Struggles Continue Over Proposal to Move PS 150 to Chelsea

At Community Board 1’s May meeting, PS 150 parents, including Shannon Burkett at the microphone, line up in support of the board’s resolution to keep the school Downtown. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 03, 2013

The “school” being saved in the PS 150 parents’ “Save Our School” campaign is no longer the single-class-per-grade one up the stairs in Independence Plaza.

PS 150 parents, angry over the De­partment of Education proposal to move the school’s staff, teachers and students to a new building on West 17th Street in fall 2014, say that they will no longer fight the closing of their Tribeca school. Instead, they are now calling for the DOE to move PS 150 elsewhere Downtown—and they have Community Board 1 behind them.

“We’ve gotten a great resolution from Community Board 1 that supports us staying in the neighborhood,” said PTA President Wendy Chapman, conceding that “one class per grade isn’t sustainable from a political standpoint.”

In an effort to back the parents’ desire to keep PS 150 Downtown as well as ease school overcrowding, CB1 unanimously passed a resolution last month that calls on the DOE to build a new zoned school, with three classes per grade, near PS 150’s current location.

“That would be a win-win for everyone,” said Corie Sharples, a PS 150 parent and the CB1 member who drafted the resolution. “A win for the teachers who want to grow the school, and a win for the parents who want to keep their kids Downtown.”

The teachers, however, see it differently.

Michael Iwachiw, the school’s science teacher and its United Federation of Teachers representative, said that all UFT members at PS 150, except for one who has children in the school, voted on May 24 to support the move to Chelsea.

The vote put the union in the rare position of siding with the DOE.

“At this point in time, the overwhelming desire of the UFT staff, except for one person, is to move out of this building as soon as possible,” Iwachiw said. “Seventeenth Street looks like a great opportunity. Let’s go for it.”

As a result of their differences, some parents and staff members report tense relations between the two groups.

“I still trust the teachers to teach my kids,” said a mother who asked not to be identified, “but it’s just very strained right now.”

The teachers and staff first let their position be known in a letter to parents a couple of weeks after the DOE shocked the parents with its proposal.

Among the reasons they stated for agreeing with the DOE was a chance for teachers of the same grades to collaborate with one another.

“Anytime you have an opportunity to sit down with someone else and discuss your teaching practices, you’re better off,” PS 150 kindergarten teacher Jen­nifer Aaron told the Trib.

“Dem­ocracy is based around hearing different voices. Education is the same thing.”

Parents were stunned by the staff’s assertion in the letter that the PS 150 one-class-per-grade model has compromised some children’s ability to socialize.

“It can start in pre-k or kindergarten when we see these relationships form,” said Rebecca New­field, the school’s guidance counselor for the past six years. “And when they stay together year after year, by the third grade there are some pretty intense problems going on.”

A meeting with parents, called by the staff to further explain its position, turned into a tense and unproductive gath­ering, according to several people who attended. Staff members said that the parents were not interested in hearing their side, while parents complained that the meeting turned into a free-for-all because it was poorly run.

Parents who oppose the move say they are backed by 85 percent of the parent population. Many of them have indicated that they would send their children to their zoned school rather than put them on a bus to Chelsea. (PS 150 is unzoned.)

Despite votes by the community board and the school leadership team (representing parents, teachers and staff) that favor the goal of siting PS 150 in a new three-class-per-grade building Down­town, the staff say they worry about the missed opportunity of moving to Chelsea.

 “We are going for something that’s going to exist in 12 months that is beautiful, state of the art,’ said Laura Cohen, the school’s parent coordinator, referring to the Chelsea school. “We’re realists. We’re going to reach out for what’s concrete and exists.”

The staff is also concerned that if a new school for PS 150 is not built Down­town and the proposal to move to Chelsea is scrapped, the DOE will close the school altogether because it is considered financially unviable.

(Later this year, the DOE will an­nounce its next five-year capital plan for building new schools; it is unknown whether any will be slated for Lower Manhattan.)

In the meantime, PS 150 parents have been pressing forward with their efforts to keep the school Downtown. A postcard-signing campaign resulted in the mailing of some 250 cards, illustrated by the children, to Mayor Bloomberg.

At the May 28 CB1 meeting, about a dozen parents stood in line to give their reasons for staying Downtown, from the importance of their families to local businesses to the safer streets to the neighborhood activities that their children enjoy. They also noted that because many would end up sending their children to their zoned schools instead of Chelsea, Down­town school waitlists will grow longer.

“The unfortunate and poorly planned proposal by the DOE will only serve to worsen the overcrowding situation as the local schools try to absorb our children,” said Susan Korenberg, who has two children at PS 150.

PS 150 Principal Jenny Bonnet de­clined to comment for this article. But in her email to parents announcing the DOE’s proposal, she called the move “an extraordinary opportunity for your children.”

“I’m hoping as a community we can band together,” she wrote.

“Community” is something both parents and staff want to preserve, yet seems at the heart of their differences.

“We see ‘community’ as something that was created in this building but can move,” Cohen said. “What’s going to break up community is if the families all decide to go back to their zoned schools. And that’s very sad for us.”

Chapman has a broader definition of “community” to include a wide range of neighborhood amenities and activities—from parks and after-school programs to the Downtown Community Center and the Taste of Tribeca, the fundraiser shared with PS 234 that she co-chaired for many years.

“I don’t want to think that PS 150 has to give up Taste of Tribeca. I’m not there yet,” Chapman said.

The decision on moving PS 150 to Chelsea will rest with the Panel on Education Policy, a majority of its members appointed by the mayor. It is scheduled to vote in September. In the meantime, both parents and staff vow to continue pushing for what each side maintains is in the children’s best interests.

“We all care about the kids, obviously,” said Newfield. “All the parents do, all the staff do. And I wish we could all come together for the kids.”