens.

But parents say they've reached their breaking point after the Department of Education announced they are now planning to co-locate a new school, City Charter School of the Arts, inside of their building at 200 Monroe St. — a move that would add hundreds of more students.

"We are beyond sharing...these kids are going to their guidance counselor, to the nursing office, just so they can sit for lunch," said Valerie Cruz, president of the UNHS parent teacher association, at a Community Education Council District 1 meeting Wednesday night attended by DOE reps.

"We have one science lab with no sink, that they use also for a cooking club — cooking out of Bunsen burners," she added.

"Our kids come from homeless shelters, our parents barely speak English, and yet they're figuring out how to thrive, and yet the teachers are figuring out how to work with four bathrooms...and you expect us to share some more? From where?"

This is the second time the school has attempted to fend off a city co-location plan in four years — UNHS managed to successfully oppose a plan to stick another high school in the building in 2013.

UNHS currently has 386 students enrolled, according to the DOE — 36 of those students are English language learners and 48 live in temporary housing, according to the PTA. And the number of students is expected to swell by at least 50 in the coming school year, and each year after that. 

The school's cafeteria can only fit 150 students at a time, so lunch periods are spread out to accommodate the numbers, said the PTA. Because there is no gym, physical education is held in the lobby, and students exercise by bounding up and down flights of stairs, parents said.

But by the DOE's calculations, the school is only at roughly 60 percent capacity and is the best available option for the charter school, which is about to lose its space inside the third floor of downtown's private Pine Street School.

"This is what we are seeing as the best option right now," Eric Herman of the DOE's Office of District Planning, told those present at a recent meeting.

But while the shared space may be the best the DOE can do, it is not ideal for either school, said City Charter School of the Arts founding principal Jamie Davidson.

When the City Charter School of the Arts first launched in August 2016, it was dedicated to seeking out private facilities for its students, according to the proposal for the new school, citing community feedback that DOE spaces in lower Manhattan are already overcrowded. 

But as the charter school continues to add grades — including an expected 200 more students in the next two years — school staff realized they would quickly outgrow the space allotted in the Pine Street School building. 

The school had planned to rent space at St. Joseph's Church at 1 Monroe St. in the new school year, Davidson said, but when the archdiocese was unresponsive they had to plan accordingly in order to provide for their students.

"While we will continue to pursue all available private options, we felt compelled to submit a request for public space — it would be irresponsible not to," said Davidson in an email, adding they had first requested space in a different school district. 

"Our original request was made for a [School District 2] space, but because there was nothing available, the University Neighborhood High School building was introduced. It's a shame folks are taking this pursuit as an affront. Our number one priority is always our kids, and depriving them of a space to learn is simply not an option."

Renee Alevras, a Charter School for the Arts parent, said she is sad to bid their "gorgeous" private facility goodbye, but that the need to leave is a sign of growth and co-location may be a necessity. In the meantime, not knowing where the kids will be housed in the coming school year is disorienting, she said.

"It gives you a sense of vertigo going into a new school year not sure where your new location is going to be," Alevras said, noting her creative 11-year-old daughter Beatrix has loved her experience at the new charter school.

Alevras said she understands the response of the public school parents, but would like them to know the charter school is dedicated to making the experience go as smoothly as possible.

"It's really hard to convince someone the resources should be shared," she said, adding she's had only good experiences with co-location in the past.

"When charter schools are co-located, they have to really prove themselves and take good care of their facilities and make sure their children are well-behaved and respectful...charter schools are generally good neighbors, in my experience."

The Department of Education on Friday will hold a walk-through of UNHS with charter school reps to evaluate the space, said Herman. The department is currently evaluating the proposal and gathering feedback, he said, and the plan must undergo a public hearing before going to a vote before the Panel for Educational Policy on April 19.

The Community Education Council for District 1 at Wednesday's meeting vowed to oppose the plan along with the PTA — and so did members of student government.